The Cahill Archives
The Katrina Chronicles
Michael P. Cahill
August 29, 2010
K-Day Plus 5 Years
As promised in the opening salvo of "The Katrina Chronicles" (http://stageclick.com/topic/4132.aspx of
www.StageClick.com), we commence our "commemoration" of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Before moving on to the resurrection of the on-the-spot "Theater People Updates" from September 2005, we begin with an overview of the entire event.
This is gleaned from Chapter XVIII - "Stocker Fontelieu: PostDiluvian - 2005-2006" - of Just Who Is Stocker Fontelieu Anyway? The Life And Times Of A Gentleman Of The Theatre (2007), pages 291-295. For those of you who have not read my book, it is not only a biography of the late Mr. Fontelieu (1923-2009) but just as much a history of New Orleans Theater and the people who make it happen - the New Orleans Theater Community - and this chapter deals with the effects of Katrina. (Copies still available; Info: Beefield Productions - email@example.com.)
Ah, August 29, 2005. I wound up in Keller, Texas. My fellow evacuees (note - not refugees) had somewhat recovered from our long journey away from our homes. We were avidly following the news from New Orleans on cable television. As I recall, it looked as though the worst had passed and some of my fellows drifted away from the screen to consort with our hosts, who, despite some being ex-Orleanians seemed appallingly disinterested in news from home.
Then there was a mention that a levee or two had broken. Oh, okay. There didn’t see to be a great deal of alarm and there was no live on-the-scene coverage yet. Thank goodness it wasn’t the river or the lake. No, it was just some canals. Oh, one might be the 17th Street Canal - the border between Orleans and Jefferson Parishes. Now that got my attention. I lived not far from there. That could be a problem. Eventually, it was disclosed that the break happened on the Orleans side. Whew, dodged a bullet there. Maybe my house would be spared.
Of course, living nearby, I knew that section where the break apparently occured well - basically from Veterans Highway to Hammond Highway or Lake Pontchartrain, along either side of Fleur de Lis Drive between the canal and Pontchartrain/West End Boulevard.
My first girlfriend had lived there and often I walked along the canal levee just at the spot which would now become internationally infamous. My late uncle lived there for decades and my grandmother had also, briefly. Jon Russo used to live there and so did Shannon Killilea. As I recalled, currently did Peter Gabb, Lara Grice, David Guidry, Annie Bendernagel, and, maybe, Brynn Baudier. Tony Angelo’s restaurant was there and, once, there had been talk that Benjamin Franklin High School would be moved from Riverbend to there but that would have caused too much traffic and require too many oak trees to be cut down. Well, it now looked like they would get some water.
Did it ever. It got a flood of biblical proportions. On my side of the canal, my house got "only" seven & a half inches of water. Those of us who were "there" know that I use "only" facetiously. Without trying to top anyone else’s suffering, seven inches can be just as bad or worse as a deluge. With a deluge, it’s all gone - over and done with. With seven inches, you have to go through the fetid rubble to see what can be salvaged and what cannot. It is both physically and emotionally draining.
At the time, I didn’t know whether the damages to my own home were from Mother Nature or from the neglect of Jefferson Parish. I still don’t know. It doesn’t really matter, my life and my family would never be the same.
It was time for a vacation.
By chance, Stocker’s friends Arvilla & Jeff Riddick had plans to attend a banjo convention in Rhode Island in August. Knowing that [his brother] T.J. & Charlaine [Fontelieu] lived in Connecticut, they offered to drive Stocker up in their van and drop him off at his family’s house. He accepted. After a pleasant visit, the Riddicks picked him up and brought him to the Baltimore home of Kim & Charles and Jason Fontelieu. After a few days, [nephew] "Chalk" drove Stocker to Washington, where the Riddicks were visiting with Jeff’s daughter. Unfortunately, her father-in-law died in Montreal and she had to leave to attend the services. So Jeff & Arvilla and Stocker left for home two days ahead of their scheduled August 28th return.
