Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar Spins Into Its 70th Year
Lena Prima, the daughter of renowned New Orleans bandleader, trumpeter and vocalist Louis Prima, remembers when her dad used to perform “Jump Jive An’ Wail” and “Just A Gigolo” at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans’ French Quarter. She wasn’t old enough to attend the shows in the early 1970s, but today she holds court crooning at the hotel’s iconic Carousel Bar & Lounge that, literally, turned 70 this week.
“The Carousel Bar is unlike any other in New Orleans,” said singer-songwriter Prima about the famed lobby bar located inside the five-generation Italian-American family-owned hotel that opened in 1886 at 214 Royal St. “You get here, you sit down, you order a drink and the bar revolves. I feel like I just blend into the background because the bar is so famous. Everyone wants to take a spin on the Carousel.”
New Orleans’ only rotating bar spun into orbit on Saturday, Sept. 3, 1949, and it takes 15 minutes to complete a 360-degree twirl. Its 25 hand-painted seats are situated under a colorful circus-clad merry-go-round canopy garnished with oval mirrors, high-relief clown faces and cherubim, acanthus scrolls and hundreds of little lights. Notable writers, actors, musicians, tourists and locals alike frolic at the circular counter, and Carousel Bar boozers seem to absorb celebratory inspiration with every sip and revolution.
Marvin Allen has seen the world-class cocktail bar spin approximately 95,200 times as its head mixologist. Working seven hours a day, four times a week for 17 years from the Carousel Bar’s stationary center, Allen’s dizzying duties include walking in circles, pouring drinks for his patrons who pirouette around him. He serves countless glasses of wine and beer and mixes classic and craft cocktails at a carousel you have to be at least 21-years-old to ride.
“I’ll be willing to bet we probably do more business in our hotel bar than any of the other hotel bars across the city,” said Allen of the intoxicating hotspot and the adjacent Lounge that accommodates an additional 100 guests. “When you have a line of people standing at the front door when you get ready to open up at 11:00 a.m. and there’s not a seat left at the Carousel until we close that night, that’s pretty substantial.”
“The Carousel Bar is a very important economic driver of the hotel,” said Hotel Monteleone’s director of sales and marketing Kent Wasmuth. “People from all over the globe know about our 133-year-old hotel and want to come see the Carousel Bar themselves. But it’s our guests and customers that really make our bar so charismatic.”
Novelist Truman Capote was a fixture at the Carousel Bar and liked it so much he tried to rewrite history. He told people he was born at the Monteleone even though his mother only went into labor at the hotel and actually gave birth to Capote at Touro Infirmary in Uptown New Orleans.
“He would always ask for his ‘favorite little orange drink,’ which was a Screwdriver,” said Allen. “He also drank Martinis.”
Allen said playwright Tennessee Williams was partial to the bar’s Brandy Alexanders, and decades of literati including Stephen E. Ambrose, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Ford, John Grisham, Winston Groom, Ernest Hemingway, Anne Rice, Rebecca Wells and Eudora Welty either imbibed restorative refreshments at the Carousel Bar, and/ or splashed some Carousel Bar lore into their fiction and/ or stayed at the Hotel Monteleone and now have suites named after them. Their collective attraction to the venerable venue and its whirling watering hole helped designate the Beaux-Arts style high-rise as one of three hotels in the nation to be declared a literary landmark by a division of the American Library Association.
“People from all walks of life come in for a cocktail and soak up the drinkable history New Orleans and the Carousel Bar have to offer,” said Wasmuth. “Some of the greatest literary minds have found their creative spark at the Carousel Bar. Past writers and authors thought up some of their characters and storylines here, which have been passed down to new generations. Seventy years is a pretty good run. If the Carousel Bar spins for another 70, they’ll be even more stories that will weave into the fabric of this bar.”
The Carousel Bar will host an invitation-only 70th anniversary celebration on Thursday, Sept. 12, where proclamations from Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, the Louisiana House of Representatives, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the New Orleans City Council will be read aloud. The bar will reopen at 2:00 p.m. when the public will spill in and the flutes and highballs will flow over.
“Our top five drinks are The Vieux Carré, which is the Carousel Bar’s signature cocktail created by the hotel’s head bartender Walter Bergeron in 1938,” said mixologist Allen. “It consists of Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, Benedictine, Sazerac Rye Whiskey, sweet Berto red vermouth, Angostura and Peychaud’s Bitters. Then there’s the Sazerac, which is known as the official cocktail of New Orleans. It’s served in a chilled Herbsaint rinsed glass, with Sazerac Rye, Peychaud’s Bitters and simple syrup. There’s the Pimm’s Cup and our version has become very popular with Pimm’s No. 1, strawberries, cucumber, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup and a touch of Sprite. The Fleur De Lis is another Carousel Bar original that one of our bartenders, Parker Davis, created in 2007. It’s made with Hendrick’s Gin, St. Germain liqueur, cucumber, fresh lemon juice and ginger ale. And then there’s the French 007, which is one of my creations. I make it with Pomegranate liqueur and Mathilde Poire topped with sparkling wine.”
