Oyster impresario Chris ‘Bozo’ Vodanovich dies at 86 _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Chris "Bozo" Vodanovich ran Bozo's resturant from the 1940s until retiring in 2008.

Bozo’s restaurant never gave off much glitz, not at its original location tucked away in Mid-City nor during its second chapter on a Metairie side street off Causeway Boulevard.

But the memorably named restaurant was renowned for the quality of its raw oysters and fried seafood, and during a heyday that stretched for decades beginning in the 1950s, it was known as a place for figures from the worlds of entertainment, politics, sports and the media to see and be seen.

The good times always seemed to be rolling at Bozo’s, remembered Ed McIntyre, a Metairie-based restaurateur who grew up with regular family visits to both locations. But he knew it all stemmed from the tenacious work ethic embodied by its proprietor, Chris “Bozo” Vodanovich.

“He was old school, very hands-on,” McIntyre said. “He worked his kitchen every night; he worked the dining room every night. That’s why the quality was so high. That’s why everyone wanted to be there.”

Vodanovich suffered a stroke last week and died Wednesday morning, according to McIntyre, a longtime family friend. He was 86.

“He was an icon of our industry, for New Orleans restaurants, and if you get closer, an icon for Louisiana seafood and for oysters in particular,” said Tommy Cvitanovich, proprietor of Drago’s Seafood Restaurant. “He took such pride in what he did, especially the oysters. He insisted on frying them himself, always. No one fried oysters like Mr. Chris.”

Known for his avid interest in racehorses and his devotion to his wife, Bernadine, Vodanovich got an early start in the restaurant business and had deep roots in the oyster industry of southeast Louisiana.

His father, Bozo Vodanovich — the first name is the Croatian equivalent of Chris — emigrated to the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century. He found his way to Buras, a Plaquemines Parish bastion of the region’s Croatian community, as well as a hub for the oyster business and the hometown of his future wife, Marie. They later moved to New Orleans and opened Bozo’s Oyster Bar & Beer Parlor at 2713 St. Ann St. on April 1, 1928. Chris Vodanovich was born two months later.

In an interview last year, Vodanovich explained that with no money for babysitters, his parents essentially raised him in the family restaurant. He was tasked with small jobs around the business as soon as he could walk, he recalled, and by age 12 he had an official role delivering take-out orders on his bicycle.

“In the old country, as soon as you were old enough to have any sense, they put you to work,” Vodanovich said. “There wasn’t much money back then. It was the Depression. Nobody made any because nobody had any. But the restaurant still did OK. We’d get oysters coming in; we’d boil seafood. People would call up, and we’d bring them sandwiches, raw oysters, anything. I’d ride a bicycle down these mud streets, bringing around the oysters.”

He would later work behind the oyster bar, then behind the wheel of a truck delivering great burlap sacks of oysters to other restaurants. When his father suffered a heart attack in the 1940s, Vodanovich dropped out of Warren Easton High School to take over the business. He said he made a pledge to his mother to keep the restaurant going, though “I didn’t know how long that would be.”

In fact, he stuck with it through many decades and changes, along with his wife and his two sisters, Vitza Turlich and Mary Ann Vodanovich.

For a time, the St. Ann Street restaurant had a clubhouse atmosphere. The crowd from the Fair Grounds convened there after a day at the track. The restaurant was on the map for visiting celebrities, and business and political deals were often sealed under its roof.

“It was the second City Hall, like Ruth’s Chris (Steak House) down the street — it’s where everyone went,” Cvitanovich said.

But the old neighborhood was deteriorating. In 1970, restaurant critic Richard Collin wrote that Bozo’s was in “a poorer section of the city and looks so seedy outside that one is surprised at the middle-class atmosphere inside.” With the suburbs then beginning to thrive, the Vodanovichs moved their restaurant in 1979 to Metairie, where they developed it anew at 3117 21st St.

They continued to run the business directly, with Chris minding the fryers and Bernadine a constant presence at the cashier’s station, until they retired in 2008.

New operators took over Bozo’s that same year, but the restaurant closed in early 2013. Vodanovich had retained ownership of the building, however, and he soon sold the property to McIntyre, who reopened the business later in 2013 as Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar & Fish House.

Vodanovich visited his old restaurant frequently over the past year, McIntyre said, and he seemed to enjoy spending time at the oyster bar with customers and sharing stories, and advice, with the restaurant’s staff.

“I always thought of him as the classic New Orleans restaurateur,” McIntyre said.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.