1981 was a consequential year in America. President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated and was shot two months later by John Hinckley; the Iranian hostages were released; Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court; and the first cases of what soon would be known as AIDS were popping up, perplexing doctors in New York and San Francisco. Widespread adoption of email was more than a decade in the future; a first-class stamp was 15 cents.
Punk and New Wave were influential, but the biggest songs of the year were a lot more conventional: "Lady" by Kenny Rogers, "Endless Love" by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie and "I Love a Rainy Night" by Eddie Rabbitt were three of 1981's top hits. That year, HBO began broadcasting around the clock, and MTV made its debut. Back then, the music channel played videos 24/7, and the very first one summed up the network's ambition: "Video Killed the Radio Star," by the Buggles.
New Orleans was changing as well — though, as usual, at its own pace and in its own way. The city was in the final year of the first term of its first African-American mayor, Dutch Morial, and a new radio station, WWOZ-FM, had just come on the air in December 1980, with headquarters in a beer storage room above Tipitina's. Cox Cable was laying lines across New Orleans, aiming for a 1982 sign-on for cable TV in the city. Two youngsters named Cooper and Peyton Manning were delivered a little brother for New Year's when Eli came along on Jan. 3, 1981.
Culturally, the biggest news of the year was A Confederacy of Dunces winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in April. John Kennedy Toole's posthumously published comic tour de force about New Orleans characters became an object of fascination locally and nationally in 1980, and his mother, Thelma Ducoing Toole, became semi-legendary in her own right with her many public and talk-show appearances promoting her son, the book and herself.
Crime and corruption were as prevalent then as today. Carlos Marcello, whom The New York Times called "one of the leading underworld figures in the nation," was found guilty of conspiring to violate the RICO Act, but not guilty of 11 other charges, in the so-called "Brilab trial" (bribery and labor), which stemmed from an FBI investigation into racketeering and public corruption. Also found guilty of one count of conspiracy was Charles Roemer II, the state's former Commissioner of Administration and the father of future Gov. Buddy Roemer.
That year, Louisiana Life magazine made its debut and Figaro — the influential New Orleans weekly that began in 1972 — folded for good in July (its last cover story was about New Orleans having some of "the worst drivers in America").
Gambit made its official debut February 15, 1981 with a 24-page paper tabbed "Volume Two, Number One" (Volume One, Number One was a stand-alone two-section issue that had been printed the previous December). Circulation that first year was 25,000 per week, bumped up to 35,000 after Figaro's demise. The paper cost 25 cents, and was available at newsstands around town, as well as at universities, in street boxes and at K&B Drug Stores.
In that first weekly issue of Gambit, readers learned the long-vacant Jax Brewery building overlooking the Mississippi River was for sale, possibly becoming "a family amusement park" to complement other construction in town, including the Sheraton Hotel that was being built on Canal Street, along with all the exciting plans for the 1984 World's Fair.
Gambit reported on the deaths of local poet Robert Stock and New Orleans preservationist Margaret Robinson, as well as on the main attraction at the Prytania Theater — a double bill of Lina Wertmuller's Swept Away and Seven Beauties. Sammy Davis Jr. was playing at the Theatre for Performing Arts (with opening act Florence Henderson). At the Beverly Dinner Playhouse in Jefferson (dinner theater still was a hot ticket in 1981), TV star Martin Milner (Adam-12) was on the boards in a screwball comedy called There Goes the Bride.
Mardi Gras was March 3 that year, and Popeyes promoted "Mardi Gras in the Superdome" with performers Kansas, Molly Hatchet, the Charlie Daniels Band, Delbert McClinton, Hank Williams Jr. and the New Orleans Pops Jazz Band — all for $12. The Saenger Theater had a week of Carnival-related shows, including Dr. John with the Original Meters and a Jimmy Cliff engagement (top tickets: $10).
The Dream Palace on Frenchmen Street was hosting the Radiators and Li'l Queenie and the Percolators, along with the Krewe of Kosmic Debris' king cake party. At Tipitina's, you could see Spencer Bohren, Astral Project, the Radiators or Taj Mahal. At Jimmy's Music Club, Joe "King" Carrasco and the Crowns presented "Tex-Mex New Wave," and there was a double bill featuring Jessie Hill and Huey "Piano" Smith. Nearly every week, you could see one or both of the city's big contributions to the New Wave scene: The Cold and the Red Rockers. (The Red Rockers became a hit on MTV with the video for their song "China," which featured a brief shot of the Cabildo.)
Gambit's first Jazz Fest issue carried a complete calendar of performances that was brief by today's standards (back then, the main stages were still numbered and didn't carry corporate sponsorships), and in June, the paper took its first notice of WWOZ, saying, "Only six months old, WWOZ has attracted attention from musicians and listeners around the city."
Life was cheaper then. Harkins the Florist had "Friday flowers" for $2.95 a bunch. A veal parmigiana dinner at Turci's was $6.25. At Clyde's Comedy Corner in the French Quarter, you could enjoy a $1.95 plate lunch and then come back in the evening for performances by Marsha Warfield or Gary Mule Deer. Leisure Landing on Magazine Street was selling Toto's Turn Back for $5.99 and Journey's Captured ("Two-Record Set") for $9.99. The Record Connection on St. Charles Avenue introduced its "Video Cassette Trading Club" ($4 got you All That Jazz or Urban Cowboy for 4 days), which you could watch on a new Sony 26-inch color TV with remote control and "simulated stereo sound," for the low, low price of $1,095. (OK, not everything was cheaper then.)
As the year went on, Gambit (still 25 cents) had a cover story on Moon Landrieu, in which the first Mayor Landrieu told the paper, "I'm a politician; that's been my life, and I'd love to be president of the United States." U.S. Rep. Lindy Boggs talked about women in politics. State Sen. Bill Jefferson announced his plans to run for mayor, and Dutch Morial argued the reasons he deserved a second term. The paper had several cover stories on the World's Fair, all of which signaled there was financial and other trouble on the horizon (and there was).
Buddy Diliberto covered the New Orleans Saints. Jason Berry chronicled jazz. Doug MacCash contributed features. And in December 1981, political reporter Clancy DuBos made his debut in Gambit's pages with an interview with Sherman Copelin, who was announcing his candidacy for the City Council's District E seat. Ten years later, Clancy and his wife Margo (then publisher of Gambit) became partial owners of the paper before buying it outright in the mid-1990s.
It's been a busy 35 years. To see how much of it you remember, take Blake Pontchartrain's 35-question New Orleans history quiz.
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