«START INTERVIEW [Transcript begins at 0:02] Rien RF: This is Rien Fertel with the Southern Foodways Alliance. It is Wednesday, February 11, 2015, ...»
Earl Bernhardt & Pam Fortner
Tropical Isle — New Orleans, LA
Date: February 11, 2015
Location: Tropical Isle Offices, 718 Orleans Avenue, New Orleans, LA
Interviewer: Rien Fertel
Transcription: Lori Lawton
Length: One hour, twelve minutes
Project: French Quarter Cocktails
Pam Fortner & Earl Bernhardt — Tropical Isle 2
[Transcript begins at 0:02]
Rien RF: This is Rien Fertel with the Southern Foodways Alliance. It is Wednesday, February 11, 2015, just after 11:00 am. We are one week before Mardi Gras, kind of knee deep in the Carnival season, and I am in the offices of Tropical Isle on Orleans Avenue and I’m going to have the owners of the Tropical Isle enterprise introduce themselves please.
Pam Fortner: Hi, I’m Pam Fortner. My birthday is April the 3rd, born in Nashville, Tennessee, been in New Orleans since April the 4th, 1974.
Earl Bernhardt: And my name is Earl Bernhardt. I was born in Jackson, Mississippi. I never really tell the date. What I do if it’s a college student or a young person, they’ll ask me, “Well, how old are you?” I’ll come back and say, “Well, how old is your daddy?” And whatever they say, “fifty-five, fifty-six, seventy” or whatever, I’ll say, “By the way, that’s exactly how old I am,” and they accept it so I don’t have to really tell them my true age.
RF: Thank you. I like that. I think my dad is sixty—nine years old. Pam, you said you moved to New Orleans. What brought you here when you moved?
[0:01:29] PF: I’m a statistic. I lived in Nashville, Tennessee, used to work for the Corps of Engineers and I came to Mardi Gras in 1974 and I went back and quit the government job and moved to New Orleans and been here ever since. Worked for ten years and then the World’s Fair came along, and we opened December the 15th, 1984 and the rest is history.
Southern Foodways Alliance | www.southernfoodways.org Pam Fortner & Earl Bernhardt — Tropical Isle 3 RF: Can you talk about that first Mardi Gras in 1974?
PF: It was just unbelievable. I met a lot of people. I’ve never seen anything like it. The weather was nice. The people were warm. Nashville’s a great town, but I’m a city girl. I just was born in Nashville and I just loved all the people and everything, led a very, very kind of secluded — not secluded, but sheltered life and wasn’t around people who drank. The food was just run of the mill Southern food, but not the spectacular food we have down here, so I moved down here on a whim.
RF: What brought you to New Orleans and when?
EB: Well, I’ve been coming to New Orleans ever since I was fifteen years old. The first alcoholic beverage I had was on my fifteenth birthday, which today they’d put the bartender in jail for serving me, but I was in broadcasting in Hattiesburg, Mississippi for twenty-seven years and when the announced they were going to have a World’s Fair in 1984, a friend of mine that was a college roommate happened to be down here visiting with his family and they said, “Why don’t we get a concession at the World’s Fair.” I said, “Well, that sounds like a good idea.” Anyway, we ended up getting a daiquiri concession at the fair. I took a leave of absence from my broadcasting job and came down and ran the concession at the fair for six months. That’s where I met my current partner, Pam Fortner. She came to work as a bartender at the Fair and after the Fair, we went into business together and it’s going on our thirty-first year right now.
RF: When you say “broadcasting” — I want to kind of take the story apart, because I love this story — but when you say broadcasting, were you on the air, were you off the air, were you a DJ?
