Iroquois Theater

413 S. Rampart St.
New Orleans LA 70112
Location Status: Location threatened, damaged or not in use
Curated by
e/Prime Media & Randy Fertel

This building, which dates to 1911, was the Iroquois Theater, an African American vaudeville theater. While jazz was dance music played in saloons, social halls, or at outdoor events, the Iroquois was one of the first theaters to feature jazz performances in a concert setting, both on the stage and in the pit orchestra for silent films. According to jazz historians Lynn Abbott and Jack Stewart, there can be “no doubt that the Iroquois Theater was a foundry of early blues and jazz activity. From 1913 to the end of the decade, the Iroquois Theater was on the creative front line of distinctively African American entertainment in New Orleans.” Musicians including the pianist and composer Clarence Williams and singer Edna Landry, the half-sister of singer Lizzie Miles, also performed here.

A young Louis Armstrong famously won a talent contest here in which he dipped his face in flour to perform in white face, a reverse of the more common minstrel show practice of performing in black face. He lived only two blocks away on Perdido Street, where Duncan Plaza and City Hall are today. He recalled:

“Some nights we would see a moving picture at the Iroquois Theater – 10 cents each for May Ann and Tom, five cents for Mama Lucy and me.”

The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Considering it alongside the Little Gem Saloon, the Karnofsky building, and the Eagle Saloon, John Hasse, curator of American Music at the Smithsonian Institution, said “There is probably no other block in America with buildings bearing so much significance to the history of our country’s great art form, jazz.”

About South Rampart Street

South Rampart Street was the main commercial corridor in “back o’ town,” originally a swampy area at the back end of the city where New Orleans’ racial order relegated black residents in the late 1800s. The strip filled with businesses—many run by Jewish, Italian, and Chinese merchants—catering to a black clientele. Among these were dance halls, juke joints, tailors who outfitted bands with uniforms, and pawn shops that bought and sold instruments.

Churches here tended to be Protestant, with emotive spirituals and hymns in their services that reverberated through the neighborhood. To the ministers’ chagrin this area included Black Storyville, the red light district for those barred from the whites-only bordellos and gambling houses just across Canal Street. This traffic fueled some social ills. It also helped attract audiences for working musicians. (Business continued after 1917, when the white vice district—Storyville—shut down).

In 1938, the WPA City Guide called South Rampart “The Harlem of New Orleans.” It was full of music, from barrelhouse piano players like Tuts Washington to big bands like Papa Celestin’s. The street itself was a venue, with benevolent societies and social clubs parading with brass bands, and, on Carnival, the Zulu parade, Baby Dolls, and chanting bands of Mardi Gras Indians.

The strip was referenced in popular songs, from the traditional jazz tune “South Rampart Street Parade” to Louis Jordan’s jump blues hit “Saturday Night Fish Fry” in 1949, about a house on Rampart “rockin’” till the break of dawn.

While the “New Orleans sound” of R&B played across the country in the 1950s, South Rampart Street went the way of other black inner city neighborhoods in the age of urban renewal. Whole blocks were demolished and redeveloped, paving the way for a new city hall and today’s Central Business District.

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Videos

From author John McCusker: "Louis Armstrong's New Orleans," a five-minute look at Satchmo's formative years and the state of landmarks associated with him.