Big Daddy's was the kind of place that typifies the neon-lit, glamorously sleazy New Orleans that's fast disappearing. The bar, with its garish neon sign and swinging mannequin legs in the window, was a de rigueur shot for any New Orleans documentary. It appeared in countless movies and music videos, including the 1984 Clint Eastwood film Tightrope and the 1988 video for Aerosmith's "Rag Doll." Originally opened as Lafitte's Boudoir in 1967, it was the longest continually-operating strip club on Bourbon Street.
But at the end of October, with little fanfare and even less attention, Big Daddy's shut its doors for good, the famous mannequin legs swung over the Bourbon Street crowds for the last time, and another piece of French Quarter history vanished without notice.
In the 1970s, Big Daddy's was one of many topless go-go joints on a street in transition. Bourbon street's days as a glittering hub of jazz and burlesque were behind it, and its future as a slick tourist attraction with "gentlemen's clubs" was years away.
"There was not a single T-shirt shop on the street then, if you can believe that," says Eddie Jones, who played keyboards with the Southside Blues Band in Big Daddy's courtyard patio between 1976 and 1978. The patio, between Big Daddy's and Unisex Love Acts next door, has featured female wrestling and male strippers, but in the mid- to late-'70s, it was an extra stage for Big Daddy's dancers, magicians, contortionists, escape artists, fire-eaters and live bands.
Bourbon Street in the 1970s, Jones remembers, was not for sightseers — or the faint of heart. He recalls a night when police lobbed tear gas grenades into the Bastille nightclub on Toulouse Street. At Funky Butts, a biker bar next to Molly's on Toulouse, "you could buy any drug you wanted," he says. You could even rent a handgun there.
In the '70s, there was no stripping; go-go girls danced semi-nude and stayed that way. "Back then they didn't do pole dancing. Basically it was just a place to rip people off," he says. "I knew a lot of girls who would order the Champagne and they would get commission on the bottle, and when the guy wasn't looking, they would pour it out, so you can imagine what walking on the floor was like."
Suzy, a dancer who started work at the club in 1991, three days after her 18th birthday, remembers going there to apply for a waitress job because, "Big Daddy's was the shit," she says. "There was Bourbon Burlesque, which was second, and Sho Bar, which was third best. And the Pussycat, which had a pre-op transsexual working there, and the Artist Café. There was a girl who lived at Covenant House working there, and she didn't have any shoes. So Big Daddy's was the best."
Squishy, a dancer who started a decade-long stint at the club on the Fourth of July 1991, remembers being put off at first by the club's shabby look after working in larger clubs around the country, but she grew to love it. "Big Daddy's was slightly disappointing in comparison," she remembers. "But it had that cool, weird carnival feel to it. And the original décor was in all tones of red, with candelabra. It looked like a haunted house."
Although the swinging legs were the only visible part of the mannequin, Squishy recalls, it was always fully dressed in a gown and a wig. "She had everything but arms, in this dark corner of the club," Squishy says. "I always thought that was completely bizarre. And she was completely covered in cobwebs, which was another haunted house aspect."
Equally mysterious was "Big Daddy" himself, William "Rick" Colacurcio Jr. He arrived in New Orleans with a mystique that only grew as the club embedded itself in the Bourbon Street landscape. In the spring of 1979, 12 years after Big Daddy's opened, The Times-Picayune ran a front-page investigative story on Colacurcio. The opening paragraph began, "A mystery man who law enforcement authorities believe has strong underworld connections across the United States is now operating several of the sleaziest nude dancing joints and massage parlors on Bourbon Street." Less than a week after that story ran, he was back on the front page following his arrest on federal RICO charges. The Feds alleged that Colacurcio and two colleagues bribed two undercover law-enforcement officers, but Colacurcio beat the rap. He also tried to remain below radar, telling one reporter, "I don't like publicity." (In response to requests for interviews for this story, employees repeated, "My boss doesn't like publicity.")
Whispers abounded about the publicity-averse, now 88-year-old Colacurcio, especially among the employees. He lived in one of the apartments above the bar, "right above the DJ booth," says Gary London, a DJ at the club for many years. The owner was just hands-on enough and removed enough to fuel all sorts of rumors. Dancers had heard that he wore a toupee made of women's pubic hair, that he was going to have his head cryogenically frozen after his death, that he was unnaturally close to the two large snakes that lived in the club. One thing is for certain: as a club owner and a showman, Colacurcio had a touch of old-school vaudeville to his vision. In the 1979 Times-Picayune interview, Colacurcio's son Billy told reporters his father tried to hire talent "with a little different flair, even if it's twirling a baton. He says, 'I try to provide that something different.'"
"He's from a different time, and he's always trying to think of different things, different gimmicks," London recalls. One of Colacurcio's most well-known gimmicks was his pair of snakes, fully-grown boa constrictors with an unusual tank: they lived, side by side, inside the second stage at the rear of the club.