This would give Stocker a chance to see his friends Janet Shea and Mike Cahill in The Cripple Of Inishmaan at NOCCA|Riverfront, which was produced by Andrew Larimer’s NOLA Project. It was one of the few shows running in New Orleans in those dog days of summer, along with Perry Martin’s Okra at True Brew, starring Becky Allen and Eva Earls, and The Bible: The Complete Works Of God (Abridged) at Le Petit, with Gary Rucker and Sean Patterson.
On the evening of Friday August 26, Jeff & Arvilla and Stocker arrived in Biloxi and decided to dine at a seafood restaurant. While eating, they noticed the television was carrying reports of the powerful Hurricane Katrina, which had crossed the Florida peninsula and could cause damage on the Gulf Coast. Having been through many such storm warnings, they and the rest of the diners gave it little thought.
Upon arriving home, Stocker spoke with Ed Killeen. Ed, normally far from being an alarmist, had grown very concerned about the path of Katrina and told Stocker that they should begin to consider evacuating. They agreed to wait until the next day to make a final decision. The situation did not improve.
Early on Sunday August 28, Stocker and Ed, in their separate cars, evacuated New Orleans and headed to lodge with Mary Ellis and Beth Hudson in Port Gibson, Mississippi. Expecting to be away for only a day or two, they took little with them. Stocker wound up staying with Mary and Beth for seven weeks.
Katrina hit on the morning of August 29. It was only later in the day, however, when two canal levees broke that the major devastation was done in New Orleans. The 17th Street Canal on the border of Orleans and Jefferson parishes was breached on the Orleans side and flooded Lakeview. Nominally, Stocker lived in Lakeview but, given the unusual position of his home - between train tracks and the Interstate - it was hoped that his house had been spared major damage. Satellite photographs available online showed the tops of Stocker’s shrubbery. It seemed a good sign. Some were able to pass by the house and, without observing any devastation, were able to report that it was, well, still standing. Still, days dragged into weeks without confirmation of any interior damage.
The suspense lasted a month. On September 27, Leon Contavesprie, in the employ of the City of Kenner managed to sneak into the off-limits Orleans Parish. "I got on I-10 and drove toward New Orleans," he wrote to Michael Cahill the following day.
"I actually got as far as the West End/Canal Boulevard exit and got off. I told the National Guardsman that I need to get back on I-10 in the opposite direction, so they let me continue to Canal Boulevard to get back on westbound. Well, instead of taking a left, I took a right. Stocker lives only a few blocks from there, so I drove to his house, which was still standing.
"It looks as if a giant took a paint brush and washed everything in a gray/brown paint. There is absolutely no sound - no birds, no crickets, frogs, insects, nothing. It was completely deserted and creepy as hell. The smell was putrid but not like skunk. It smelled like formaldehyde gone bad. When I got to Stocker’s there were cars on his little strip that I know didn’t belong to anyone in the area and they were all coated in a brown muck. Every car looked like it had been in a wreck. The water line was a foot below his roof line, and then several other lines beneath it where the water had either come up or down and stayed a while. I tried to look into the windows but they were all black from mold and whatever else was in the water.
"What’s weird is that it seemed so normal. It just looked dirty, and the grass - also coated in muck - crunched when you walked on it. I was waiting for people to come out of their homes and get in their cars as they normally would, but, of course, nothing. It was the strangest sight I have ever seen in my life. It was quiet, creepy, but there was also a sense of beauty about it. I know that’s the wrong word, but it was almost as if the area had died and this was a lost civilization from the past. You could almost "hear" the memories. I thought about all of the parties and playreading groups and us going to the house, walking up the drive...et cetera. I don’t mean to get all Barbara Walters about it, but the tears just rolled down my face as I stood there with no one within miles of me as I tried to digest this unworldly sight.
"I don’t even live in the area, but to see it like that...I just felt a huge sense of loss. I can only imagine what the people who live there are going to think. I have a feeling many won’t even open the doors. They’ll just turn around and walk away.
