Camille Knows NOLA

Tour Guides With A Twist

NEW ORLEANS— We have all wondered about the historic, fun, true, quirky, unusual, weird, and strange underworld of New Orleans, right?

Well with so many mysteries surrounding the Crescent City, I took my questions to the people who know the city well. Who are these self-proclaimed experts? How did they get started? Are the stories they tell, true? I headed to the Quarter on a sweltering July day and I found Jane Dekovitch and Jeff Holmes, the owners of “Strange True Tours.” I met them by an alleged haunted house. Spooky, right?

Jeff and his wife Jane started the business three and a half years ago. Jeff started doing haunted tours several years before that because he says he needed a job. His friends told him he was a great story teller, so he gave it a go. After giving tours for many years, Jeff fell in love with all of the stories and legends.

He then decided he wanted to start researching the stories to learn all the hard facts and not just learn the script from work. Right now they have spooky tales on ghost legends and lore tour, an adult oriented history tour and they visit the cemeteries of legends in the city.

Jane is a historian who studied at USC. She was a researcher in LA before moving back to New Orleans. She loves to study old legends and discover the real facts.

Jeff says a lot of the stories come from natives.

“This is a town where people are connected to each other,” Jeff said. “Even back in the day, people found out about what was happening by chatting often times with strangers. That’s how most of these tales came to be.”

Jeff and Jane’s tours are like a fine gumbo of horror and history, comedic characters and conflicted spirituality. They serve it up Cajun style and it’s up to you to figure out fact from fiction.

“It’s fun telling stories and watching the visitors pay attention and hold on to some of the historic details,” Jeff said. “We research everything, we tell the true stories. And the not so true. It’s all about business and sharing the tales.”

Jeff said he is one of the only people who knows the true story of Lee Harvey Oswald and his connection to New Orleans.

“We go the extra mile for our tourists,” Jeff said.

Now he has my attention.

Camille Sits Down With French Quarter Artist Who Loves Painting

Jemu In French Quarter with her painting.

Jemu In French Quarter with her painting.

NEW ORLEANS– In a city full of art and culture, inspiration is everywhere we look.

We have all wondered about the historic, fun, true, quirky, unusual, weird and strange underworld of New Orleans, right?

Well with so many mysteries surrounding the Crescent City, I took my questions to the people who know the city well. Some of the most creative people are scattered throughout New Orleans. It’s part of what makes our city unique.

I felt compelled to hit the streets and find out what inspires many of the artists, so naturally I went straight to the nerve center, Jackson Square. This is where I focused in on Jemu Herrington, a portrait artist.

I approached her as she was working on a beautiful portrait of Louis Armstrong. She invited me to sit smack-dab in the middle of her artistic area.

Herrington told me she has been interested in art since she was two years old. Over the years she would sit down and draw on her sister’s notebooks while her mother, who was a stylist, did her clients’ hair. During that time, she would draw people, and she’s not talking stick figures.

“I would draw the head, the neck, the shoulders, everything,” she said.

Herrington said she didn’t realize what she was doing then, but as an adult looking back on those portraits, her eyes glistened with delight. She explained that most kids would have just drawn a stick figure.

It wasn’t until she was 16 that her mother noticed her talent.

“I did a sketch of President Kennedy from the TV set one day,” she said. “My mom saw it and said, ‘Oh my, that’s good.'”

Since then, Herrington said art has been her whole life.

“It’s my passion,” Herrington said. “I put love in my work, [and] hopefully it’s generated enough interest so people pick up on it and love it as much as I do.”

Herrington talks about art with a spark in her eye, a fire in her humble belly.

She didn’t start out in the Crescent City. Herrington is from Chicago and made her way to The Big Easy in 1989.

“It’s been tough. It’s been a love-hate relationship with the city,” she said. “It’s like fishing — you don’t know if you’re going to catch anything or not.”

Something told her to stay and give it the old college try.

“Imagine living in a city with a lot of artists who are trying to make it just like you are. Sometimes making a sale isn’t as easy as you would think, despite the many tourists who come through,” Herrington said. “People come, they look at your work and they may not like your prices. They take pictures, despite the ‘no picture’ signs. It can be frustrating to sell art in the city.”

I asked her how she gets satisfaction.

“If you know in your heart that you’ve done a good job, sometimes that is enough,” Herrington said.

When it comes down to it, prices will be dropped just to make a sale.

Herrington has also expanded the range of what she sells. Portraits are her first love, but she also produces paintings of jazz musicians, abstracts, still lifes and even animals.

