Fifty years as an established business is quite a feat. It is even more impressive when the business is a bar and dancehall that is relatively unknown in the surrounding areas. The Playhouse in Sunset is one such spot.
Owner Almo “Chickeen” Miller sat quietly behind the person taking the entrance fee, getting up every few minutes to shake hands and greet attendants. It happened that this night, in addition to being the fiftieth anniversary of the club, was the seventy-fourth birthday of the owner. He wore a suit coat studded with gifts of pinned on cash-anything from fives, tens, and twenties, on up to a single hundred dollar bill.
It was 9:30 p.m., the posted time for the evening’s entertainment, Patrick Henry and the Liberation Band, to begin. I should have known better–it would be almost two hours before the first note was struck. Before then, I had friends to make and cold two dollar ten-ounce beers to drink.
A DJ played recent local R&B and zydeco hits, the growing crowd occasionally pairing up to dance. The Playhouse, previously called Paul’s Playhouse, is a bona fide rhythm and blues and zydeco dancehall. Among the legendary performers who have graced the stage are local Grammy winners Clifton Chenier and Stanley Dural of Buckwheat Zydeco fame, as well as legendary Texas performers Barbara Lynn and Archie Bell and the Drells.
One of the clubs that brought in touring bands off the “chitlin’ circuit,” the Playhouse helped inform the distinctly Louisiana music genre of Swamp Pop. The contents of the CD jukebox trace the history of the club itself, with albums by blues icon Bobby Blue Bland, mid- 60s funk soul by Joe Tex, the latest offerings from nouveau zydeco artist Chris Ardoin, “Zydeco Boss”–Keith Frank, as well as no less than six albums by the evening’s entertainment, “Mr. Excitement”–Patrick Henry.
A freshly roasted suckling pig was delivered to a nearby table, directly under a “Coors Light“ pool table light advertising beer, as I perused the jukebox contents. The party was picking up speed. By the time the band started the room was getting crowded, old friends and acquaintances exchanging greetings as they flooded in, some bearing offerings for the growing food table and others delivering bills to Chickeen’s suit coat.
The sound of a high-energy hyped-up introduction filled the room while the very tight band pumped up the entrance of “Mr. Excitement.” As Patrick Henry made his way through the crowd, he picked up speed, almost bursting onto the stage when he arrived. His appearance sent a wave of energy careening through as the entire room rose to their feet. The Liberation Band went into a James Brown song and the dance floor filled followed by a string of Henry’s own songs that kept the crowd at full attention and dancing. Folks were still arriving at midnight.
In a moment of sheer delight at the entire scene, I was overwhelmed by the belief that The Playhouse might be here for another fifty years, and that I hoped it didn’t need to change one single bit to make it work.
John Sharp, a documentary filmmaker and folklorist, is the Assistant Director for Research at the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His 2011 film, Water on Road, deals with the natural and man-made issues facing the Native American community of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. His current research and film project is Dancehalls of South Louisiana, for which he won the 2012 Louisiana Filmmaker award from Louisiana Economic Development. For more information on Sharp’s current project like him on Facebook or visit LouisianaDancehalls.com.