On a recent trip to New Orleans, I did all the traditional New Orleans things – saw jazz, ate jambalaya, walked the French Quarter and bought music on Frenchman Street. It was fantastic.
One of the highlights was the Carousel Bar inside the Hotel Monteleone, a circular bar in which the patrons slowly revolve around the bartenders in the center. Two pieces of advice about the Carousel Bar. 1. Order a Vieux Carre, their specialty. 2. If you get to a point where you can no longer tell that the Carousel Bar is rotating, it is time to leave the Carousel Bar.
So, all in all, it was a typically great first visit in New Orleans. But, being a film critic, I just couldn’t resist. I had to see a movie while I was there. I almost felt guilty – this was New Orleans! – but it ended up being one of the most memorable experiences of the trip.
My wife was busy with a conference during several days we were there, which left me on my own. Reading through the local alt-weekly, my eye inevitably went to the movie listings. I’m curious about independent and classic movie theaters in other cities.
When I saw that the 1973 James Bond film “Live and Let Die” was playing on Sunday morning at a theater called the Prytania Theater, it seemed almost too perfect for me. I’m a huge Bond fan, and “Live and Let Die” was shot partially in New Orleans.
So I got up early on Sunday morning and caught the olive-green St. Charles streetcar, which lazily wended along St. Charles Avenue towards the Uptown neighborhood where the Prytania was located. There were only a few passengers on the streetcar – more people seemed to be outside using the streetcar line as an impromptu jogging track.
The streetcar let me off at Jefferson Avenue and, already sweating a little from the morning heat, walked the few blocks to where my map showed the Prytania to be. I assumed it would be in some kind of retail hub, surrounded by stores and restaurants, but the Prytania sits all by itself in a residential neighborhood, with stately Southern mansions extending for blocks in every direction.
The Prytania is an anomaly in modern theaters, a single-screen theater that has been around since 1914, making it the oldest theater in the city and Louisiana’s only single-screen theater still in operation. It’s not an ornate movie palace on the outside, but a simple red brick box. Inside it’s a well-kept movie theater, run by the Brunet family.
Reading the news clippings on the lobby walls, I learned that 88-year-old Rene Brunet, who has worked in New Orleans movie theaters his whole life, has owned the theater with his son Robert since 1996. It was Robert who upgraded the theater to include digital projection and an impressive sound system.
But it’s Rene who is the heart of the theater. On that Sunday morning, as customers (mostly locals) bought tickets and loaded up on snacks, Rene held court in the lobby, telling stories about his time in the movie business. The Brunets go way back in the movie business – Rene’s grandfather opened his first theater well before the Prytania opened.
Sitting in his wheelchair with an oxygen tank, an aide by his side, Rene wore a suit and snap-brim hat. You could tell he was in his element.
In the theater, before the movie started, Rene wheeled down to the front of the screen to introduce “Live and Let Die. He referenced the recent passing of Roger Moore, and talked a little about its New Orleans connections. (“Maybe one of you was an extra in the movie,” he said.)
I’ve seen “Live and Let Die” a zillion times, having taped it off the “ABC Sunday Night Movie” when I was a kid. It had been a while, and it was a blast to see it on the big screen, especially so soon after Moore’s death. There were at least a couple of scenes I had never seen before that must have been cut from the edited-for-TV version, including a cemetery scene where 007 first meets Baron Samedi, and a choice profanity from “Mrs. Bell” during the car vs. plane chase.
And, of course, I paid close attention to the film’s New Orleans scenes. They don’t amount to much, except for the memorable scene where a British agent is killed while watching a second line funeral march in the French Quarter (“Whose funeral is it?” “Yours.”)
I tried to read the street signs in the background, and figured out that the scene was shot at the intersection of Chartres St. and Dumaine St, which were not far from my hotel. Later, I visited the corner and figured out the exact spot where the unfortunate agent had been standing. It was shocking how little the intersection had changed in the 45 years since the movie was shot. Every window, every gate, every balcony looked exactly the same as it did on screen.
After the movie, as we filtered out, Rene was back in the lobby, offering slices of white cake and cups of coffee to everyone.
It felt kind of like church. Which for the Brunet family, and anyone who loves old movies and old movie houses, it was.