There are also things that she really enjoys as an artist working in the French Quarter. When there is a convention in town, she enjoys meeting new people and seeing artists succeed.

“It’s a good feeling to know everybody is doing good,” Herrington said.

Outside of art, she used to write poetry and had an interest in doing children’s book illustrations.

“There are a lot of things I’ve put on the back burner,” Herrington said.

She said that once she has the opportunity, she will explore her other interests, travel more and do some things that she hasn’t done in life. Like most people, Herrington is on a journey. You may think she has made it, but she is only just beginning.

After Hurricane Katrina, she ended up in Santa Fe. She said going back there is a possibility one day.

She also wants to work on getting off the streets and selling her art online. She’s working on a website now. Recently she had an offer from someone she met to help her get her website started.

As I left my conversation, Herrington continued her portrait of Louis Armstrong, which is for a couple from Australia. They bought a piece from her last year and couldn’t help but come back for another.

After all, an artist must make art and stay true to the passion that burns from within.

Read more on WDSU’s website.

Camille Knows NOLA Magician

Dave-the-Magician

NEW ORLEANS —I have always been fascinated with magic tricks. I’ve tried a few of my own but sadly, I’ve never been able to pull a rabbit out of a hat, if you get my drift. So this this time for “Camille Knows NOLA,” I wanted to speak to a local magician.

I have a ton of questions: How long does it take to learn a trick? How does it make you feel to see people get amused by your work?

Poof! Just like magic, I find a Canadian dog owner bachelor, and yes, a magician. He looks like a normal guy, nice smile and playful eyes — all things expected in a man, right?

His name is Dave, but in the French Quarter he’s known as D’artagnan.

Since December, Dave has been in New Orleans making believers in magic. Thousands of people pass by him every day. In fact, you may have seen him in the Quarter. It’s been more than a year since he started performing magic shows as a street performer.

How did D’artagnan get started? At the age of 39, he said, he started a bit late, he followed his hobby. He said it’s been a fascination of his from years ago.

“My dad was a very big practical joker. In order to get even with him, I learned a few magic tricks of my own and I fell in love with it,” he said. “I wanted to get back at him.”

Although he is somewhat new to street performing, he has been a magician for almost 11 years. Before that, he wowed crowds at private shows, including cocktail parties and private engagements.

“While I was having a good time, people were enjoying it and I was making good money, I noticed at some point you’re only performing for the wealthy 1 percent” he said.

With the influence of a friend, and a change of heart, he began performing for free.

“The first time I worked the street, one of the immediate things I noticed was the demographic of the people of the audience,” he said.

That was one of the main things he liked was being able to perform for people who may not have been able to see a real magician before. His eyes sparkled when he described this.

“If I had not become a magician, I don’t think I would have ever seen a magician perform live,” He said.

That’s one main reason why he enjoys doing it. He especially enjoys seeing children smile and laugh when the unknown happens with a clever move or trick.

And for Dave, it’s not all about the money. In fact it’s much more. This, Dave said, is his way of making a difference in the world.

“I want people to be able to press pause on their life for a second, enjoy something they don’t have to worry about, particularly people who aren’t having a great day, month or year,” he said.

He wishes that people will see the magic in a show and that it will resonate or provide hope in their life. Helping others, and making someone’s day a bit better energizes him to continue to provide magic in the Quarter, and other parts of the country.

He also does it for himself and for freedom.

“I wanted to unhinge myself from working for somebody else,” he said.

He said its good money — more than he was making at a regular job. On top of that, he meets so many unique people that he wouldn’t meet at a regular job.

He said someone once told him, “If you’re working for someone else you’re working toward making their dream come true and not your own,” and that is why he said a lot of street performers choose the street.

So, what’s a day in the life for people like Dave? He shared exactly what life is like away from his workplace.

He lives Uptown with a few friends and has a dog.

He usually wakes up around 7 a.m. and eats breakfast. After that, he walks his dog, Olive.

“I get all that regular people stuff out the way,” he said with a half-cocked smile. Then he makes his way to the Quarter on his bike, which he loves.

He tries to arrive in the Quarter around 10 a.m., but he rarely ever meets that time.

The time you come depends on where you want to work.

“It’s really a first-come, first-serve kind of thing,” he said. A lot of the street performers are all friends, he said, so they usually share spots and take turns performing.

He usually performs in front the St. Louis Cathedral, where he said most of the bigger acts perform.

