Thursday, April 28, 2011


Charlene's (1999)

Location: 940 Elysian Fields, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

Opened: 1977

Closed: February 20, 1999

Here's how Toni Pizani described Charlene's and Charlene's owner, Charlene Schneder, in 2000:

Charlene's Bar was located on Elysian Fields for twenty-three years. The adventure she traveled to get there is exciting and interesting. Directly from high school, she took a job that she loved with a civilian company that worked for the Federal Government. Charlene was a crypto operator with top secret clearance. When she was arrested in a Gay bar and her name was printed in the paper for her boss and family to see, she lost her job. She was told by her boss that if she had been a whore, he could have saved her job but there was nothing he could do because she was Gay.
It was while she was working at the Times-Picayune that the opportunity came to make a lump sum for quitting her job. The work that she was doing was being phased out. Since she didn't see eye to eye with her boss anyway, this was a blessing.
Susan Landrum and Doddie Finley were talking to Charlene about opening a bar, a Gay wimmins bar. She was told that it would only take making $26 a day to break even. The idea was appealing. She worked as the social director at the Country Club while she was deciding to take the chance. Charlene started water volley ball there and was a much-liked success.
Charlene's Bar was to become a successful reality. She called in Kitty Blackwell to set up her bar as she had no experience herself. The bar was a key club with an all male staff that thrived with few problems for the first twelve years. Then escalating expenses and the call for changes began to take a toll. Charlene's sister was the first of her female bar staff. "In the early days," Charlene remembers, "women's bars were like boxing rings." She worked toward giving women a better space.
Johnny Jackson visited Charlene's Bar with other activists to assist in drafting the first New Orleans Gay Rights Ordinance which failed to pass. Over the years, many celebrities visited Charlene's and she said that she never knew who she might meet. Charlene says that it was the drag queens that were first to volunteer to help in the fight for rights and start Pride Fest.
She has had quite an active life and I asked when she "came out." "It was 1957 and I was in high school," she said, "her name was Barbara and she was my first love." She told me that she knew she was Gay when she walked into the Tiger Lounge. There were five women there and she loved every one of them. The bar was owned by an ex-nun.

Another great description of Charlene's comes from Charlene Schneider's obituary. Charlene passed away in 2006:

Charlene Schneider, an outspoken gay-rights advocate who ran a bar that was a focal point of New Orleans' lesbian community for 21 years, died Sunday of lung cancer in Bay St. Louis, Miss. She was 66.

Ms. Schneider, a Bay St. Louis native who had lived there since closing Charlene's in 1999, was an early and vocal advocate for gay-related causes in the 1970s, said Jim Kellogg, who had been one of the city's first lawyers to handle gay-rights cases.

"I can't think of a single demonstration or organization that she was not at," he said. "She not only was there but also was a major backer."

The center of her world was Charlene's, the bar she ran at 940 Elysian Fields Ave. from 1977 until early 1999. It became world-famous not only because of Ms. Schneider's effusive personality but also because, in its early years, Charlene's represented something rare: a safe place for lesbians when attitudes toward them were less tolerant, said Jody Gates, a pediatrician and longtime friend.

Besides giving women a place where they could socialize and dance, Ms. Schneider had live music, often by female entertainers. Among them was Melissa Etheridge, whom Gates said she saw early in what became a wildly successful rock career.

Because of Ms. Schneider's occupation, people were too quick to write her off without considering her activism in politics, charities and the drive for a city law banning discrimination against gay men and lesbians, Gates said.

"The world shouldn't be fooled by the fact that she was a bar owner," she said. "It just happened to be the only venue to do the good work that she did."

Like other neighborhood bars, Charlene's took on the personality of its owner.

"If you went in to see Charlene, you naturally got her slant on the day's current events, local and international, and a good dose of political science in the bargain, plus lots of gossip because Charlene lived to dish," said Jon Newlin, a longtime friend. "She was a grand old gal."

Ms. Schneider opened the bar after a series of odd jobs, including stints at Western Union and The Times-Picayune, where she was a hot-type operator.

Along the way, she had firsthand experience with discrimination. In the mid-1960s, after being arrested in a raid on a gay bar, Ms. Schneider lost her job as a cryptographer, as well as her security clearance, with NASA at Michoud.

"This was what radicalized her," Newlin said.

As a result of her experiences, one of her causes was the anti-discrimination ordinance, which the City Council passed in 1991.

After closing her bar, Ms. Schneider and her companion, Linda Tucker, moved to Bay St. Louis, where she operated an establishment called On the Coast.

For her anti-discrimination work, Ms. Schneider received the Human Rights Campaign Equality Award and the Forum for Equality Community Service Award.

In addition to Tucker, survivors include two sisters, Marsha Schneider Ladner and Dianne E. Schneider, both of Picayune, Miss.

A memorial service will be held today at 10 a.m. at Edmond Fahey Funeral Home in Bay St. Louis. Burial will be in Bayou Caddy Cemetery in Ansley, Miss.

Two days after closing in 1999, the Mint opened at the same location as the former Charlene's. John Paul's, a "mixed" bar, now operates at that address. After Charlene died in 2006, a plaque commemorating Charlene's was installed.

Photo: From Last Call at Charlene's, 1999

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