Updated: Apr 18
There was once a record store in the French Quarter called the Magic Bus owned by two English guys. They both loved that I collected records of random artists, so I always got the first pick. One day they were laughing about how Fred Schneider of the B52 had been in that week looking for Chris Owens's records because he had just attended one of Chris' shows. One of the guys told him that I had gotten them all. Fred wanted to know, “Who is this Arthur?”
Chris Owens was born Christine Joetta Shaw on October 5, 1932; Chris grew up on a farm and went to Texas Wesleyan College as a nurse. She married car dealer Sol R. Owens in 1956 and opened a nightclub on St. Louis Street in the French Quarter; it was initially intended to be a low-key sideline establishment, but the business exploded. Realizing Owens' performance numbers were a huge draw, they sold their home in 1977 and purchased the building on the corner of St. Louis and Bourbon. Soon the "Chris Owens Review" became a noted actor in town. In 1979 Sol had a heart attack and died; Chris Owens took over the club's management and 30 apartments and four shops within the building. The club and Owens' act continue to be a draw. Wikipedia
Chris was an instant star, earning write-ups in the Saturday Evening Post, McCall's Magazine, Town and Country, and New York gossip columnist Walter Winchell's column, "each one emphasizing that mine was the only legitimate act that didn't include taking all my clothes off," Owens proudly said in a 1974 interview with The Times-Picayune.
I'm not sure of the first time that I saw Chris Owens, but one thing I know for sure is that my heart skipped a beat. My love affair with her has lasted my entire adult life. Chris has an aura and a presence. I used to see her all the time walking briskly on her way to do her banking at the Whitney on Chartres Street with her white puppy dog in her arms along with one of her beaus at her side or driving her yellow two-seater antique Mercedes going to Lagenstein's Grocery on Metairie Road.
“She’s hot!" "She's exciting!” She’s hot!” were on the marquee of her club on the corner of Bourbon and St. Louis Streets, which is probably how I first found out about her! The first time I saw her perform was an exceptional performance benefiting one of the gay Mardi Gras krewes, including an after-party at her house. I vividly remember the decor in her home, including memorabilia of her life - photos of her and celebrities in the entry hallway. The sofa and curtains were covered in a county French buttercream fabric with flowers on them. The house still had the 60s or 70s Spanish wrought iron and a newly placed Greek column sitting on top of a 6-inch high platform with a white baby grand piano on top of it.
I worked at a salon in her building and sometimes did her hair. She even asked me to be in New Orleans magazine in a photo essay of local celebrities and their hairdressers.
While I was working there, Geraldo Rivera called her a stripper on his national television show. She was not happy about that at all. She called the network for a retaliation interview and wore a North Beach leather mini skirt, a lace-up over the decollete top, and stiletto heels in the same royal blue color.
Chris got attention at a Children’s Hospital benefit with a concert by Liza Minnelli and Aaron Neville held at the Superdome. The main floor of the dome was set up with decorated tables for the higher-dollar donors to dine while watching the show. Even from the first level, I could see her working the floor. She lit up the auditorium wearing a red beaded dress sparkling as the light caught her before the show.
Once at a French Quarter Fest performance, I witnessed what Chris Owens must have been like during her heyday in the sixties and seventies. She and the band were on fire with a natural rhythm, and blues review energy. She had stolen moves from the Ike and Tina Turner Review with some of Tina's fiery energy. Singing her signature cover of Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose!"
The Chris Owens Easter Parade is one of the few float parades still allowed to go through the French Quarter. The paraders are a "ladies who lunch" crowd and a few guys dressed in their finest Easter attire with Easter bonnets and hats adorning their heads. It is my favorite holiday and one of the reasons why I love New Orleans. Easter is a day to have brunch and watch at least one of the three parades that pass through the Quarter with friends. Everyone is in a festive mood. My dream of riding in the parade finally came true when I got to ride and go to the brunches before and after the parade. Once again, Chris makes a grand entrance for her pre-parade brunch. It was held at a hotel on Canal Street for a while, and she would arrive in a limo bus. These days it's held at the Royal Orleans, so she walks across the street from her house on St. Louis. A brass band always announces her entrance.
As my photography skills have grown over the years, so has my ability to capture Chris in all her essence.
She is a true Southern lady and the last Bourbon Street legend living.