[0:03:44] EB: Yes, I majored in radio and television at the University of Southern Mississippi and my first job was as a stringer for United Press International. That was before really television was great. Radio was the medium that everybody turned to for the news, and what they would do is send me to a hot spot. That was when all of the Civil Rights stuff was going on in Mississippi and I would take my tape recorder and get little voice excerpts and call back to Jackson, Mississippi which was the headquarters for United Press and feed them the voice clips that I had recorded. Like Ralph Abernathy of the NAACP spoke to a group in Hattiesburg after a murder that the Ku Klux Klan committed, and I got his comments and I would call him back, and they would send it out over the teletype so the news department of each radio station could read their copy and insert these voice clips.
After that, after a kind of hair—raising experience — almost got killed covering an event — I went into broadcasting at the local station as a disc jockey, and I eventually ended up owning a portion of the station, managing the station. I did a DJ show from five to nine every morning. I sold advertising. You know, when you’re in media market radio, you do a little bit of everything.
So anyway, we decided—I decided to take a leave of absence for the World’s Fair, went back to radio and at that time they started deregulating the licensing procedure and stations started popping up everywhere. The income in broadcasting went down and I said, “Well, it’s time to do something else,” and that’s when I came to New Orleans full time. And we started small and we’ve grown to what we are today.
RF: What was that event that almost got you killed? Can you say what that is? Was it a Civil Rights event? Was it a violent event?
[0:05:48] EB: Yes it was. I was covering—there was a Civil Rights leader called Vernon Dahmer between Hattiesburg [Mississippi] and Laurel [Mississippi]. He was instrumental in registering African Americans to vote, and of course the Ku Klux Klan didn’t like that. They went in and set his house on fire and he perished in the fire, and there was a rally in downtown Hattiesburg at the black Masonic Temple, and Ralph Abernathy with the NAACP, as I recall, was the speaker and I got some voice excerpts from him. And of course this was before cell phones, I’m kind of telling my age. But I was walking back looking for a pay phone to call and I was in my news car. Well the—both sides, the Civil Rights side and the Ku Klux Klan, hated the media because each side thought we were slanted it the other way, which we weren’t. But anyway, my news car was surrounded by a group of young African-American men that rocked the car, turned it over, and set it on fire with me inside of it. And the Hattiesburg police happened on the scene and got me out of the car and saved me, and that’s when I found my pay phone and called United Press in Jackson and said, “This is Earl Bernhardt. I quit.” And hung the phone up.
RF: Can you say a bit about — you were born in Jackson, Mississippi — can you say a bit about growing up in Jackson, maybe something about your family, what your parents did?
EB: Well, I didn’t grow up in Jackson. We moved to Hattiesburg when I was in the first grade. My father worked for the Department of Agriculture. He would visit all the farmers and work with them on federal farming projects and such as that, and I went to school there in
Hattiesburg. I went to Hattiesburg High School and the University of Southern Mississippi. After that then went into local radio and then of course ended up in New Orleans.
RF: Can you explain in full, and you’ve done this once before, but that story about when you were fifteen, your first drink, your first visit to Bourbon Street? It’s one of my favorite stories anyone has ever told me.
[0:08:04] EB: Okay, well, you know, in Mississippi at the time you could get a driver’s license at fifteen, so I was going to get my driver’s license, I took the family car and my father went to work, and I got some of my friends and we went and I passed my driver’s test and we said, “Hey, let’s slip off and go to New Orleans. We can get back before Dad gets home and he’ll never know we went.” Well, the first thing we did was go to Pat O’Brien’s and get a hurricane. And by about three o’clock that afternoon I was hugging a light pole. And to say the least, we were load—that night getting back to Hattiesburg, and of course I lost my brand new driver’s license for it seems like I think six months and just really got in a world of trouble with my dad, but, you know, if I had it to do over again, I’d do it again. It was fun. [Laughs.]
RF: So you came down, what did you think of Bourbon Street? You had your drink at Pat O’s [Pat O’Brien’s], or a couple of drinks at Pat O’s, but do you remember anything about the street at that time, anything about the atmosphere?
