The One and Only

Original New Orleans Movie Tours is the city’s only film-related business that isn’t threatened a bit by the downturn.
Cheryl Gerber

Nobody knows more about New Orleans-shot movies than Jonathan Ray, owner of Original New Orleans Movie Tours.

Seven days a week, Ray leads two daily tours out of a custom 10-seater van that leaves from the steps of the Algiers Ferry.  For an-hour-and-a-half the van weaves around the city as Ray shares his encyclopedic knowledge of movies and television shows filmed in the Crescent City, dating back as far as 1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Television screens embedded into every headrest allow him to cue up scenes from each movie just as the van arrives, typically at the same spot the camera was placed for the film. The result is an experience that puts tour-goers right into the action.

“It took me two years to do all the preparation and work required to start this business,” Ray says. “It was a lot of studying, a lot of notes.”

Formerly a cameraman, Ray, a Connecticut native, decided to leave the movie business eight years ago.

“The hours were just bad and work was always so uncertain,” he says. “I knew I needed to find something else.”

After deciding to make the move to New Orleans, a place he’d frequently visited, Ray learned about the city’s roll in film and thought maybe he’d do a movie tour.

“I went down to city hall to do the paperwork thinking to myself, ‘Man, there must be 20 of these already,’ but it turned out I was the first one. In fact I really had to do a lot of explaining of what it was I wanted to do.”

That was six years ago. The Original New Orleans Movie Tour still remains the only one in existence.

“I’m the only one who does this, and I’m a one-man show,” he says. “I think that as long as I stay small, I’ll probably stay that way. All of the knowledge is in my head, which means, essentially, that I am the tour. I can’t hire anyone, and I can’t get sick.”

While he does get the occasional local, Ray says about 95 percent of those that pay $29 for a seat on the tour are from out of town. “They’re usually from the Northeast or Midwest, but I have been seeing a lot more international visits lately. Australia is a big one for some reason.”

Ray comes off more as a lively comedic actor than a behind-the-scenes cameraman as he gleefully points out fun facts, like how the headquarters of “NCIS New Orleans” in the French Quarter is actually nothing more than a parking lot, how Roger Moore was speeding the wrong way up Madison Street in “Live and Let Die” and how, despite the fact that you can see Kevin Costner consoling himself with a drink while receiving news of the president’s death in “JFK,” the Napoleon House does not, and never has had, a television.

If you’re lucky, he may even tell you about the only person he’s ever ran over in six years. It was Spike Lee.

Ray’s love for the city and for the film industry here is evident from the first moment of the tour until the last, during which he admonishes tourists to go forth and only support movies made in New Orleans. “Don’t watch anything else,” he says. “Especially if it’s from Georgia. If you see that peach, shut it down.”

On that note, Ray is not shy about informing visitors of the downturn in the industry of late, but told me it has had no affect on his business.

“The film industry could go away tomorrow and I’d be the only thing left,” he says. “I have decades of films to talk about and that doesn’t change. I’m truly amazed that no one else here has found a way to generate long-term income from what has happened here — like a movie museum or something.”

Now that's not a bad idea.

Kimberley Singletary is the managing editor of Biz New Orleans magazine. A 20-year Southern California veteran, she has been surrounded by the film industry for most of her life.

Categories: The Magazine