Feb. 1, 2013
“SOU ER CLU”
It’s all that remains on the art deco facade of the boarded up Southern Club — tendrils of glass tubing that once pulsated with neon gas like the club to which it beckoned pulsated inside on lively Saturday nights just outside the Opelousas city limits.
The building is nearly two decades into its life as a “former dancehall,” one of hundreds across South Louisiana that served as Saturday-night community centers where swamp pop and Cajun music mingled with the chatter of friends, neighbors, cousins and awkward, eager paramours.
Like so many dancehalls before it, the Southern Club fell to modernity — to a kazillion things to do on a Saturday night and most certainly and unfortunately to not doing what your grandparents did. A sentinel standing guard at a bygone era.
But run a feather duster around the interior and a broom over the dance floor and the Southern Club is just about ready for action. And thanks to some kind folks with the audacity to respect their grandparents’ ways, the Southern Club might get a second life — if not as a dancehall then as a restored historic structure. A sentry with a spiffy new uniform.
|John "Pudd" Sharp, Robert Votier, Ray Vidrine, Jennifer Ritter Guidry|
“It has a strange feeling like they walked out one day and just locked the door,” says John “Pudd” Sharp, a folklorist and documentary filmmaker at UL Lafayette’s Center for Louisiana Studies. Sharp and a small cadre of dedicated volunteers hope to get the Southern Club on the National Register of Historic Places, a National Parks Service program that helps preserve buildings and other sites of historic importance. Such a designation would make the Southern Club eligible for restoration grants. And that’s the ultimate goal of Save the Southern Club Initiative: restoring and preserving the building and what it represents, and hopefully rechristening it as a dancehall.
“While we here at the center are kind of spearheading this effort, we’re more functioning as facilitators so that this can be as much of a grassroots kinds of communal effort as possible,” says Jennifer Ritter Guidry, a historian at the Center for Louisiana Studies who is helping the effort to save the Southern Club. “The Southern Club meant so many things to so many people in the Opelousas area, so we really want the community to rally for it.”
Saving the Southern Club is part of a documentary film Sharp is working on about dancehalls in South Louisiana, especially dancehalls like the Southern Club that are vacant and dilapidated as well as joints like the famous Jay’s Lounge in Cankton, which no longer physically exist. So far he has gleaned information — film footage, vintage photographs, recollections of former patrons — on more than 600 dancehalls from East Texas to southeast Louisiana that have given up the ghost.
While his research for the documentary began on dancehalls still open and in operation, places like La Poussiere in Breaux Bridge, the victim of a recent tornado, his interest quickly turned to those that are shuttered or have been razed.
“[Dancehalls are] one of these pieces of the [cultural] puzzle that’s passing with people — as people die it’s information that’s being lost,” Sharp says.
“We had a meeting in Opelousas at the end of November, and we had a ton of people show up for it,” recalls Guidry. “The overwhelming response when we asked, ‘What do you want to see happen with the Southern Club, if we save the building? What do you want to do with it?’ was, ‘Open it back up!’”
Swamp pop icon Rod Bernard, now 72, was fresh off a string of national and regional hits led by his classic “This Should Go on Forever” when he formed The Shondells with Warren Storm and Skip Stewart and got a regular Saturday-night gig at The Southern Club — a gig that stretched through most of the 1960s. Back then the Southern Club was the place to be on a Saturday night.
“It was some of the best years of my life, needless to say,” recalls Bernard, an Opelousas native and friend of the late Chick Vidrine, the Southern Club’s affable, generous owner. “A lot of people today, I’ll meet up with them and they’ll tell me that those were great years for them and that they met their wives or husbands at the Southern Club. It brought a lot of couples together.”
Bernard jokingly adds that the Southern Club and its parking lot made a lot of babies.
Sharp has shot about 40 hours of video and counting for his upcoming documentary, which he says will be complete this year. “As far as helping with the dancehall research, we are looking for photographs, video, film — anything that would let us know more. And we’re also in the process of collecting personal stories,” he adds.
Save the Southern Club Initiative recently brought on board Lafayette architect Allen Bacque to assist with the process of getting the building on the National Register.
As for the personal stories, recollections like Rod Bernard’s are indispensable in preserving not just the memory of these lost places but the characters who populated them.
“I would never ask Chick [Vidrine] about money,” Bernard recalls of his days performing at the Southern Club. “He always paid us more than what we’d get anyway if we’d asked him for a dollar figure.”
Chick Vidrine’s generosity, say Sharp and Guidry, is one of the most common memories associated with the Southern Club: “There’s a lot of people who talk about coming back from the war and being able to get a job there just by walking in,” says Guidry.
“If you speak to owners of dancehalls they will quickly point out that no one has ever gotten rich doing this,” Sharp adds. “People own dancehalls because they love it.”
Vidrine ran the place with his two brothers, one of whom, 71-year-old Ray Vidrine, is still very much alive and stands at the front of the line among people wanting to see the old dancehall given new life. “I’m doing this in Chick’s memory; he was a good guy,” Ray says. “I worked for Chick for 25 years at the club, and there’s a lot of me still in that place. I’d like to see it brought back.”