The show was the idea of co-conspirator-in-chief Chris Rose. It first took shape in the spring of 2002 in response to the phenomenal brouhaha that exploded when the legendary New Orleans eatery fired one of its longtime waiters, Gilberto Eyzaguirre. All proceeds of the premiere performance, also at Le Chat Noir, were donated to a food bank as part of a remarkable eleemosynary concept: "feeding the hungry on the indignation of the overfed." However, the overfed had, by this time, become militant. A Web site, www.welovegilberto.com, was set up, and 123 letters were collected. These were bound and presented to Galatoire's higher-ups. There was talk about the imposition of an embargo. And, we're told, the Eighth District feared a barricade made of bales of seersucker would be thrown up across Bourbon Street in what threatened to become the second Battle of New Orleans.
As it was the Gilbertistas settled for a guerrilla-style hit-and-run attack. They burst into the full dining room and released over a hundred helium-filled balloons emblazoned with the name of the Web site.
Knowing this volatile background, it was with some trepidation that I stepped into the bar at Le Chat Noir, where -- amid a large crowd of arch-Galatoireans, who were pointing to their glasses and shouting at the bartenders -- I soon became aware why libations are cited so often to prove some point or other in the letters.
The performance itself was simple, effective and enjoyable. Chris Rose, Fred "Red Bean" Plunkett, Alex Beard, Claudia Baumgarten, Wild Bill Dykes and Janie Catalanello read from the archive of letters -- adding heavy dollops of attitude and, in Red Bean's case, some memorable exegesis.
As a critic, I was pleased, of course, to see such an unexpected renaissance of protest theater -- a genre that has been on hard times since it's heyday in the 1960s. I'm happy to report that, although the show has been done frequently, The Galatoire's Monologues had lost none of its inflammatory character.
As the evening proceeded, one learned that the firing of Gilberto (following complaints of sexual harassment) was simply the last straw in a series of usurpations the letter writers felt cried out for redress. In fact, ever since that first fatal machine-made ice cube plopped into a Sazerac (forever banishing the exquisitely poetic melting-rate of hand-chipped ice) an unexpressed rage has been building amid the restaurant's elegantly attired habitues.
More than one letter chronicled the Proustian angst accompanying such further desecrations as the removal of the swinging doors in the ante chamber, a general relaxing of the dress code and the acceptance (in the universally detested new second-floor dining room) of reservations.
The horror caused by these innovations reached such a lyric apotheosis in a letter from Dr. Kenneth Holditch, director Rose felt an accompanying interpretive dance (by Skye Jordan) was necessary -- not doubt, to prevent an outbreak of hooliganism among the enflamed multitudes. The climax of this miniature Gesamtkunstwerk was a rhetorical question: "I ask the members of the board and the Galatoire's family ... to ask themselves ... do we want merely a theme restaurant? Do we want waiters in Hawaiian shirts? And do we want to drive away the customers, many of them, men and women known to our ancestors, to be replaced by tourists from Iowa and Indiana in jeans, halter tops and sandals?"
At curtain call, Gilberto himself jumped onstage and accepted an ovation. And, as the customers and their waiter hailed each other and hugged and kissed, I had my own little Proustian moment. I remembered -- shortly after I arrived in New Orleans nearly 30 years ago -- second-lining around the old Al Hirt club on Bourbon Street, behind the city's coroner, Frank Minyard. I had gotten a freelance assignment to write a story about this elected official, who, it turned out, cut up corpses by day and played trumpet by night. My Proustian moment linked the two outrageously eccentric situations. The Gilbertistas were gathered in Le Chat Noir for fear that things were changing. But the very nature of their gathering made me feel that this oddest of cities is still essentially intact.
- Angst-ridden: Claudia Baumgarten was one of several performers who delivered hilarious, over- the-top readings during the final production of Chris Rose's The Galatoires Monologues.