Storyville exhibit explores New Orleans’ bygone red-light district

NEW ORLEANS -- A century after the closing of Storyville, The Historic New Orleans Collection pieces together the remnants of New Orleans’s bygone red-light district in a new exhibition.

“Storyville: Madams and Music,” which opens Wednesday, April 5, 2017, intertwines the flowery and frank portrayals of the neighborhood that helped establish New Orleans’s notorious reputation.

Created by an 1897 ordinance, Storyville boasted brothels, saloons and beer halls that lured visitors from around the country with attractions such as music, dance and sex. After it closed in 1917, many of its stories and buildings were lost to history.

Artifacts in the exhibition illustrate the spectrum of life in the District’s sex trade. Photographs of lavish interiors by Ernest J. Bellocq and an ornate transom from the extravagant Mahogany Hall brothel stand in sharp contrast to mugshots of prostitutes arrested for other crimes and images of squalid “cribs,” crude one- or two-room structures, where women worked in shifts under terrible conditions.

Pocket-sized directories, known as blue books, sold prostitution as bourgeois leisure, promising lavish goods and services to upper-class white men. These guides are partially responsible for the romantic aura of Storyville that persists to this day. The exhibition complements THNOC’s recent publication “Guidebooks to Sin: the Blue Books of Storyville, New Orleans,” by Pamela D. Arceneaux, a curator of the exhibition.

“Since blue books are among the scant objects remaining from Storyville, they are very important to the historical record, but their rosy portrayal of the District is often misconstrued as fact instead of fluff,” said Arceneaux. “Many of the artifacts that people will see in the exhibition run counter to the sense of lascivious gaiety promoted through the blue books.”

Music, like the sex trade, was intrinsic to Storyville’s success as an entertainment mecca, and piano players were the kings of the District’s music scene. Pioneering musicians like Manuel “Fess” Manetta, Jelly Roll Morton and Joe “King” Oliver played for tips, while experimenting with new styles and techniques in the clubs and brothels. The exhibition uses instruments, sheet music, oral histories and recordings by the musicians themselves to illustrate the diversity and richness of music and dance in Storyville.

In 1917, the same year the District closed, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, comprised of New Orleans musicians, recorded what is considered the first jazz record in New York for the Victor label.

“Storyville was a component in the development of jazz, but only a component” said Eric Seiferth, a curator of the exhibition. “While the District was a center of experimentation for musicians, it was not the only one in town. And while jazz was played in Storyville, there was an abundance of music and musical styles performed there, everything from ragtime to operetta.”

“Storyville: Madams and Music” will be on view at THNOC’s Williams Research Center, 410 Chartres St., April 5–December 2, 2017. The galleries are open Tuesday–Saturday, 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Admission is free.