On a foggy night in December, Galactic bassist Rob Mercurio paused on the corner of Tchoupitoulas Street and Napoleon Avenue, pondering the entrance to Tipitina’s.
Signs directed guest-list patrons and those picking up tickets to the left. Attendees with tickets already in hand queued up to the right.
No category applied to Mercurio. “There is no owners’ door,” he joked.
Mercurio has frequented New Orleans’ flagship music venue for more than two decades, first as a fan, then as a member of one of the city’s most popular bands. On Nov. 30, he and his four bandmates closed a deal to purchase Tipitina’s.
For years, Galactic has headlined Tip's on New Year’s Eve. Monday’s show will be the band’s first at the venue since its members became Tipitina’s fourth group of owners.
“I’m going to try not to bawl like a baby at some point,” drummer Stanton Moore recently told WWOZ-FM listeners. “It’s overwhelming for us.”
However high the stakes are for the new owners, they are even higher for Tipitina’s, whose turbulent 41-year saga is every bit as colorful as the thousands of musicians who have plugged in and played there.
And it all started with a rough night at Jed’s.
By the mid-1970s, Professor Longhair, the patron saint of New Orleans piano, was several years into a career rebirth sparked at the 1971 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. But despite growing national acclaim, he still had to piece together a living from a variety of gigs.
They included the Alligator Balls, raucous house parties hosted by an extended group of friends and music fans at venues around town, including the 501 Club, a neighborhood bar at 501 Napoleon Ave.
The 501 Club was a relic of the segregation era. For years, only white customers were allowed inside; black patrons were served through a window. According to legend, a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan met there on Sunday afternoons.
So it was with no small amount of irony that cartoonist Bunny Matthews and others rented the 501 Club for dances celebrating the city’s mostly African-American rhythm & blues musicians.
At the Gator Balls, Longhair and his music were held in high esteem. That wasn’t always the case elsewhere.
One night at the long-gone Oak Street tavern Jed’s, Longhair endured what his fans perceived as humiliating treatment. Hank Drevich, a Longhair devotee, proposed to other Gator Ball regulars that they pool their resources and open a club for the pianist.
“The purpose was to give him a place to call home in New Orleans,” said Sonny Schneidau, a Tipitina’s co-founder. “It was, ‘Let’s help this guy so he doesn’t have to go through this again.’ ”
A group of 14 friends — the “Fo’teen Founders” — that included Drevich, Schneidau and his older sister Georgia incorporated the Tipitina’s Social Aid & Pleasure Club and signed a lease on the 501 Club. They settled on the possessive form of the Longhair song “Tipitina” as their new club's name. “It’s one of Fess’ greatest tunes,” Schneidau said, “and it rolls nicely off the tongue.”
Tipitina’s grand opening on Jan. 14, 1977, featured the Meters and reggae band Third World — but not Longhair. The club didn’t yet have a piano.
A week later, the Meters headlined a fundraiser dubbed “The Git Da Piano Dance.” A Baldwin upright was subsequently purchased.
At the time, Tipitina’s occupied only the building’s low-ceilinged first floor, which was partitioned by a horseshoe-shaped bar. The second story consisted of six apartments.
That first year, Tipitina’s featured mostly local music, save for the likes of blues singer Koko Taylor, pianist Roosevelt Sykes and jazz saxophonist Art Pepper. More touring acts gradually appeared: Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Lee Hooker, Captain Beefheart.
Until his death in January 1980, Longhair was a regular. “Fess loved it,” said Schneidau, who served as Tip's sound engineer and talent buyer. “He would even come to shareholders’ meetings.”
Tipitina’s employees met Monday for the first time with their new bosses — bosses they already knew in a different context: as musicians.
WWOZ broadcast from a crude studio above the club. A wire running through a hole in the floor enabled the station to air live performances.
The long-serving cast of characters included gospel singer Jo “Cool” Davis, who provided security at Tip's side entrance, and guitarist Rickie Castrillo, who served as emcee and backstage concierge.
Keeping the operation afloat was not easy. “The live music business is a wonderful and exciting world, but it’s not for the faint of heart,” Schneidau said. “In the early years of Tipitina’s, there were many times when we wondered where the next month’s rent money would come from.”
The 1984 World’s Fair dealt the club a death blow. The anticipated flood of tourists didn’t materialize. Instead, the fair’s nightlife offerings cannibalized local customers.
After a disastrous stretch in June of that year, Tipitina’s closed.
“I had a fabulous weekend booked with two of my favorites: Irma Thomas and Rufus Thomas,” Schneidau said. “And nobody showed up for either of those shows, because everybody was at the World’s Fair. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The decision was made to lock it up.”
Tipitina's remained dormant for 18 months, until an unlikely advocate happened upon it.
Jim Green was born in Baton Rouge and grew up in Pensacola, Florida. He came to New Orleans to double-major in finance and economics at Loyola University. His first foray into the entertainment business was booking bands for parties in the Loyola quad.