"It just really got to me. Those images will be burned in my head forever."
All of this without having been inside to see what devastation had been wreaked.
"Everyone begged me that, upon my return and when I would see my house for the first time," recalls Stocker, "‘Don’t go alone. Take someone with you.’"
Cahill - who had been attempting to keep the New Orleans Theater Community in touch through e-mail updates from the bucolic hideaway where he and Janet Shea had holed up in at Granbury, Texas - was reluctant to relay this heartbreaking news and contacted several of Stocker’s family and closest friends for guidance. Billy Turnbull quickly replied that Stocker must be told the brutal truth immediately...so he could absorb it, deal with it, and move on, as he had with all the other setbacks in his life. In the interim, however, Ed Killeen had been to the Argonne house and informed Stocker of its condition. Contavesprie had also spoken with Stocker.
Buck Taylor, Robert’s father, first reported Stocker’ plight to SAG and the Actors Fund who came up with a couple thousand dollars in emergency funds.
Before long, Vatican Lokey made the pilgrimage to the Fontelieu Manse. "I wish I hadn’t now. I literally stood in what used to be his front yard and just cried at the loss of all that theatre history, not to mention dear Stocker’s entire life." By the time Cahill made the trip he knew what to expect but was still taken aback to see that the picnic table from Stocker’s patio had floated around to the other side of the house and came to rest straddling a chain link fence.
Stocker was hardly the only one to suffer. The homes of Judy & Albert Ledner, Peter Gabb, Nancy & John Hammons, Pearl & Dave Meltzer, Walter Bost, Maria & Paul Schierhorn, David Guidry, Anne Bendernagel, Cammie West, Andrew Larimer, Beth Arroyo Utterback, Richard Bagnetto, Danny O’Flaherty, and Cathy Primeaux were also severely damaged. Typically, Peter said his roof was fine...there just wasn’t anything under it. Lara Grice fulfilled her destiny by moving to a trailer.
Orleanians were scattered across Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, and, well, everywhere. Kris Shaw was in Wisconsin. Amy Alvarez accepted a marriage proposal from Stuart Lob made at the Miccosukkee Rest Area in Florida. Becky Allen - bizarrely - came to lite in Jackson, Mississippi.
Some stayed behind. Spud McConnell was broadcasting to the evacuees via WWL-AM while Maureen and their "Tater Tots" fled to St. Francisville. David Cuthbert and Martin Covert tried to hike to their posts at the Times-Picayune but were turned back by police. Perry Martin was wandering blindly around downtown. John Grimsley & Diana Shortes were stranded on the second-floor roof of their house. They helped rescue the elderly from their Bayou St. John neighborhood. Tommy Staub did the same Uptown. Gerold Flotte was all over the northshore helping where he could. Brynn Baudier lived near the breach. When the flood waters came, she had to chop her way through her roof and, with her cats in hand, was eventually able to escape down Metairie Ridge. The only injury among theater people appeared to be David Tringali who burned himself while trying to boil water in a barbeque pit. Su Gonczy spent her time dodging the National Guard - "dressing the set" of her house to look evacuated and using night vision glasses - so she wouldn’t be evacuated and could feed abandoned animals in her neighborhood...dogs, cats, even chickens. Bob Scully, using "suspect credentials" and his typical "line of bull," remained behind to help friends and check on their properties all over town.
On October 14, Stocker left Port Gibson and took up residence with Helen Blanke and Nell Lipscomb in suburban Jefferson, Louisiana, where he resided for four months.
In the long term, many left the New Orleans area permanently - the Hammons’, the Meltzers, Patsy & Ed Nelson, Eavelyn & John Brooks, Mike Mallory, Bert Pigg, Adriana Bate, and others.
