Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Roosevelt Rises From the Flood Waters

We experienced another of those New Orleans "recovery" moments last night, and I get a pleasant case of goose bumps just thinking about it, even this afternoon.

Yesterday was the 60th birthday of the Navy League, a major observance of "Fleet Week." The New Orleans celebration was meticulously planned down to the last detail, even bringing in five crew members from the USS New Orleans as special guests. Impressive young men they were. Impressive, indeed.

But, as strong and handsome as those young sailors were in their spotless white uniforms, and as tasty as the food was, and as nice as the open bar was (don't you just love an open bar!), nothing about the evening could hold a candle to the venue.

The Navy League celebration was held in the lovingly restored and newly re-opened "Blue Room" of the Roosevelt Hotel, now a Waldorf Astoria property.

Having regained her former name -- the name of her glory days -- she was, yesterday evening, elegant, dripping in history, and a magnet for memories: a grand lady, properly courted and attended to by an adoring throng. I thrilled as a sharply uniformed doorman greeted us and welcomed us to enter the door he held open with pride and a genuine smile.

Four years ago, in August of 2005, this hotel was the Fairmont New Orleans. Her guests were permitted to hunker down and engage in "vertical evacuation" for Hurricane Katrina -- a formerly common practice of checking into a high-rise downtown hotel to ride out approaching storms. (You'll notice I said "formerly" -- not any more. If the order to get out of Dodge is issued today, then everyone must get the hell out of Dodge, hotel employees and all.) After the storm passed, the hotel's management brought in chartered buses to transport the guests to safety in their Dallas property, then it set about assessing the damage sustained by the luxury hotel.

And the Fairmont sat vacant.

It sat abandoned and vacant for years, its intricate mosaic tile floors filthy, its traditionally gleaming brass handrails dull and lackluster, its artfully detailed frescoes fading in the humidity, plywood boards blocking out people and sunlight. No floor shows in the Blue Room, no "Angel Hair" Christmas decorations in the lobby that stretches an entire city block.

No celebrities to take up an entire floor and order specially-made peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches from room service, as Elvis did while filming "King Creole." No elected "royalty" to enjoy a cocktail and tryst with his Bourbon Street scarlet lady, as Governor Huey Long did during his reign, later cut short by an assassin's bullet. No Sazerac Bar to break the gender barrier, allowing women to belly up to the bar alongside their male counterparts (to which the ladies took as a duck to water!).

But, two weeks ago, the Roosevelt re-emerged to fanfare and jazz and revelry.

Last night as we prepared to leave, we decided to make "the promenade" down the long lobby and back to the entrance. Holding hands, we silently took it all in --the artistry, the amazing clock that keeps time according to the movements of the Earth, the towering displays of fresh flowers. We listened to echoed memories of our first New Orleans Mardi Gras ball held in the ballroom on the mezzanine, and imagined my parents as a young couple enjoying cocktails and a show featuring comic Brother Dave Gardner in the Blue Room. And we smiled.

Strolling to the parking deck, we passed the still-shuttered Orpheum Theater, deserted former home of the Louisiana Philharmonic, and our reverie was tarnished just a whit. But then, as we approached Canal Street in the car, we saw the lights on the art deco Saenger Theater marquee, illuminated last Thursday for the first time since the Storm. Another thrill, another restored pleasure promised for 2011.

We've learned not to open our hearts to too much relief about our adopted City's recovery -- there's always something around the block to shatter that satisfaction. But today, the return of New Orleans takes mostly giant steps, not just itty-bitty baby steps. And new lights brighten the night sky in the City That Care Forgot more and more often, brighter than before.

I can't wait to see what's next. Or to see the Roosevelt decked out in her Christmas finery!

1 comment:

  1. Dang, Moogie. This is as fine a piece of writing as I've seen lately. Your love for the Crescent City comes shining through.