“Yeah, most of the magicians work here between the garbage cans,” he said sarcastically. He works with other magicians, tarot card readers, musicians and the one guy that does a strait-jacket show and some juggling.

Who’s the man behind the Magic?

Dave tells us he is originally from Canada, but his family spent more time living in Georgia as he grew up.

He went to college in Canada but he didn’t really like it and didn’t really know what he wanted to do at the time. But entertainment was always in the back of his mind. He said he needed a creative outlet. So, ultimately, he decided to become a magician.

Outside of magic, Dave works as a copywriter.

As I mentioned earlier, yes ladies, Dave is a bachelor. As of late, it’s been Dave and Olive, so ladies you know where to find him. He said, “Spread the word, people.”

So why did he choose to come to New Orleans where street performers are plentiful?

“It’s a popular destination,” he said.

He also likes it because of the weather, particularly in months where it’s usually snowing up north. It’s sunny, which is ideal for street performers.

So how long will we have the pleasure of seeing coins fall upwards instead of down? How many card tricks does he have left to perform? How many “oohhhs” and “ahhhs” will he solicit from the crowds before, poof in a cloud of smoke, he’s gone and on to the next city? But it’s magic, so, will he be gone, or will he still be here?

“We go where the sun goes and where the people go,” he said.

Street performers usually spend three to six months in one location. As for the next location, “I’m not really sure what next is,” he said looking off into the distance toward the mighty Mississippi River.

There are places he has in mind, like Africa and Australia.

“There is a huge world out there,” he said, and through street performing he could do that.

When following his dreams he said he goes by something a wise person once told him — “Someday is not a day of the week. So if you want to follow your dreams, you should start yesterday.” There is no better time to follow your dreams but immediately.

I like Dave and find myself periodically glancing at his fingers and ears waiting for a coin or something to appear. I never did until the end when we shook hands and a nickel was left in my palm. I giggled like a schoolgirl because I still believe in magic just like I did when I was a kid. Do you believe?

Read more on WDSU’s website.

Camille knows NOLA Silver Man

NEW ORLEANS —New Orleanians will know him best at the “Silver Man” or “The Frisco Popper.” He’s Harry Berry — the man who is dressed head to toe in silver to amuse the crowds, dance and even shock unsuspecting visitors.

You’ll find him in the French Quarter near Jackson Square as one of the incredibly still street performers, also known as mimes. Many locals jokingly call him a “working stiff.”

What is this job like? Who is the man under the costume? How do people respond to him and does he ever get tired of performing? After one of his eye-catching performances, he revealed the interesting parts of his job and he satisfied my curiosity.

“I’ve been doing this my whole life,” Berry said.

It all started when Berry was 11. Since 1977, Berry has been on the streets, entertaining all over the country, popping, and performing as a mime from New Orleans, San Francisco, New York, and Boston.

At 49, Berry still jumps back and forth to different cities. He’s been a constant fixture in New Orleans since 2010.

Unlike you and me, he goes to work with his body fully painted and dressed in silver. To my surprise, he said it only takes about 15 minutes to get fully dressed.

How does he do it? It’s not as easy as it looks.

He said he wears water-based makeup that is carefully spread onto his skin. As for his outfit, it has dried glue on it and is spray-painted silver. About three times a week he refreshes his outfit with spray paint when he gets to the Quarter, and has to wait an hour or two before starting his performance. He also spray-paints his shoes every single day.

Street performing is how Berry makes his living and feeds his family.

He said his favorite part is seeing how people react to him. In his many years, he’s heard it all. People say things from “Is he real? I thought he was a statue,” to silly questions like “Hey, do you know your skin is silver?”

As for crazy interactions, there’s no shortage of them. He said he once witnessed a woman trying to use the bathroom in his money bucket and said people often try to touch him — sometimes inappropriately.

“While people have fun with me, I also have fun with them,” he said.

How?

“Sometimes I scare people, and even chase people,” he said.

With all the craziness most people might say it’s an odd job, but Berry said, “I’ve been doing it so long it’s all I really know.”

I have to admit, I was trying hard to concentrate on Berry. I was trying to see through the makeup and focus on his big brown eyes. People stare at him constantly. Naturally, they want to take pictures with him.

The hardworking man said behind the makeup and fun, he is an everyday family man. He takes off the spray-painted clothes and washes off the paint. It’s a process that takes about 25 minutes but doesn’t make too much of mess.

“It comes off fast! Don’t get it twisted,” he said laughing out loud.