Stocker returned to 5700 Argonne with Jeff Riddick. After being submerged for almost three weeks in nine feet of water, it was a sorry sight. Though seemingly intact from outside, inside everything was soaked, warped, and covered with mold. Stocker later equated that view with photos of the Titanic on the ocean floor. Furniture had floated around the house and came to rest helter skelter when the water subsided. Gone were clothing, books, scripts, documents, photographs, videotapes, programs, furnishings. The ledgers he’d kept of jobs and payments since 1970 was pulp. Lost were his new conference table, George Kelly’s card table, the steel balls from Caine Mutiny, Ethel Wahlig’s pillow from the Scapino!, the Big Momma’s House 2 crew jacket, his copy of The Deadeyes, the picture of the 1977 Stocker Fontelieu-Tennessee Williams summit, his Purple Heart, most of his awards. He picked up a hunk of hair and Jeff told him to drop the dead rat. He didn’t. It was an old toupee.
At one time or another, Michael Cahill, researching this book, borrowed many of Stocker’s pictures, papers, letters, and programs. Unfortunately, he had been scrupulous in returning them. Had he kept them in his house, which received "only" seven inches of water - enough to make it an unholy mess - they might have been spared.
Any diversion was welcome. When Stocker grew weary of trouncing Helen & Nell at Scrabble, Janet & Michael would come over to take up the challenge. A memorable match on November 17 ended: Fontelieu - 198, Cahill - 197, Shea - 191. A few weeks later, Walter Bost, who had moved to New York, passed through on a farewell tour. Early in the New Year, Erica Metz Moeser came down to see how her surrogate father was faring.
Stocker was able to get away from the desolation for a Fontelieu Family Thanksgiving in Santa Fe, treated by his family.
Though some of his acrylic awards were among the handful of items salvageable from the Argonne house, awards were among the first new items Stocker was to collect. On December 18, a stretch limousine arrived in Jefferson and whisked Stocker, Helen & Nell to LSU’s Tiger Stadium for a New Orleans Saints game. (With the Superdome in shambles, the Saints had to play "home" games in Baton Rouge or San Antonio.) On field at halftime, he was presented with a trophy and a medallion was hung around his neck - like an Olympic athlete - to memorialize his selection as the Tenet Choices Champion of 2005, which celebrated "Excellence Through Experience...In recognition of exceptional and inspirational achievement." The commendation noted his WWII service, his still-active film and stage career, his work with the state Department of Education, and stated, "Stocker juggles projects and performances with endless energy as actor, director, and teacher. He is perpetually effervescent and seemingly ever-present on stages across the metro area. Stocker’s voice has gotten richer with age and may even be more recognizable than his face - both are highly coveted by advertising agencies to promote products ranging from soap to sofas."
"Every new performance is like a door opening to a new world," Stocker said, adding, "I would not be as busy as I am now if I had not done all that I have."
Afterward, the limo whisked him, Nell & Helen back home. Of course, the Saints lost.
The Saints now had company in foundering. Everything was in disarray and the theater community over which Stocker had reigned for so long was no exception. Still, strides toward rehabilitation were quickly made.
Andrew Larimer brought Janet Shea and Michael Cahill to New York to finish the run of The Cripple Of Inishmaan at HERE in Soho, October 11-12 to benefit NOCCA|Riverfront. Gary Solomon enlisted Roy Haylock - whose evacuation to New York became permanent - to do some costume work. Ricky Graham attended.
Barbara Motley and Jacquee Carvin, with Bryan Batt, organized a spectacular HeartSong cabaret benefit in New York for New Orleans performers on October 16. Headliners were Karen Akers, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Marni Nixon, Charles Busch, Andrea Marcovicci, Joyce Randolph, Boyd Gaines, Andrea McArdle, Brett Somers, Karen Mason, and Batt. New Orleans was represented by Banu Gibson, Harry Mayronne, Ricky Graham, Chris Wecklein, Cynthia Owen,...and Batt.
Barry Lemoine of Shine did staged readings of his Betsy: Voices From The Storm across Alabama.