"It was sad," Suzy says. "It had a clear Plexiglas top, so you'd be dancing on top of them, and snakes are very sensitive to loud noises."
"One of them was named Peaches, the other I can't remember," London says. "I think he got them when they were young, because he had them a long time, and I remember people coming in and saying 'Hey, where's Peaches?''' Colacurcio fed them live chickens and rabbits, which he kept in the rear of the club. Suzy remembers walking through the menagerie to get back to his office during her first day on the job in 1992. Candace Lamb, a bartender who worked at Candice's on Conti (now the Erin Rose) in the mid-'90s, recalled a chicken which escaped that fate.
"I was tending bar, and Squishy came in with a couple of girls, still half-naked in heels, with a robe on," Lamb recalls. "She came through the door screaming and laughing with a chicken under her arm. She had saved a chicken from the snake at Big Daddy's. And she kept it in her apartment for a good long time — at least a couple of years."
Ultimately, despite the healthy diet, time caught up with the snakes.
"One of them died, and Rick had it stuffed, and he put it back in there with the other, which I always thought was cruel, because they were boyfriend and girlfriend or brother and sister," London says. Both snakes eventually went the way of taxidermy, but as Otter, a performance artist who began dancing at the club in 1989, remembers, they didn't survive the humidity of the electricity-free weeks after Hurricane Katrina: "They rotted, and they had to throw them away."
"Before that, he had a cheetah or a leopard," London says. "This was back in the '70s. Over where the T-shirts are now, he had a cage for it, and people would come take pictures. And he actually had a dancer who would take it onstage with her on a leash. It died eventually, and he had it stuffed and put it up in his apartment."
In the '70s, Radiators guitarist Camile Baudoin played gigs in the courtyard sometimes, occasionally with future Radiators Ed Volker and Frank Bua.
"At night, they had it in a cage, with lights," Baudoin says of the cheetah. "But when you went there and practiced during the day, it was loose in the courtyard. One day, we walked in and the thing just jumped up on the drummer's shoulders with its front paws, just looking at him. Things like that are kind of unusual. He was friendly enough, but he was still a wild animal. He wasn't our pet." Baudoin also ruefully recalls that the big cat did not have a litterbox. "He had, let's say, done his business on a lot of equipment left out in the patio. So we had to contend with that."
Some innovations were less popular than the animals, at least for the dancers. One was the infamous swing, a part of the club since at least 1977, when it was photographed for an article in the December issue of the porn magazine Cheri.
"I remember one girl coming in with her face all messed up, because she had fallen off that swing," says Lamb. The swing, a hanging bed of sorts with a strategically placed angled mirror, dangled over the bar near the door, and was a part of each dancer's scheduled rotation.
"You lie in the swing on your stomach, and there's a mirror at an angle behind you facing the street, so everybody who walks up the street can see your butt and your back and your legs," Suzy says. "You climbed up a very rickety ladder to get in. But the swing was just awful, too, because you're lying there trapped and every guy who came up could bother you. Push the swing, harass you, talk to you, bother you, ask 'Are you real?' Night after night after night — it got old."
The unique pole was another part of what made Big Daddy's stand out. Unlike a traditional brass pole, it was thickly padded, which precluded standard tricks. But it was outfitted with a free-spinning wheel at its top, which encouraged dancers to build a whole new repertoire of acrobatics. The pole was a success, but another attraction, advertised on the door long after it was no longer used, was "Wash the Girl of Your Choice." There was a shower stall near the stage where customers could spray water on a seminude dancer.
"That never really took off," Squishy says. "I could count on one hand how many times I saw it used. It was too time-consuming to get sopping wet in the middle of your shift."
"It was a colossal failure," Suzy says. "Rick would always be trying to get you to do it, but nobody wanted to do it."
Colacurcio's famous sign advertised "bottomless" dancers, which was and still is illegal in New Orleans. To get around the law, he designed his own G-string. (Louisiana law requires a T-back, a G-string with fabric showing on the rear. Perhaps the Big Daddy's design was one of the fruits of Colacurcio's challenges to "community standards of obscenity and taste" in court.)
"It's really uncomfortable. I mean really uncomfortable," Suzy says. "And it's brown. Brown! With fringe on top, and you had to buy it. It was five dollars, and it would disintegrate in three or four washes. The fringe would get all frayed. So you were constantly buying new G-strings that were five dollars each, and they say they were different sizes but they weren't." G-strings for white dancers were held together by a thin white elastic string. African-American dancers' elastics were black.
"Everyone would always cut the fringe off because they would last longer that way," Suzy says. "It was brown with the fringe on top, so that it looked like it was pubic hair underneath. But every once in a while Rick would go on these tangents, and we had to buy new G-strings because none of them had the fringe. It was ridiculous. There was elastic wire up your butt."
