The Ashton Theater in Hollygrove – a classic neighborhood movie palace

Ashton Theater – neighborhood news and entertainment

ashton theater

Ashton Theater, on Apple Street in Hollygrove (courtesy Infrogmation)

Pre-television entertainment

A friend asked me yesterday what I knew about a theater in her new neighborhood, The Ashton. Hollygrove/Leonidas isn’t my ‘hood. So my answer was, not much. My curiosity was piqued, though. I did some basic research. It’s not all that unique but interesting. The building was a typical neighborhood theater. You found these all around the United States in the days before television. It opened in 1927, a time when radio was just coming on the scene. The average American got their news from the local paper, and radio was speeding up that process. Movies made it possible to add visuals to that knowlege base. Theaters would show “newsreels” before the feature film. The news in those newsreels was way dated by the current standards of the 24/7 media beast we feed today, but they satisfied the public’s need to see what was going on.

Ferdinand Rousseve – The Ashton Theater’s architect

The Ashton Theater was designed by Ferdinand L. Rousseve. Rousseve was a New Orleans native who was a descendant of a Battle of New Orleans veteran. He attended Xavier University, as well as Coyne Trade and Engineering School in Chicago. Rousseve received an engineering degree from Coyne in 1924. So, the Ashton was one of his first design jobs. He went on to have a distinguished career, both as an architect and a civil rights leader. In 1947, Rousseve became the provisional chairman of the Urban League of New Orleans. Upon moving to Boston, Rousseve remained active with the Urban League. He earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1948. Rousseve became chairman of the Fine Arts Department at Boston University in 1958. He died in 1965.


The Ashton is located at 8437 Apple Street, which is one block off Leonidas, two blocks off Claiborne, in Hollygrove. Hollygrove is an “uptown backatown” neighborhood. It’s close to both S. Carrollton and S. Claiborne Avenuses. So, that makes the area easily accessible by bus and streetcar. Hollygrove endured some tough times economically, with crime being problematic. As gentrification hits other neighborhoods, it’s naturally spreading into Hollygrove as well.

Pipe Organ

Ashton Theater had a Reproduco pipe organ installed. I don’t know if the organ is still in the building. It closed in 1958. The building is now privately owned. While this neighborhood got a good bit of flood water during Hurricane Katrina, it survived. It’s now an artist’s studio.




Mortagage executed by Bernard Marigny, 1836

bernard marigny mortgage

Mortgage executed by Bernard Marigny, 1836 (courtesy LaRC at Tulane)

Bernard Marigny de Mandeville and Faubourg Marigny

Bernard is the man the neighborhood is named after. He inherited Marigny Plantation in 1806. Almost immediately he subdivided it, turning the plantation into New Orleans’ first neighborhood outside the French Quarter. He was still selling lots into the 1820s,

Cashflow issues

Marigny was quite the rake, and that lifestyle isn’t cheap. Property owners have it easier than a lot of folks in terms of financing an extravagant lifestyle. It’s easy for them to pay the bills, because all they have to do is sell off something, like lots in a subdivision. He took an interest in horse racing in the 1830s. Marigny founded the Louisiana Race Course, located on what now is the Fair Grounds Race Course. The first races at his track were held in 1839. Borrowing money in 1836 fits with the timeline for this project.

This is mortgage document is written in French, so I don’t know the details. I’m quite curious to see what he was borrowing against. Marigny would have been fifty-one in 1836 (he died in 1868, at the age of eighty-one).

One of the cool things about primary sources such as this is that they bring larger-than-life characters like Marigny down to earth. Here’s the guy who had connecitons to the Battle of New Orleans, brought the dice game Hazard to the New World, where it morphed into what we now know as “craps”, and expanded the city’s footprint. Did he run out of property to sell by 1836? What did he own that he could borrow against? Analyzing antebellum mortgage documents is an interesting twist on forensic accounting.

If any of y’all can read the French here (and the script it’s written in), please, please let me know! Will pay in beer or burgers for some insight into Marigny. 🙂

What date is Louis Armstrong’s Birthday?

