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Arts & Culture

Why Bryan Batt Can’t Stay Away From New Orleans

In this episode of GoNOLA Radio, New Orleans actor Bryan Batt discusses New Orleans food, theater and Southern Decadence.

New Orleans is the host of a never ending party that anyone and everyone is invited to. In fact, the more unusual the attendees, the better. One of the best examples of that is coming up at the end of the month: the 41st annual Southern Decadence. Promoted as a “gay festival,” the celebration certainly welcomes all flavors and identities, but it’s something every adult in New Orleans or anywhere can enjoy and participate in.

GoNOLA RadioBryan Batt joins GoNOLA Radio hosts Sunpie Barnes, George Ingmire and Mikko to discuss Southern Decadence and New Orleans as a place that welcomes all walks of life among other topics. The New Orleans native, owner of Hazelnut on Magazine Street, and Mad Men actor discusses his favorite places to eat and drink in New Orleans as well as the Nine Lives production he plays a principal character in.

GoNOLA Radio is a free New Orleans podcast hosted by Sunpie Barnes, Lorin Gaudin, George Ingmire and Mikko about the food, music and culture of the Crescent City. Subscribe to GoNOLA Radio on iTunes or download to your mobile device on Stitcher. GoNOLA Radio features music by Cale Pellick.

Audio Transcript

Welcome to GoNOLA Radio.

[background music]

My name is Sunpie Barnes and I will be your host of hosts as we explore New
Orleans to learn about the city’s rich cultural heritage, food, and music.
We bring you the real deal experts who will talk with you about the people
who make New Orleans such a wonderful place to live and visit. It’s GoNOLA

Sunpie Barnes: We are back again. GoNOLA It’s so good to be back
here. We’ve got George, Mikko in the house, and our special guest, Bryan
Batt, retail owner.

Bryan Batt: Yes, a home furnishing shop called Hazelnut.

Sunpie: Broadway actor for many years, a big-screen actor up on the silver
screen, as well as a TV series actor.

Bryan: Yes.

Sunpie: You’ve been all over the place and naturally New Orleans is, well,
he’s a local boy, so we’re really glad to have you here.

Bryan: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Sunpie: You know, we’re going to have a really good time today. I’ve got
that feeling deep down in my bones. Bryan, how are you doing?

Bryan: I’m doing great. I love living a great part of the year here in New
Orleans, where I was born and raised. I have a business here, Hazelnut,
which is a store on Magazine Street and keeps me in town a lot. I’m doing a
lot of different projects here; I’m filming some things here, but I go back
and forth between New York and L.A. and I kind of like having my roots down

Sunpie: Sounds tough.

Bryan: It is tough, and boy are my arms tired. But there’s something about
New Orleans that just calls you back, you know. It’s just so inviting.
Every time I have someone come in from out of town, from L.A. or New York
or wherever, they love it. They don’t want to leave. They want to get a
place in the Quarter. They want to move here. [laughter]

Mikko: There’s this thing in economics. They talk about ‘value-added’. So
in other words, when you buy, say, a nice meal at a nice restaurant, the
fact that maybe it’s a beautiful setting makes the meal even better than
the good meal. New Orleans is a value-added thing, I think, to the people
that visit here and live here. We spoke before going on the air today. It
seems like you’re getting more rooted into New Orleans.

Bryan: Oh, definitely.

Mikko: So what was your motivation for that?

Bryan: You know, there was a bunch of things. We opened the store,
Hazelnut, in 2003. When Katrina hit, we just dug our heels in and said that
we were staying. I went back and forth to New York for different
productions and when Mad Men was filming in L.A. I would go out there to do
that. I never thought I’d be happy living anywhere else again as an adult
other than New York. Well, I was wrong.

Sunpie: Oh, what was your (inaudible 02:35) moment then.

Bryan: I got weaned off of New York and L.A. and was here more. I just like
the easier way of life, I really do. I don’t like having to negotiate
walking down the street. You know, it’s a very, very easy-going thing. My
favorite thing is, I saw a t-shirt the other day that I loved, and it said
that “America has three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans.
Everything else is Cleveland”. That was Tennessee Williams who said that.