"Never have I seen — anywhere — anything else like this ingenious thing," Squishy says. "It completely covered all the parts that needed to be covered; nothing less, nothing more. And I don't know how he managed to be able to keep it, because it was illegal everywhere else on the street."
Suzy, Otter and Squishy were all part of what they consider Big Daddy's final heyday; a period that stretched from the late '80s through the late '90s when the club attracted a certain kind of cool punk-rock girl (first because it was the best club on the street; then, some say, because of a prohibition on tattoos at the new gentlemen's clubs that were filling the street).
The music contributed significantly to the maverick, creative vibe of the club — largely because there were no restrictions, unlike other clubs.
"I'd have 20 girls dancing a night, and they'd all be really cool," London says. "We had girls with tattoos, girls dancing to really cool music, and as far as the music went, I had absolutely no rules. Goth, rockabilly, burlesque, punk rock — I'd have people come up to me all the time and say, 'I have never heard this kind of music in a strip club.' At that time, I never considered it work."
"I played Thrill Kill Kult, Lords of Acid, industrial — everybody was into industrial — good music all night long," Suzy says. "Then there'd be these weird girls who'd dance to crazy shit. One girl would dance to gospel and pray onstage. Wendy would dance to 'Mr. Bojangles.' That was part of her regular rotation."
Besides their artistic license inside the club, many of the dancers followed creative endeavors outside as well. Big Daddy's dancer Lorelei Fuller started the Shim Shamettes, New Orleans' first and most elaborate burlesque revival troupe, with a gang of her Big Daddy's friends. Otter held talent shows and club nights at underground spaces in the Bywater where the girls performed.
That camaraderie, dancers say, was forged in the dressing room — or rather, the nondressing room. Unlike the accommodations at bigger, fancier strip clubs, with large locker rooms, tanning beds and hair and makeup help, Big Daddy's girls dressed in the ladies' room.
"It was about six (feet) by six (feet); it was tiny," Suzy recalls. "Everybody smoking, everybody fighting, everybody's crap everywhere. But that was the key to why we were such good friends. And it was us against the world back there, because we shared it with the female customers."
"As strip clubs got more and more socially acceptable, more and more women came in," Squishy says. Female customers thought little of invading the dancers' space, Suzy recalls. "They'd come in and want to ask us questions, like 'Why do you work here?' — very condescending," she says. "So it helped to say, well, we're us, and we're special. Big Daddy's girls against the world."
The weekend of Voodoo Music Experience 2008, after almost 40 years, Big Daddy's went out with a whimper, not a bang. Several girls from the club's '90s heyday flew into town at the end of October to gather for one last night in the club and a party at Otter's house, which is also a theater space. The party at the club was "very uneventful," London says. "We closed at probably like twelve-thirty. It was anticlimactic."
"There were only like four girls working on a Thursday night," says Suzy, whose life-size photo stood in the club's doorway since 2000. (It replaced a '50s-era poster of transsexual burlesque dancer Sandra Sexton, who had worked at the club as a housemother in the '90s.) "In the '90s, there would have been 50 girls and it would have been hopping. But it was boring."
Today, the door to 522 Bourbon Street is shut. The life-size photo of Suzy and the multicolored neon sign, which promised "table top dancing at moderate prices" are in storage, and the mannequin, whose legs had swung in flexed abandon over Bourbon Street since 1969, is in the hands of a longtime employee. According to a former employee known as Saint, Colacurcio may incorporate the sign or new swinging legs into the façade of Unisex Love Acts next door — where a rewired sign now reads, "Big Daddy's Love Acts."
"We're combining all the gimmicks into one gimmick," he says. But there will be no snakes, no cheetah, no "wash the girl of your choice," no special pole and no ingenious G-strings.
Speculation has abounded since late October as to what business might next occupy the building — a restaurant, a daiquiri shop and another strip club were all rumored. Nothing has been confirmed, but it's difficult for Big Daddy's former employees to imagine a strip club that could take its place.
"The swinging legs were an icon of Bourbon Street," London says. "He never advertised at all, as far as I knew. But he always had me promote 'the world famous Big Daddy's' on the microphone, because it really was world famous. It wasn't the dirtiest and the sleaziest, and it wasn't the nicest. It was a combination of both."
"I knew a lot of people who had surreptitious plans to steal [the mannequin]," Jones says. "It would have been the ultimate French Quarter souvenir, but it disappeared too quick. I'm not saying I'm nostalgic," he adds. "But it won't be the same without the place."
"I grew up there," say Suzy, who now owns a flower shop in the French Quarter. "I knew everyone there. I was comfortable there. It was a titty bar, and I like titty bars. There's no pretense about it. You're a stripper; you're not an exotic dancer. It's not a 'gentlemen's club' where they're going to smoke cigars and watch sports on the big-screen TV and all this other crap that nobody ever does anyway.
"It was what it was, and it was really pure."