The first show to open back in southeast Louisiana was the George Sanchez-directed Greater Tuna on October 7 with Gary Rucker and Sean Patterson at Covington’s Skyfire Theater, where Rita Stockstill made her space available to southshore actors. Rucker and Patterson quickly followed with their The Bible (Abridged) to conclude the Katrina-interrupted run begun at Le Petit.
The first production back in metropolitan New Orleans was All In The Timing at Rene Piazza’s new Actor’s Theater of New Orleans in the WTIX building in Metairie on November 3.
Barbara Motley’s le chat noir was damaged but soon returned with Bryan Batt in cabaret, November 11-12, and Ricky Graham’s timely I’m Still Here, Me, with Jefferson Turner, opening November 18.
Charlie Ward’s Rivertown Rep in Kenner tried to jumpstart their season December 2 by moving the Wayne Daigrepont-directed Disney’s Cinderella up to the mainstage season but the good people at Disney threatened to shut down RRT’s hopes if they proceeded with plans to have Gary Rucker and Sean Patterson (men) portray the Wicked Stepsisters. So the peripatetic Gary and Sean graciously stepped aside...but presented their own ribald Rucker & Patterson’s Cinderella immediately following Disney’s version. RRT’s mainstage season got back on track in the new year with Helen Blanke in Nunsense II and Jim Chimento and Michael Cahill in The Odd Couple.
The storm damaged both the old JPAS facility at East Jefferson and the new one in Westwego. On January 27, however, Dennis Assaf opened Cabaret, with Trina Beck, Michael Tramontin, and Janet Shea, at the smaller Teatro Wego space. Director Kris Shaw told his cast that, at this time in the city’s history, the people needed to be entertained. The cast told him they needed to entertain.
Le Petit suffered extensive damage to both the ongoing renovation of the mainstage and orchestra pit as well as the corner theater - now called Muriel’s Cabaret Theater due to a sponsorship agreement with Muriel’s Restaurant on Jackson Square. LPT got back into action with a revival of Ricky Graham’s chestnut ...And The Ball And All. Air conditioning problems, however, eventually shut down even that.
Also that month Brandt Blocker Presents brought A Year With Frog And Toad, with Jimmy Murphy and Wayne Daigrepont in the title roles to the Solomon Theater at St. Martin’s Episcopal School, and the Anthony Bean Community Theater kicked off an ambitious schedule with Joe Turner’s Come And Gone.
On the northshore, the recently reconstituted Minacapelli’s Dinner Theater and the Slidell Little Theater soon returned but Lori Bennett’s North Star Theater in Mandeville was heavily damaged. She refurbished the plant...and put it on the market [but reconsidered]..
Roch Eshleman’s True Brew Cafe Playhouse was thoroughly trashed by looters. Evidently not gourmands, Bob Scully reported they drank everything in the bar except the Creme De Menthe. Still, in March, Perry Martin reopened the storm-shortened Okra with Janet Shea filling Becky Allen’s...shoes.
Ryan Rilette’s Southern Rep in the arson afflicted Canal Place returned in May with Becky Allen and Lara Grice in Kimberly Akimbo, after touring the nation with benefit readings of Callie’s Tally.
With some alterations, both Tulane Summer Lyric and the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane came back in the summer, though Aimee Michel - Shakespeare director since 1996 - resigned after the season and was replaced by Ron Gural. Julie Condy’s Summer Stages moved into Gallier Hall, bringing the sounds of teenagers back to the Ty Tracy Theater....
In addition to the already produced Tant Que Durera La Terre by John Doucet and Betsy: Voices From The Storm by Barry Lemoine, the canon of hurricane-related drama was growing. Yvette Sirker, whom Stocker had directed in Pippin in 1981, had already completed her Pink Collar Crime before Katrina. With some pertinent revisions, it finally opened at JPAS-Westwego in 2006. Andrew Larimer’s NOLA Project returned in the summer with his original and well-received Get This Lake Off My House: Our Tempest at the old Pontchartrain Beach site.
