On the side of Matassa’s grocery store in the French Quarter is a small plaque that mentions a Matassa’s Bar and its role in the history of the Southern Decadence Parade. What can you tell me about the bar and its connection to Southern Decadence?
In 1924, Giovanni “John” Matassa, a Sicilian immigrant, opened a bar called Johnny Matassa’s next to his corner grocery store at Dauphine and St. Philip streets. John’s son Cosimo Matassa was the legendary recording engineer whose studios on Rampart Street and elsewhere recorded some of the seminal hits of early rock ’n’ roll and New Orleans rhythm and blues for stars such as Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Little Richard, Ernie K-Doe, Lloyd Price and many others.
In the early 1970s, Johnny Matassa’s became a gathering spot for founders of what would become the Southern Decadence Parade, organized by members of the gay and lesbian community and now a major event each Labor Day weekend. “[The bar] was easy just to drop by and have a few drinks,” said co-founder Robert Laurent in the book “Southern Decadence in New Orleans” by Howard Philips Smith and Frank Perez. “It became our meeting place, our starting off point, if you will, where everyone met for a night in the Quarter, especially after a night of bourre,” he added, referring to the Cajun card game.
The Southern Decadence event traces its roots to August 1972, when it began as an end-of-summer party. The next year it was organized as a costumed walking parade, starting at Johnny Matassa’s Bar and ending at Belle Reve, the name friends used to describe a Barracks Street home owned by co-founder David Randolph. The name was borrowed from Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
The jingle you remember was commposed by none other than Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Allen Toussaint.
“I thought it would be outlandish for all of us to meet at Matassa’s in full costume and then parade back to Belle Reve for the party,” Laurent said.
Johnny Matassa’s Bar closed around 1980 and Southern Decadence moved its starting point to the Golden Lantern bar on Royal Street. Matassa’s Market remains open at 1001 Dauphine St., run by Cosimo Matassa’s sons John and Louis. The plaque on the side of the building reads, “Through this portal of Matassa’s Bar from 1973 to 1980 the initial Southern Decadence Paraders marched into history.”
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