Yvonne Fasnacht, known as Miss Dixie, said she didn’t conceive of Dixie’s Bar of Music as a gay bar. By design or not, today it is considered among the most important gay bars in American history. A generation before the Stonewall Riots, it served as a safe space for the gay community in New Orleans and attracted visitors from around the country.
Miss Dixie opened the club with her sister, Miss Irma, in 1939 (its original location was on St. Charles Avenue). A clarinetist and bandleader, Miss Dixie regularly provided the entertainment herself. Her house band included a pianist named Dorothy Sloop, whom Fasnacht called Sloopy—the nickname reportedly went on to inspire the number one hit song “Hang On Sloopy.”
As a child in the 1920s, Fasnacht studied music and the arts at Francis T. Nicholls School in New Orleans alongside the Boswell Sisters, who went on to national fame as a vocal group. Before opening her club, she toured the country with her all-female jazz band called the Southland Rhythm Girls.
The author Lyle Saxon, a regular at Dixie’s Bar of Music, connected the Fasnachts to the painter Xavier Gonzalez, who produced a 29-foot long painting for the barroom in the 40s. It depicted dozens of musicians and artists, from Louis Prima to Lena Horne to Salvador Dali. Visiting celebrities added their signatures to it over the years. You can now see it at the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint.
In 1949, Dixie’s moved here, to what was at the time a quiet block of Bourbon Street, and the Fasnacht sisters took up residence above the bar. In the heart of the French Quarter, the clientele included assorted bohemians and artists like the photographer Jack Robinson, who documented the community that formed around the club. Local bigwigs including businessman Clay Shaw were patrons, as were Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal.
The police raids that dogged establishments frequented by gay customers were less disruptive at Dixie’s than elsewhere. Fasnacht attributed this to her insistence on maintaining an atmosphere suitable for the “cufflink set.” Her political savvy and her family’s longstanding relationships in the city’s bar business probably didn’t hurt.
After closing Dixie’s in 1964 the Fasnacht sisters moved a few blocks down Bourbon Street, where they continued the lavish Mardi Gras celebrations that they’d become known for at the bar.
About Bourbon Street
Bourbon Street, one of the most famous streets in the country, is only 14 blocks long, running through the middle of the French Quarter. It took off as an entertainment district in the 1940s, when wartime activity brought waves of visitors to New Orleans. Bands often performed in floor shows featuring burlesque dancers (who stripped to varying degrees), comedians, and other entertainers.
This freewheeling era came to a close, in the eyes of many patrons, with District Attorney Jim Garrison’s vice raids in the early 1960s. Crime — organized and not — was pervasive on Bourbon Street, and Garrison’s crusade scored some political points. The resulting loss of revenue at the clubs, meanwhile, scaled back entertainment budgets.
The only black people on Bourbon Street at the time were there to work (musicians were generally considered hired help; some had to wait in storerooms between sets). Even after the passage of civil rights legislation some clubs resisted integration, and audiences on Bourbon Street remained largely white for years afterward.
In recent decades, as the city relied increasingly on tourism to prop up its economy, the market dictated more changes: Modern stripping supplanted burlesque and DJ booths replaced bandstands. The street became a pedestrian mall, filled with go-cups and Mardi Gras beads year-round. Several clubs sticking with live music offered low wages for bands to play songs familiar to visitors.
Hand-wringing about the quality and nature of live music on the strip has been more or less constant since the 1950s, and not without reason. Still, some venues persisted in hiring reputable artists. In the 2000s, the To Be Continued Brass Band took matters into their own hands, breaking into the scene by playing on the corner of Bourbon and Canal Street every night.
In any case millions of visitors to the strip each year find the spectacle they’re looking for, exotic but approachable, with a more permissive atmosphere than they feel at home. Its economic impact on the city is in the billions. If it’s crass it’s also egalitarian: Bourbon Street today is among the more integrated spaces in town.