Berry lives a normal life outside all the paint and photos. And by normal, he said, “I come out here to perform. I go home. I cook. I clean. I wash dishes. I’m not any different than anybody else. I do chores too, take care of my family.”

Berry said he also likes to work on cars, and fish.

“I was raised fishing, my dad owned boats when growing up” said Berry. He also likes to hang out with his grandson.

Berry is married with two biological sons, four step sons, three step daughters, and one grandchild — one who often performs with him.

Since the age of 2, his son Josiah Berry has been performing with his Berry and still does.

Every afternoon Berry leaves the Quarter to get his son from school to come back and perform with his son.

In every aspect of his life he says he’s grateful.

“But the first thing I do is give the glory to God, before anything else,” he said.

As for the future, Berry said he wants to explore other areas in the country. So far he is thinking of Las Vegas and Los Angeles — places where he can legally perform 24 hours a day and make more money.

He said there are some tight restrictions and rules in New Orleans and at times it makes it hard to work as much as he would like to.

This “working stiff” is a fixture in the Crescent City, someone who makes us laugh, stop in our tracks to watch and gives visitors a glimpse of the type of creative people who make New Orleans who she is on a daily basis.

Read more on WDSU’s website.

Camille Knows NOLA Man behind sugar-filled Cafe du Monde

Burt-Benrud

NEW ORLEANS —You see them, smell them and possibly even taste them all the time. We’re talking about the sweet treat that is beignets. Thousands of people flock to the French Quarter to have a taste and powder their faces with the fried doughnut that we have come to know and love.

But who is behind the sprawling empire? What makes it run, and how did a square piece of dough, fried and covered with powdered sugar, become so popular?

I asked the man who makes tasting fresh, sugary beignets part of his every day job.

I met Burt Benrud in the Café Du Monde Coffee Stand in the New Orleans French Market.

Every morning he walks over to the cafe to test taste just to make sure everything is perfect.

But that’s only a tiny part of his job as the vice president of Café du Monde.

Benrud wasn’t always in the business. He married into it. He and his wife, Karen Fernandez-Benrud, live in New Orleans and have three adult children who work for the company.

The Fernandez family has owned the Café Du Monde since 1942, and the business has been passed down three generations and is moving now onto its fourth. Back in the day, Hubert Fernandez owned a wine cellar across the street from the café. It was on St. Ann and Decatur. One day, Café Du Monde went up for sale and he bought it. It’s been in the family ever since.

Benrud says working in a place as unique as the French Quarter, you never know what or whom you will come across.

He sees Archbishop Gregory Aymond on a regular basis, and a lot of United States presidents have had them, too. With a chuckle, Benrud says, “Countless celebrities visit the café on a regular basis. It’s kind of a popular place, if we may say so ourselves.”

Most recently he has had WWE stars and actor Ashton Kutcher come through.

“You never know who you’re going to see here or who you’re going to run across. That’s part of the fun of working here,” he says.

Benrud recalls a day long ago when he ran into comedian Jay Leno.

“One day I’m walking to the coffee shop dining room and there he is sitting down having coffee with his wife. He was very open with everyone. It was so fun,” he said.

Right now the next priority for the business is training the fourth generation of family members to run it. It’s a company that continues to move forward. They now have nine different locations; four in the New Orleans Metro area and two on the Northshore.

One thing that Benrud says never grows old is watching the smiles on people’s faces as they eat and sip while powdered sugar is everywhere. It’s a memory people take with them.

Read more on WDSU’s website.

My Blog About People In NOLA

Camille Knows NOLA is my new blog where we will have fun exploring the lives of New Orleanians who make the city unique. Essential to the city’s success and allure, these people make up the cultural backbone to the place we call home. Join me as I get up close and personal with the Big Easy’s most unique & vital characters…giving you a deeper connection to the people that make New Orleans what it is and what inspires them to be who they are.
We go from Bourbon Street to the Superdome. From Mardi Gras parades to ghost tours to live jazz music on the streets…The famous Crescent City is full of life and people who give it character. Our heritage is loved by so many…BUT, what is behind the life of the city? Who is the silver painted man standing still on the street? Where do all of the artists in the French Quarter come from? And who owns the famous Café du Monde? Who makes the famous hurricane glasses at Pat O’Briens? Camille Knows NOLA will explore all of this and more giving you a deeper connection to the people that make New Orleans the amazing place that it is.

If you know of a character/leader/citizen I need to talk to about ”who they are” … please let me know. We’re having a blast doing it. Thanks in advance.