What date is Louis Armstrong’s Birthday?

louis armstrong

Pops in 1919

Louis Armstrong’s Birthday, he claimed, was the Fourth of July, but many records say otherwise. James Karst of Da Paper shared an interesting article from last year on the blog, The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong. The blogger is Ricky Riccardi, who is Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens.

The article explores the research done by various folks on Pops’ birthday. Was he born in 1900 or 1901? Was the date really 4-July, or was it 4-August? Riccardi explores the issue, looking into research done by Tad Jones, along with John McCusker’s comments/defense of Jones’ work. He also cites a 2014 article by Karst, documenting Pops’ first trip to the Colored Waifs’ Home, at age 9.

The conclusion? Jones’ research into Armstrong’s baptismal records appears at face value to document the 4-August-1901 date. Karst’s find of the arrest record when Pops was nine tends to confirm 1901 as the year.

Here’s my only quibble with the baptismal record; while the date of the administration of the sacrament is not in doubt, the recording of the date of birth could be. Here’s Riccardi’s remarks on this:

Okay, it starts with baptism number 69, done on August 25 of a child born on August 15, ten days after. Next, number 70 is Louis Armstrong, baptized on August 25 and given the birthday of August 4. Now we’re 21 days away. Next, baptism number 71, done on August 25 is for a child born on JUNE 30! Nearly two months before. McCusker says August 4 has to be true because “those notations in the register happen in real time.” They were indeed happening in real time on August 25 but the birthdays of the kids being conceived varied from 10 days before until almost two months earlier. When I mistakenly wrote on Facebook that a “clerk” wrote the above, McCusker corrected me and said it was the priest and insinuated the priest is the most reliable source. But that priest wasn’t there when Mayann delivered Louis and if she remembered it being July 4, I don’t know why she gets discounted entirely.

The baptismal register at Sacred Heart Church on Canal Street would indeed be in “real time” – for baptisms. When a family brings the baby to the church for that baptism, however can vary. It’s not surprising to see babies ranging from two weeks to three months in age receiving the sacrament. So, to have one kid born on 15-August and another born on 30-June being baptized on the same day would be business as usual. The priest administers the sacrament, and records that act in the register. Louis Armstrong’s birthday would be secondary to his baptismal date in those records.

Is the priest a reliable source? Certainly for the date of baptism, but for the date of birth? What makes the priest’s recording of 4-August for DOB authoritative? Consider that this is 1901. The priest would be white, and Pops was listed in the register as “niger, illegitimus”. In other words, just how seriously did the priest take this record? Certainly he took the sacrament seriously. He brought a soul into the Church. But exactly when that soul’s mother gave birth would not be as important to him., given that he was African-American and illegitimate. All this research is done now because of what baby Louis became; on 25-August-1901, he was just another black baby. Jim Crow was in full force by 1901, essentially making African-Americans second class citizens. Without more info on the priest, it’s hard to tell here.

Go read the article, see what you think Louis Armstrong’s birthday is!

Seafood at West End

Seafood at West End

Fitzgerald's Restaurant at West End, New Orleans, 1995 (Edward Branley photo)

Fitzgerald’s Restaurant at West End, New Orleans, 1995 (Edward Branley photo)

The craziest day at West End was always Good Friday! After the solemn aspects of Good Friday were observed, many New Orleans families headed out to West End for seafood. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t exactly as solemn as perhaps the Church wanted, but the food was good. Two of the popular restaurants were Brunings (top) and Fitzgerald’s. Both of these photos are from 1995. My family always preferred Brunings; their whole stuffed flounder is still the standard by which that dish is judged.

The Bucktown Bridge, connecting Orpheum Street in Metairie to West End in New Orleans, 1995 (Edward Branley photo)

The Bucktown Bridge, connecting Orpheum Street in Metairie to West End in New Orleans, 1995 (Edward Branley photo)

We would come from the Metairie side of West End, crossing the old Bucktown Bridge, which, alas, ATNM, between storms and the enhanced flood protection/controls on the 17th Street Canal.

Hurricanes during the 1990s all but obliterated the restaurants, bars, and nightclubs at West End. Even before Katrina, it was impossible for the property owners to re-build, because of wind and flood issues. No insurance company would underwrite reconstruction or new development.

West End for dining and entertainment is a thing of the past, but many folks still have fond memories of fun evenings looking out on the water.