After graduation, he worked as a stockbroker in Houston. Several years later, he returned to New Orleans. While scouting investment properties, he spotted a “For sale” sign at Tchoupitoulas and Napoleon.
As it happened, the bankruptcy and foreclosure proceedings that had scared off other potential buyers had just been finalized. “My timing was impeccable,” Green said.
He and his wife, Mientje, went all-in on Tipitina’s. They formed a new company, Real New Orleans Inc., and licensed the Tipitina’s name and logo from the original 14 founders, paying them a monthly royalty; the founders also received free lifetime admission privileges.
“They indoctrinated me into the whole Tipitina’s culture and mystique,” Green said.
He hired Schneidau, who was doing sound at the rival Jimmy’s Music Club, to return as talent buyer. Joey Unangst, a larger-than-life character whose family operated a slew of bars and restaurants, emerged as Green’s “bar angel” to tutor him on the business.
Green set out to rebuild the ramshackle venue from the ground up. But it was nearly all for naught.
The original Tipitina’s operated under a zoning variance. Because the club had been closed for more than six months, the variance had expired. And the city was not eager to issue a new occupancy permit or liquor license.
Vic Frank, a tax attorney who once roomed with Green, found a decades-old municipal code provision that offered a possible loophole: If a building had been in foreclosure, the six-month countdown didn’t start until the property emerged from the proceedings.
Grudgingly, the city gave Green 30 days to open Tipitina’s. To meet the deadline, contractors Jim Eckert and Joe Bucher ran three construction crews around the clock. They tore out four of the six second-floor apartments and removed much of the second-story floor to create a U-shaped mezzanine facing a new, higher stage.
Because the original Tipitina’s had ended on a sour note, Green felt a spiritual rehabilitation was also necessary. “There was all this negative energy,” he said. “We needed to cleanse the building.”
A cleansing took place in an upstairs dressing room. “Nobody knew about that but me and Sonny,” Green said. “But all these old regulars started coming in and said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but this place feels really good now. It’s got a good vibe.’ "
On deadline day, Green nervously awaited the city inspector. By chance, the inspector and Unangst were old buddies. Tipitina’s got its occupancy permit.
“So many pieces had to fall in place at the right time to get it open,” Green said. “A who’s who of New Orleans had to converge or there never would have been a second edition of Tipitina’s. It was a miracle.”
Schneidau booked a celebratory grand reopening with Deacon John on Jan. 24, 1986, a Friday, followed by the Radiators' eighth anniversary celebration. The Neville Brothers capped off the weekend the same night the Superdome hosted Super Bowl XX.
Tipitina’s during the Green era produced much drama and countless stories. The club often brought out the best in musicians, but behind the scenes, the operation could be chaotic. “We never ran it strictly like a business," Green said. "We did many off-the-wall things that instilled a very magical and soulful spirit to Tipitina's.”
All the magic and soul in the world, however, couldn't overcome a lack of parking. In the early 1990s, the city tore up the streets alongside Tipitina’s. A two-month project turned into a two-year hassle.
Then in 1993, the House of Blues opened in the French Quarter and hired away Schneidau.
The New Orleans-style house party for Professor Longhair’s 100th birthday will be, appropriately, in the house built by his reputation.
Between the construction and the competition, “our business dropped 50 percent,” Green said. Tipitina’s still did well during Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, “but it was hard to hang on the rest of the year.”
He and Mientje opened two coffeeshops in Houston and funneled the profits into Tipitina’s. Green sold off other property. “It drained all of our resources,” he said. “Tip’s was losing a lot of money, but we were committed to it.”
The club needed air conditioning and a new sound system. And although Green says he declined offers to franchise Tipitina’s in other cities, he wanted to open a satellite club in the French Quarter. That, too, would require capital.
He found a source in Roland Von Kurnatowski.
Von Kurnatowski grew up in New Orleans and earned both an MBA and a law degree from Tulane University. He also has a contractor’s license.
As a boy, he rode around with his mother searching for discarded furniture to fix up. As a developer, he does the same thing on a much grander scale. “I have an eye for finding something I can bring back to life and create value,” he said.
However, he knew little about the music business and had never even heard of Tipitina’s. In his younger years, he frequented the nearby F&M Patio Bar instead: “I was all around Tipitina’s, just never there.”
But after redeveloping the old Fontainebleau Motor Hotel on Tulane Avenue into storage units and band rehearsal rooms, he thought the rehearsal rooms might rent quicker if he could also offer auditions at a music club. A banker acquaintance introduced him to Green.
After some back and forth, Von Kurnatowski bought a 51 percent stake in Real New Orleans Inc. from Green for a six-figure sum. Going forward, Green would supervise the music, and Von Kurnatowski would oversee the business and property.
Their working relationship quickly soured. Green says Von Kurnatowski didn’t understand what Tipitina’s was about and only wanted to make it more “corporate.” Von Kurnatowski counters that the club was hemorrhaging money under Green.
