It has bothered me for a long time that I can't remember the name of the band that played in the Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel during the 1950s and '60s. I used to listen to their broadcast on Sunday nights on WWL, and my new wife and I spent two nights there on our honeymoon in 1968 where we danced to the band. Can you tell me the name of the band?
As soon as I tell you, you're going to say, "Of course, how could I have forgotten?" The man you remember, the piano player and leader of the orchestra in the Blue Room, was Leon Kelner. See. I told you.
I'm sure you will be sorry to learn that Leon Kelner died on March 8, 2000, at 77 years old. But he left behind thousands who remember him and his talent.
He had come to the Big Easy from the Big Apple where he was born, and from 1945 to 1971 he played at the Roosevelt -- now Fairmont -- Hotel. At first he appeared in the Fountain Lounge and then the Blue Room. And I'm here to tell you that he was really popular. Once in 1993 he was interviewed about his time performing in the Blue Room. He said, "I got to know our audiences and they got to know me. I knew their favorite songs, took pictures with their kids, and said 'Hello' to everybody. I meet people today -- businessmen, women with grown children -- who tell me 'I sat in those little chairs they had for kids at ringside.'"
While he was at the Blue Room he made three albums: Cha-Cha With Leon Kelner and His Trio, Dancing in the Blue Room (full orchestra), and Requests Most Played in the Blue Room (full orchestra). He also made several other trio albums after he moved to Biloxi, Miss., to play at the Broadwater Beach Hotel. And in 1996, Leon recorded a CD titled Leon Kelner at the Piano.
During his years in the Blue Room, he backed many famous entertainers, including Sonny and Cher, Jimmy Durante, and Marguerite Piazza. He was fond of telling stories about the acts he worked with, especially about Sophie Tucker. She often performed with a beautiful long chinchilla boa that she used to throw over her rather ample person. She would stand by the piano and the boa would smack Leon in the head. It got so many laughs that she just kept the boa bit in her act.
Most of the acts brought their own musicians with them to the Blue Room. But one time when Ethel Merman came to town, her piano player was struggling with her music. Not Leon, though. Although he had never seen the music, he sat down and played it right off.
Many people got their introduction to Leon by listening to the radio. The radio shows came from the Blue Room nightly on WWL Radio and were heard nationally. But he also appeared locally on WDSU-TV.
Kelner was a resident of the Gulf Coast for about 25 years, playing at the Broadwater Beach Hotel. And for five years he played at the Boca Raton Hotel in Boca Raton, Fla.
Leon Kelner and his orchestra returned for a performance at the Blue Room and were a bit hit at the Fairmont's New Year's Eve millennium celebration.
What can you tell me about the Valence Street Cemetery?
This cemetery was once known as the City Cemetery of the City of Jefferson, one of those cemeteries laid out to meet the needs of the residents of the city's suburbs. When New Orleans annexed Jefferson City in 1870, the cemetery went with the deal.
An interesting place, the cemetery has a number of old society tombs such as the St. Anthony of Padua Italian Mutual Benefit Society, the St. Joseph's Sepulcher of the Male and Female benevolent Association, and the Ladies and Gentlemen Perseverance Benevolent Association.
Also, when German philanthropist John David Fink's remains were removed from the Girard Street Cemetery when it was demolished, they were buried in this cemetery.