A Democratic president beset by dissent in his own party; economic doldrums across America; and a racially charged federal trial for New Orleans police officers regarding a death in Algiers. It wasn't 2010 — it was 1980, when the first issue of Gambit hit the streets, though it wouldn't be followed by a weekly printing of the paper until February 1981.
1980 was a turbulent, transitional year in America, dominated by the ongoing hostage crisis in Iran, where dozens of U.S. citizens were being held captive by Islamic militants, a situation that would drag on for 14 months and help doom a once-popular president to one term in office. Inflation, wage stagnation and an energy crisis all figured into Jimmy Carter's election loss to former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
In May, the volcano Mt. St. Helens erupted in Washington, killing 57 people; November brought a fire at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, which killed 85 people and injured hundreds more.
Meanwhile, in Louisiana, the state was transfixed by the Lake Peigneur accident in Iberia Parish, where an oil drill accidentally punctured a salt mine, causing the entire lake to drain away in a whirlpool. New Orleans was consumed by the ongoing tale of Gregory Neupert, a 23-year-old white New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officer found shot to death in a predominantly black section of Algiers — which would result in the deaths of four suspects, charges of civil rights violations against several in the NOPD, and an eventual federal trial in Dallas for the "Algiers 7."
Gambit's first issue came out Dec. 8 — the day the world was shocked by the murder of John Lennon in New York City. As was the style among newspapers then, the first issue was printed in a bigger page size than it is today — slightly larger than 11 by 14 inches — and featured 26 pages spread across two sections, all for just 25 cents. (A pair of optimistic little coupons inside offered a one-year U.S. mail subscription for the upstart paper for $10.) The office was at 1017 Pleasant Street, half a block off Magazine Street (behind where The Bulldog stands today; the first back-page advertiser was Turci's restaurant at the corner of Pleasant and Magazine streets). And the first cover had no graphics, no gimmicks, not even page numbers — just purple and black type hinting at some of the stories inside:
CABLE TV IN NEW ORLEANS
TULANE: LAND VS. MONEY
HEART ATTACK SURGERY
PUBLIC ACCESS TO THE NEW TECHNOLOGY
LOSING MONEY IN THE MONEYMARKETS
WRESTLING IN THE SUPERDOME
JAZZ IN THE CITY
ORDINARY PEOPLE ARE IN TROUBLE
The "ordinary people" on the cover referred to the characters in the 1980 Robert Redford film of the same name (an unsigned review in that issue rated it a nine out of 10), but readers could have mistaken it as a headline for the paper's very first commentary.
"The city of New Orleans is in a near panic over crime," editor Gary Esolen wrote in the inaugural editorial, referencing a recent shooting in the Garden District, before going on to analyze the links between crime and poverty, crime and the racial divide, black-on-white street crime and "police attacks on blacks which have outraged the black community."
The news briefs section contained a story about a proposed barge-mooring facility at the Napoleon Avenue wharf that would be echoed in 2009's brouhaha over a proposed cold-storage plant at Esplanade Avenue and the river. The old Tulane Stadium had just been demolished, and an article speculated on whether Tulane University might turn the land into a housing development (it's now the site of Brown Field and the Reily Student Recreation Center). There was also a story about the possible environmental impact of the World's Fair (still four years away) and a brash prediction: "Watch for the States-Item to disappear entirely from the New Orleans newspaper scene in 1981." (The Times-Picayune, merged with the States-Item, was then going by the awkward multi-hyphenate Times-Picayune/States-Item, a name it would keep until 1986.)
A full-page photo of a mustachioed boxing referee in the ring with Roberto Duran was titled "One Gesture is Worth Ten Million Dollars." It didn't need a story, because everyone in town — if not the world — was familiar with it. The Nov. 25 boxing match at the Superdome had been the most famous to date, a grudge fight between former welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran, the upstart who had taken the crown from Sugar Ray at the "Brawl in Montreal" the previous June. After receiving a whipping and a taunting in the seventh round, Duran abruptly surrendered the match in the eighth and walked away, spawning chaos in the Dome as police rushed into the ring.
Elsewhere in Gambit, Ron Cuccia wrote up a wrestling match in the Superdome that had been attended by 21,000 people. "Killer Karl Kox" and "The Grappler" faced off on Thanksgiving Day for a crowd that was, in Cuccia's words, "young, blue-collar, maybe 80 percent black, but these facts belie an unusual richness of variety. I have seen women attend wrestling matches in evening gowns. I have seen a husband in a powder-blue leisure suit with his bouffant blonde wife sitting comfortably next to a couple who looked like they just emerged from the Oregon woods for the first time since 1969."
Gambit's first music feature was a profile of jazz saxophonist Tony Dagradi, who had moved to New Orleans three years earlier and formed Astral Project. (It would be another 10 years before Dagradi would become a professor of jazz at Loyola University.) Elsewhere, University of New Orleans English professor Carol Gelderman contributed an essay not on William Faulkner or Lafcadio Hearn, but an investment column of sorts titled "A Stock Market Junkie Confesses." (Gelderman recommended no-load mutual funds.)
A story called "Theater Boom" traced the revival of the recently reopened Saenger Theater from opening night — Johnny Carson headlining a Lion's Club benefit — through performances of Annie, Brigadoon, My Fair Lady (with Rex Harrison) and Camelot (with Richard Burton). There was an ad for the Toulouse Theatre's production of One Mo' Time ("Exclusive New Orleans run of the New York hit show" — a musical that had begun in the French Quarter and transferred off-Broadway), as well as Roddy McDowall starring in Harvey at the Beverly Dinner Playhouse. A holiday guide to bookstores led off with profiles of two local institutions still very much in business — Maple Street Book Shop and Garden District Book Shop — before moving on to now-shuttered stores like Dolpen Bookshop, the Southern Bookmart and the Doubleday on Canal Street. The review section included appraisals of E.L. Doctorow's latest novel, Loon Lake, as well as two highly-regarded movies: Ordinary People and The Great Santini.
Perhaps the most controversial feature was a lengthy Q&A with jazz and Storyville historian — and social critic — Al Rose on a variety of topics, including what Rose said was the extinction of jazz ("Everybody died."). His opinions, which were both firm and numerous, straddled a line between the aesthetics of Tennessee Williams and Ignatius Reilly. On the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival: "A cultural catastrophe ... which has had unbelievably destructive effects on the actual music of the city." On New Orleans high society: "Tasteless; the things they hang on their walls, the music that they play or that they hire to be played is preposterous. They know about food, though." On homosexuality: "It's endemic to the area, and to me that represents generally a social decline in any society."
A couple of items cringeworthy by contemporary standards: A photo taken at the Sugar Bowl featured a sea of college students waving Confederate flags, and a capsule review of Disney's reissue of Song of the South noted, "Racial stereotypes abound in this film rendering of the Uncle Remus tales. But perhaps it's a case of no harm no foul. The blacks come off decidedly better than the whites. ... As Uncle Remus might observe, 'Dey jes doan mek em lak dat no mo.'" Ouch.
The one Crescent City institution not found in the first issue of Gambit: the then-hapless New Orleans Saints. In December 1980, the city was in the throes of baghead mania, with home game attendees donning decorated Schwegmann bags over their heads as a mark of shame. The week the paper was published, the team was 0-14 for the season.
See? Some things do change.