“It just wasn’t working at all,” Von Kurnatowski said. “It became clear one of us had to buy the other one out.”
As majority owner, Von Kurnatowski had the upper hand. By 1997, Green was out. He moved his family to Pensacola and eventually opened a successful Creole restaurant, Fisherman’s Corner, in Perdido Key. But he never got over losing Tipitina’s.
“With a new baby, and no job, we took the money and left New Orleans,” he said. “It was the most difficult period of my life. We had to start all over again. I had a lot of anger for years.”
Von Kurnatowski faced a steep learning curve. The short-lived French Quarter Tipitina’s proved to be a mistake.
And balancing the traditions of Tipitina’s with changes he believed were necessary to sustain a viable business was tricky. Replacing a cash box with actual cash registers, he recalled, was a big deal.
But a spate of cultural references convinced him of his new investment's importance: A character on the TV show “Northern Exposure” wearing a Tipitina’s cap. A musician in a documentary wearing a Tip’s T-shirt.
The tipping point was a Walt Handelsman cartoon, a reproduction of which still hangs inside Tipitina’s. In it, two locals speculate on how a casino would affect the culture of New Orleans. The punchline involves Las Vegas icon Wayne Newton being booked at Tipitina’s.
“It all started with that cartoon,” Von Kurnatowski said. “If Tipitina’s was a recognized benchmark for the cultural well-being of New Orleans, then I didn’t want to sell it.”
He said he spent years “trying to figure out how to make Tipitina’s significant again, in a positive way, for the culture of New Orleans. That was what the Tipitina’s Foundation was about.”
The nonprofit has given millions of dollars’ worth of instruments to school marching bands. It also supports an internship program, administered by acclaimed saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., that has mentored hundreds of students, and sent many to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
For all his attempts to make Tipitina’s more businesslike, the club still lost an estimated $2 million across the first 12 years he owned it, Von Kurnatowski said. It finally turned a profit in 2009.
Von Kurnatowski "is not a musical person — he was an improbable impresario,” said Steve Armbruster, a Tipitina's co-founder. “But to his credit, he kept Tipitina’s active for 20 years.”
Von Kurnatowski's other ventures include buying and restoring the Orpheum Theater with a partner in 2014 to the tune of $13 million. He has been working to redevelop the long-dormant South Shore Harbor area near Lakefront Airport as an entertainment district. In 2015, he partnered with Galactic to produce a music festival, the Landing, on the site.
Three years later, in February 2018, Von Kurnatowski and Galactic’s team entered into discussions for the band to buy Tipitina’s.
“I’m not getting any younger,” Von Kurnatowski said of his motivation. “We’re clearly not the people to take Tipitina’s to its next life. Who better than Galactic?”
His decision to sell, he said, was unrelated to recent difficulties with his other businesses, including lawsuits involving an investment fund he runs. Neither was the sale connected, he said, to the delays several prominent bands, including the Revivalists and the Radiators, have faced in getting paid for shows at Tipitina’s and the Orpheum.
Given his multiple endeavors, he said, cash flow can be problematic. “To take on a project like the lakefront and get in a low cash position is not unheard of," he said. "The majority of the bands that we were used to dealing with were understanding of any difficulties that might have occurred. There were a few that couldn’t be satisfied. But that’s the nature of any business.”
The bottom line, he said, is that “Tipitina’s never closed its doors, and people got paid.”
Despite receiving more lucrative offers during his months of negotiations with Galactic, he said, he stuck with the band: “I didn’t have to sell it, but it did make sense. And I think they are the right people to take it now.”
Galactic's history with Tipitina’s predates the band itself. Moore, the drummer, first went to Tipitina’s as a Brother Martin High School sophomore for a music clinic hosted by drummer Johnny Vidacovich.
Galactic saxophonist Ben Ellman’s first job after moving to New Orleans in 1989 was cooking in the old Tipitina’s kitchen. He was eventually promoted to spotlight operator.
Nearly 30 years later, the bandmates own Tipitina’s. Their initial moves have generated considerable goodwill throughout the local music community.
“I’m thrilled,” said veteran keyboardist John “Papa” Gros. “It feels like it will be solid for a long time. Hats off to them for taking it on.”
The positive energy was palpable during the sold-out Professor Longhair 100th birthday celebration on Dec. 19. With a capacity crowd of 800, Tipitina’s felt like the place to be.
Onstage, guest emcee Harry Shearer introduced an all-star progression of musicians, including Deacon John, Ivan Neville, Jon Cleary, George Porter Jr., Marcia Ball and Widespread Panic keyboardist Jojo Hermann.
At 11:18 p.m., Shearer welcomed Moore to the stage with, “If I screw up this guy’s introduction, you can fire me, 'cause he owns the place.”
Behind the drums, Moore lit into “Cabbage Alley,” a Meters song based on Professor Longhair’s “Hey Now Baby.”
He was at home with the music, and at home at Tipitina’s.