Mapping the wreck of the USS Hatteras

CSS Alabama sinks the USS Hatteras, 11-Jan-1863 (Engraving courtesy US Navy)

USS Hatteras was originally a 126-ton side-wheel steamer that was purchased by the Union Navy early in the war. She was sent down to Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico, in November of 1861. After doing a bit of damage in and around Florida, Hatteras was assigned to the Gulf Blockading Squadron, harassing Confederate shipping and naval operations west of the mouth of the Mississippi.

After Rear Admiral David Farragut took New Orleans in May of 1862. his focus was on capturing the port of Galveston, TX. Action began around Galveston in November, 1862, but on January 11, 1863, Hatteras encountered the CSS Alabama, who engaged and sank the sidewheeler.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, along with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and various Texas state entities, have initiated a 3D mapping program for the Hatteras. Here’s their description of the wreck’s location and status:

The Hatteras today rests in 58 feet of water about 20 miles off Galveston. Her 210-foot long iron hull is completely buried under about three feet of sand. Only the remains of her 500-horsepower walking beam steam engine and her two iron paddle wheels remain exposed above the sea floor. Since the site’s discovery in the 1970’s, BOEM has engaged in periodic monitoring of the wreck to ensure that it is not damaged by surrounding oil and gas lease development. Although the wreck remains the property of the U.S. Navy, BOEM has joined forces with the THC and Texas A&M at Galveston to preserve this important archaeological treasure for posterity.

BOEM has a great video showing their progress:

(h/t Accessible Archives for the pointer to Hatteras and the project!)


Five reasons the Von Dullen streetcars are wonderful!

NORTA on Canal St 18-Feb-2016

NORTA 2018 Von Dullen streetcar, inbound on Canal Street at St. Patrick Street, 18-Feb-2016

  1. They’re RED!
    OK, I know a lot of people grew up with the green arch roof streetcars that run on the St. Charles line. There’s a story (never officially confirmed, of course) that the manager of the NORTA Rail Department at the time of the Riverfront and Canal projects, Elmer Von Dullen, wanted to paint the new streetcars blue, and then-Mayor Marc Morial countermanded it, wanting them to be painted red. Again, I’ve never been able to confirm this. It could be the color decision was part of a marketing strategy. No matter, the red works. For that matter, the blue would have worked as well, brightening up Canal on sunny days.
  2. They look old-style, but are very-modern hybrids.
    If you look past the faux-monitor deck on top, you’ll see that the 2000-series streetcars have the same arch roof design as the 1923-vintage 900-series and the 1998-vintage 400-series Riverfront streetcars. The body is as close to the old 800s and 900s manufactured by the Perley A. Thomas Company as one can get, within the constraints of modern construction and design requirements. The propulsion and controls are that of a modern Light Rail Vehicle (LRV), offering a smooth, safe, modern ride.
  3. The interiors are a throw-back experience.
    The interior and seats of both the 2000s and the 400s follow the design of the 900s. While the 2000s do not have the bare-bulb lighting of the 900s and the 400s, the seats are wood and swing back-and-forth, so you can change the way you face on the inbound and outbound runs.
  4. They’re accessible.
    There are wheelchair lifts on either side of the 2000s. This is a Very Big Deal, because the New Orleans transit system is horrid when it comes to access. Sure, there’s the “paratransit” program that barely keeps NORTA from being sued by accessibility advocates, but at least someone in a wheelchair can use the Von Dullens.
    What really needs to happen is NORTA should modernize all streetcars in the city to modern LRVs what offer real wheelchair/disability access, but that would mean pulling the green streetcars from the St. Charles line, and that’s a non-starter for most folks.
  5. They make it easy to get into town from #themetrys.
    Park around the cemeteries, ride the 4.3 miles into town. No downtown parking hassles. If the Veterans Bus (Jefferson Transit E1 line) is convenient for you, it’s possible to ride all the way into the Quarter from Far West Metry. That’s significant for those who would like to imbibe a cocktail or four with lunch at Antoine’s.

Ride a red streetcar. Enjoy the view as Canal Street transforms from the cemeteries to Mid City to Treme, to the CBD. Spend some time in the Quarter or downtown and ride back. Great day outing!