Sunpie: Yeah, he saw it coming. He knew what he was looking at. Speaking of
that, coming up soon we have one of the greatest celebrations that happens
in New Orleans. This is the 41st Annual Southern Decadence that’s coming
soon. It’s going to be on Wednesday the 29th, going through September 3rd.
Now, this is a party in the Quarter like you’ve never seen before, and I
work in the French Quarter so I see it all.

Bryan: It’s great. You know, there’s something about New Orleans, the heat,
and a big gay festival that seems like a natural for New Orleans. What’s
great about New Orleans is that we celebrate everything. We celebrate
everything from birth to death and everything in between, and everybody’s
invited to celebrate along.

So I don’t think you just have to be gay to enjoy Southern Decadence, but a
lot of people come down for it, and it’s a big, big, big party down here.
And you know, there are so many great restaurants that cater to the event,
and some that don’t, that you can seek out.

If you don’t want the madness all the time in the Quarter, you can venture
out to different areas of the city to try the great cuisine all over.
What’s great about New Orleans is that it’s really a true melting pot of
different cultures coming together.

Sunpie: Absolutely.

Bryan: There’s so much diversity here, and I think everything is embraced.
I think it’s great, but I never say, “Oh, is this a gay place or not a gay
place?” because everything is equal and fun. There’s so much to do here, so
much great music.

Sunpie: Right, well, there have to be differences.

Mikko: When I first came here, and George, I think you have a story about
this place, but I remember that when I first came here 30-something years
ago, I went to the Clover Grill. The guy behind the counter pointed at one
table and said “This is the Ashley Room, this is the Brittany Room, this is
the Chinchilla Room,” and he just meant the one table. I’d never seen any
attitude like that, of ennobling your surroundings. So the Clover Grill has
always seemed to be to be the heart of what the LGBT, you know, the
heartbeat of New Orleans. And you were saying that you had some kind of

George: One of the first times that I actually ate at the Clover Grill, I
couldn’t find my money. I had a bunch of pockets and the waiter was looking
at me, and he was like, “You know you’re going to have to get up and dance
for us if you don’t have any money.”


Sunpie: Or do something.

George: And I looked back up and said, “I should have got more to eat if
I’d have known that.”

All: [laughter]

George: And that’s a perfect example. People from different walks of life
communicate openly about their differences, embrace their differences, and
because of that, there’s a sense of unity among people. We were talking
before we went to tape about Cajun’s Pub…

Bryan: Oh gosh yes.

George: …which is the setting for parts of a book that you ended up
playing a character out of. Billy Grace?

Bryan: Billy Grace.

George: I saw the production over there at the Musicians’ Village, the
Ellis Marsalis Centre. It was quite an honor and an amazing production. I
really have to hand it to you, you stood out.

Bryan: Thank you. Paul Sanchez wrote the music and it’s really amazing. He
adapted this wonderful book, “Nine Lives” by Dan Baum, and it really
chronicles nine New Orleanian’s lives from 1865, when Betsy hit, through
after Katrina hit. It really is quite fascinating.

George: Well, it’s an interesting character that you’re playing.

Bryan: Thank you.

George: The conflict within the walk of life that he’s coming from was
really embraced beautifully, and it’s just amazing. That book gives you an
idea of how there’s all these different people, a parallel life going on in
a way, because we all have the city of New Orleans living through us. I
think the reason there’s a large gay community in New Orleans is that it
really also tells you to live your life as you see fit. Everyone asked me
why I moved to New Orleans. I said that I grew up in Virginia Beach. That’s
my answer.


George: You have to justify your way of life there, whereas here, people
don’t even think to have to justify their lives. We are what we are,
whoever we are.

Sunpie: We’ve got time for that.

Bryan: It’s so European too, in a way. There’s this ease, and the humidity
kind of helps. I think the heat and the humidity just make everything a
little more sensual and a little more easy and flowing. One thing we do not
have a shortage of in this city are characters.

Sunpie: No, we don’t have a shortage of that.

Bryan: Every way you look, like you were talking about Clover Grill,
everywhere you go, there’s a character, a great New Orleans character. When
you come to New Orleans, you just have to start walking on the streets or
go into a bar and you will meet them. They will talk to you, they will tell
you their life story.

Mikko: When you hang out here, where do you go?