Allen and his cordial cohorts have served libations to the likes of Gregg Allman, Stephen Baldwin, Nicolas Cage, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Michael Jordan, Jessica Lange, the cast of ‘NCIS: New Orleans,’ Dennis Quaid, Julia Roberts, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Quentin Tarantino and Tinseltown power couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Hollywood even immortalized the Carousel Bar in celluloid in “Double Jeopardy,” “The Last Time” and the recent 2017 movie “Girls Trip.” Wasmuth recalls its lead actresses Tiffany Haddish, Regina Hall, Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith filmed a pivotal comedic scene at the Carousel Bar.
“They were hilarious,” he said. “They kept the cast, crew and hotel staff in stitches. It was great to see all these famous ladies having fun at our bar.
“My favorite time at The Carousel Bar is right before it opens,” he said. “I see the line of people waiting in the lobby to get in at 11:00 a.m., and they’re peeking through the windows like kids outside a candy store. When the doors open, they rush in and get wide-eyed when they see the spinning bar lit up like a carnival ride and order a drink from it. Our guests love to sit there for hours and just spin around.”
“Sometimes people are standing by the bar and they forget that the bar actually turns,” said Hotel Monteleone director of engineering Rick Lotz, who’s been maintaining the mechanics of the Carousel Bar for 18 years. “If they don’t pay attention, their drinks wind up in a different place from where they set them down.”
Lotz probably knows the Carousel Bar more intimately than any customer who has circumnavigated the classy canteen. It swirls with the help of a super-sized bicycle chain powered by the original half horsepower motor, a gearbox, an hydraulic clutch and 14 steel casters that the carousel rests on.
“Originally they would hoist the bar up off the ground with railroad jacks and use wooden supports to hold it up into the air,” said Lotz of the mechanism’s old maintenance routine. “But now we have service hatches where you can easily access the wheels. The motor is located in the basement under the bar.
“It’s pretty heavy,” he said. “The rotating part is a donut of steel, and the bar is built on top of that. We used to have a marble counter but replaced it with pewter.”
Lotz said they polish the bar’s brass accents once a year and import its hard-to-find little light bulbs from a lighting company in Germany.
“They don’t build equipment like they used to,” he said. “We make new parts for old parts that don’t exist anymore. When I first got here I thought the Carousel Bar was haunted because of the problems we were having with the wheels. When one broke down it would make a loud popping sound, but since we switched the wheels to casters, she’s been behaving herself.”
“The only spirits I know of are the ones behind the bar,” joked bartender Allen who’s the co-author of “Magic in a Shaker: A Year of Spirited Libations.” He’s also been privy to impromptu musical performances by Billy Joel and Allen Toussaint at the adjacent Lounge. It’s the same area Liberace and Louis Prima used to be presented in when it was called The Swan Room. Today, the Lounge offers guests a majestic perch under coffered ceilings, customized crown molding and circular glass chandeliers.
While enjoying the view out of the Lounge’s expansive windows along Royal Street, tipplers can order premium proof potions and bar bites including blue crab and crawfish beignets and mini ‘Monte’ po’ boys sandwiches.
Wednesdays through Saturdays the Lounge showcases free musical acts including locals Nayo Jones, Luther Kent, Shannon Powell and Lena Prima.
“It’s a special place for me because I remember coming here with my father as a little girl,” said Prima, who will appear at the Carousel Bar in November, December and on New Year’s Eve. “Now, I’m performing here like my dad did so I can carry on his legacy.
“When I’m on stage singing my dad’s music and music from my latest album “Prima La Famiglia” to all these different people from around the world who come here to celebrate weddings and bachelor and bachelorette parties and birthdays, you see such a mix of ages and cultures and people immersing themselves in the history of this historic hotel and having a fun time,” said Prima. “And the bartenders have great personalities. Some people come just to hang out with them. They’re performing as well, mixing fabulous drinks for everyone at the bar.
“I think my dad would be so happy knowing I was here in New Orleans, his hometown, singing at the Carousel Bar during its 70th anniversary year at the Hotel Monteleone and playing the music he made famous and promoting our Italian-American heritage,” said Prima. “I’m proud to be here. It’s simply a wonderful place to be.”