Stocker’s concerns were closer to "home"...and more personal.
Lois Winter Crandell, 91, died at her daughter’s home in Baton Rouge on January 18, 2006. "Lois always had a grandeur, a glow," said Stocker....
Roy B. Dumont, 76, died in his sleep on January 30. "He was an absolute prince of a person," said Stocker....
Then came the passing of Gavin P. Mahlie, who died in his sleep on April 4. Though he had heart trouble, he was only 41 and at the height of his career. "He was exactly half my age," Stocker mused ruefully.
Ann Meric, 76, Alexis Gonzalez, 76,...and St. Marc Flotte passed away. On September 16, Mark Krasnoff, 43, an excellent stage actor who worked mainly in film, committed suicide - another victim of Katrina.
No one could pretend that New Orleans - Mayor Ray Nagin’s "Chocolate City" - was a happy place. The malaise affected everyone and each had to deal with it in his or her own way. There were times when Stocker would return and sit at his picnic table and stare at the ruins of his home. On the whole, he dealt with the loss as he had dealt with all the other setbacks in his life. He picked himself up, dusted himself off, and prepared to move on.
One of the main difficulties the perpetually effervescent Stocker faced - other than interminable squabbling with insurance companies and banks - was that he just didn’t have very much to do. Soon after the New Year, he was able to return to the circuit as a school talent evaluator, though on a reduced schedule. Amadeus had been postponed by JPAS. Scattered film auditions also began to trickle in, though many required a drive to Baton Rouge or Shreveport. He did get a gig recording two hour-long Walking Tour guides for Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, for entrepreneur Mike Ainsworth. It’s a good thing he didn’t have to do one for New Orleans...it might have been accompanied by uncontrollable sobbing.
On February 1, Stocker paid off the mortgage on his house on Argonne, where he had spent 16 happy years - the longest tenure in any residence he’d ever lived. The next day, he signed a lease for a modest apartment at 120 ½A Metairie Court Parkway at the corner of Codifer in Metairie, his first suburban abode. Linda Guidry returned to keep house for him but with only two rooms to clean, her visits were less frequent.
Stocker received $111,300 in a flood insurance settlement but nothing for the contents. He used some of the cash to purchase a replacement for the Twainmobile - a Mercury Grand Marquis. Consolidating his personal matters, he named Nell Lipscomb his new Executor and Power Of Attorney.
In early March, Charlaine & T.J. Fontelieu with their four children descended upon New Orleans to celebrate their 60th anniversary. Chauffeured by Stocker, they were stunned by the devastation....
After a solid year of enforced idleness - his longest in 53 years - Stocker made his return to the New Orleans stage with a splash. Tim Baker helped organize a staged reading of the new Larry Gelbart comedy Floodgate in the main auditorium at Delgado Community College, March 17-19. The proceeds benefitted the CAC Performing Artists Fund and a scholarship fund for storm-affected Delgado students. Kris LaMorte directed Stocker as Senator Oral Proctor, Broadway’s Vernel Bagneris, TV’s Jay Thomas, Mark McLaughlin, Ron Gural, Danny Bowen, Sean Patterson, Carl Walker, M.I. Scoggin, Karen-Kaia Livers, Jerry Lee Leighton, Jay Malarcher, J.P. Delahoussaye, and WWL-TV anchorman Dennis Woltering. For such an all-star cast, it was unusual that it was practically the first time Stocker had shared a stage with any of them. He did a weekend with Dramaturg Malarcher in 1776 in 1984, appeared in a brief remount of 12 Angry Men in 1998 with McLaughlin, who had been rescued from his Bywater home by the 82nd Airborne during Katrina, and in 2004's DramaRama with Patterson, who was living in a trailer after his house flooded. The only one he’d directed was Scoggin back with NORD-Junior League back in the 1950's.
David Cuthbert of the Picayune wrote that each of the cast was "a marvel....What a wealth of acting talent we have in this city!" The weekend raised $29,000 for charity.