Bryan: You know, I’m a homebody. [laughter] No, I do. I love to go to
friends’ homes or have people over for dinner.

Sunpie: Yeah, I love that too.

Bryan: I’m of a certain age where I like that, but I want to meet new
people too. I’m of a certain age, so I’m not going to go trolling down
Bourbon Street, it’s not my scene. But there are some great uptown clubs. I
like Bouligny. Once, I have, I will admit, that I have been to Phillips
uptown on, I think, Friday nights from 4:00 to 8:00. There are so many
different places. I like going to nice restaurants and having dinners or
just hanging out with friends, but I go all over.

Mikko: But when you were in your younger, wilder days? We saw your
(inadudible 08:53), didn’t we?

Bryan: In my younger, wilder days, I went everywhere. [laughter] No,
unfortunately, you didn’t. I had to go to New York to sow those wild oats.
But my partner and I have been together for 23 years, so you know, those
kind of wild days are behind.

George: Where do you go to eat? You have a lot of dinner gatherings, but
when you go out to eat, where do you like?

Bryan: Oh gosh. We go really all over. There’s a bunch of places. I love a
lot of the Brennan’s, Dickie Brennan’s restaurants, I love Palace Cafe, I
love Commander’s, I like Lilette, I go to Upperline. I just went to a
really great place called Toup’s Meatery. If you like meat, go to Toup’s

Sunpie: I know what that is, yeah.

Bryan: Oh, it’s incredible.

Sunpie: It’s on Carrollton.

Bryan: It’s on Carrollton right by City Park. You asked about having
drinks. I love to go to WINO, the Wine Institute of New Orleans, on

George: That’s in the CBD, yeah.

Bryan: Yeah. You can taste over 150 varieties of wine.

Mikko: Right.

Bryan: You get a little credit card and put it in the machine, and you can
have a one-ounce, a two-ounce, or a four-ounce pour of over 150 different
kinds of wine, and then you can buy the wine if you like it. So it’s like a
candy store for adults in there.

Sunpie: (inaudible 10:03) in there.

Bryan: Dickie’s new restaurant is going to be called Tableaux and it’s
going to be connected to Le Petit Theatre, which I’m on board with.

Mikko: Let’s not shy off of that. You’re on the board of Le Petit Theatre,
and this is very exciting.

Bryan: The arts in the city are very, very important here. The music is
great, but the theater also has a great, long history. Le Petit Theatre is
about, well, in a few years it’s going to be a 100 years old, and it was
threatened, almost closed, because of debt and mismanagement.

The board rallied and a very smart solution that we found was when Dickie
Brennan ended up buying half the building which really wasn’t being used.
It was old, mainly dressing rooms and green rooms which could be relocated
to another area of the theater.

So the historic theater has been saved. It’s under construction now and the
theater will have an endowment now which it never had before, fully
renovated, and next door is a world-class restaurant.

Sunpie: That’s a great idea.

Bryan: We’re opening the season next year by starting with “Lombardi”,
about Vince Lombardi right around Super Bowl time. Then we’re doing “Death
of a Salesman”, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, and then
Nora Ephron’s “Love, Loss, and What I Wore”. But there will be other
projects going on, like hopefully we’re going to be doing “Nine Lives.”
We’re in negotiations to be doing that during Jazz Fest. There’s so many
other concerts coming in there that we wanted to open up the theatre and
really let it be a community-based theatre.

Mikko: Talk a little bit about the scale of being an actor here in New
Orleans where there’s a scene as opposed to television and also a larger
scene over in New York.

Bryan: Yeah.

Mikko: It seems like there must be some differences.

Bryan: Well, once in a while I miss it. Once in a while. But, I’ve had some
offers to do other shows in New York and I have gone back to do the plays
and then come back to New Orleans. Doing a Broadway show, especially a
musical, is hard work.

Sunpie: It’s a serious, serious affair.

Bryan: You have to have a year commitment, at least, for a principal role,
and it’s eight shows a week, so it’s difficult. In L.A., when I was filming
Mad Men, I’d have to go out for six months to film the season. Here,
there’s so much work, so much filming going on.