EB: Well, the atmosphere is about the same as it is today, you know. Bourbon Street is an evolving thing. You have some of the standard places like us and Pat O’Brien’s and Chris Owens and some of the clubs that have been here for years, and who probably will be here for years to come. And then some of the other places kind a they change management and change themes and also—Bourbon Street basically it evolves, but it’s kind of like it was back then today.
[0:09:49] RF: I want to ask more questions later about Bourbon Street evolving, especially with — I see Rich Campanella’s book on your desk — and that’s what his book is all about, but I want to ask you: what did you do in those years between when you moved here in the ’70s [1970s] and ’84 ? We’ll talk about the World’s Fair after that.
PF: At one point I worked for—I had been a government employee, so I got a temporary job at the Public Health Service Hospital doing just general work, administrative type work. And then I worked for three days at the hotel on Canal Street that’s now a Double Tree as a waitress in the morning. And then I met Irene Stevens who is now eighty-seven. She still lives here. You might want to interview her. She tended bar for many years and she liked me and she got me a job at Barbara’s King’s Room. Barbara’s King’s Room is not around, but Barbara Richardson is still around and a lot of—all of the business people and offshore oil business people came in there and I learned how to tend bar. I had never been behind a bar before and I worked all day
and there was one insurance man who drank twelve martinis that day and I’d never made a martini before in my life.
So, it went on and I stayed there for three months and then I met other people and went to work at the Holiday Inn on Royal Street and then things—and then I went to work for Jerry McDermott. I was an EAP, an Engineering Application Processor, and I stayed there for a while.
And then I traveled for a while, and then I came back and the World’s Fair came and a young man who worked for the Monaghan Properties, Johnny Becker, got me a bartending job and he and Carol Monaghan worked at the World’s Fair, and that’s when Earl needed a manager, talked to a lot of people. The World’s Fair was fascinating to work at, you saw people from all over the world, old, young, it was just fascinating. It was a six month special event and then we—he needed a manager, he talked to about twenty people and I was one of the few people that saved money, so I had money to go in business and here we are. I never dreamed we’d do it thirty years.
[0:12:08] RF: So, when you were looking for a manager to help you run the booth at the World’s Fair, you were also looking for a financial partner?
PF: No, that was different from the World’s Fair. I was just an employee at the World’s Fair. The same Johnny Becker got me a job at the World’s Fair.
PF: As a bartender at the World’s Fair and it turned out it was Tropical Paradise. I was ready to leave the city. I had been here for ten years and I was ready to move on and he said, “Oh, just work at the World’s Fair. You can leave after that.” And that never happened.
RF: So you didn’t know where you would be placed, at what bar at the World’s Fair?
PF: Well, no, I was hired to work for these people at the World’s Fair at Tropical Paradise, but I had no idea what it was really all about, you know. I was young and didn’t think about what’s really going on at the World’s Fair. I was just ready to leave.
RF: One more question about your time here before the World’s Fair. Where did you live in the city and how often did you come to the French Quarter and specifically Bourbon Street?
PF: Well, once I moved here, I moved to 1161 Lake Avenue. It was called Peyton Place Apartments, a very nice apartment complex. Then I continued to meet people. That’s when I was working for the Public Health Service Hospital. Then I met people and moved into the Quarter, up above where Checkpoint Charlie’s is now, and stayed there for a while. And that’s when I learned how to tend bar and moved around from there.
RF: So what was Bourbon Street like in the ’70s [1970s]?
[0:13:44] PF: Well, in the ’70s I didn’t come down here. I lived down on Esplanade, so I hung around Molly’s at the Market, The Abby. Coop’s opened up and that was kind of my neighborhood. I didn’t come to Bourbon Street that much. I came down and it was exciting, but I just didn’t come down here that much. I met friends down in that area. Every block in the French
Quarter is a neighborhood. There’s different areas like Lower Decatur Street, Upper Decatur Street, but basically every block is a neighborhood, totally different.
RF: Can you say more about that? What do you mean by that?