There’s a lot of movies and some television shows filming here and I hope
more. There’s also going to be more live theater. Besides the tax
incentives for film, there are great tax credits for live theater
performances. And like the Addams Family musical just opened this year here
and took advantage of that. So many of my New York producer friends called
and said they had the best time and can’t wait for the next show to start

So there’s also that work with Broadway South. All these other theaters are
getting renovated and bringing more tours in or local productions. Some
people like to be naysayers and say “How is this going to work, this isn’t
going to work.” Well, you know, it’s never going to work unless we try. And
also, if it can work in Branson, you know, it can work here.

Mikko: Right.

Sunpie: Hello.

Bryan: Look how much more we have, how much culture.

Sunpie: Look at the food, the chicken fried steak every night.

Bryan: The food, just the food and the jazz and everything we’re immersed
in. There’s so much. It’s so wonderful here. That’s why I wrote two books
about New Orleans. One is called “She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother,” about
growing up here. [laughter] Yeah, I call it a mom-oir.

The other one is a design book connected with the store called “Big Easy
Style.” They’re both doing well, but it’s one of these things that New
Orleans just kind of gets under your skin, in your blood. Being from here,
born and raised, I think there’s something in the Mississippi water that we
drank as a child that keeps us (inaudible 13:46).

Mikko: I forgot to ask you, where did you go to high school?

Bryan: Newman.

Mikko: Of course.

George: I have a question for you. A lot of the people that grew up in New
Orleans have to leave in order to really get it about what’s special here.
Did you have an experience like that?

Bryan: Yes. Yes. I mean, I always loved New Orleans. I didn’t ever think
ill of New Orleans, ever, because I knew there was something special here.
But for what I wanted to do, I wanted to be on stage, to work on Broadway,
so I moved to New York, and that’s where I did nine Broadway shows and a
bunch of off-Broadway, but I always longed to come back.

I do think that in every aspect of life you have to move away from what you
love to really appreciate it. Not forever, but I think every New Orleanian
should go live somewhere else for a little while, longer than the Katrina
evacuation, just to really appreciate what we have.

Sunpie: I thought about it, but I’m afraid to do it.

Bryan: [laughter]

Mikko: Here’s the thing. If you go to a place, although this is less so
now, when you go to a place and cannot find a good cup of coffee in the
entire town, and you’re in a sizable population place, you really start
appreciating it. I used to call it the coffee thing. You go to Milwaukee
and they could not find a cup of coffee anywhere, a good one, so now you
come back here and there are at least a dozen coffee shops.

Bryan: Now it’s a French 75.

George: And they keep building more coffee shops, they keep opening more

Bryan: And they’re all full.

Sunpie: We keep going to them.

George: We’re a public culture, though. That’s something I try to explain
to people. You talk about meeting characters, but really, New Orleans is a
place where we gather in public, all the time. Speaking of house
gatherings, it’s really nice. They don’t happen as much as they do in other
cities because there’s so many other options.

Bryan: That’s true.

George: But it’s really nice. Once you’re inside people’s houses, you’re
getting a sense of their decor also. We don’t mess around when it comes to
that either. We really think about our lives, and where we live is an
extension of who we are.

Bryan: Exactly.

George: So we’re expressing it through the house.

Mikko: This is the theme of your excellent book on your beautiful home.

Bryan: It’s basically about how your home decor, your sense of style,
really helps define who you are.

Sunpie: I live in my house. I want it to look like me.

Bryan: Exactly. And what is on the wall reflects my life and my family’s
life and it’s very eclectic. Also, what I love about New Orleanians and
their sense of decor is that there’s always a little sense of whimsical
going on. There’s some little touch of something that has a little Mardi
Gras kick to it, like a water meter thing here, that you’d never find
anywhere else. What I love about New Orleanians and New Orleans is that we
love New Orleans.

Sunpie: That is absolutely true, and that is the only reason to really be

Bryan: Yeah.

Sunpie: Well, Bryan, it’s been great having you here.

Bryan: Thanks for having me.

Sunpie: It’s a great pleasure. George, Mikko, good to see y’all again.
GoNOLA, and that’s a wrap.

Bryan: Yeah, you right.

Voiceover: GoNOLA Radio is a production of New Orleans Tourism and
Marketing Corporation in conjunction with FSC Interactive, music by Cale
Pellick. My name is Sunpie. Tune in next week by subscribing to GoNOLA
Radio on iTunes, or

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