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Bringing Magic to Big Easy

Harry Anderson traded Hollywood for a new act and a club of his own in the French Quarter. Now he's part of New Orleans' revival.

November 28, 2005|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Harry Anderson, former star of the sitcoms "Night Court" and "Dave's World," rubbed the bags under his eyes, stubbed out an unfiltered Camel and climbed onto the small stage of his French Quarter nightclub.

"Hi," he said. "I'm Ed Begley Jr."

To get the joke, you have to know that Anderson is an entertainer, that Begley is an entertainer and that they look alike. Then you have to digest the irony of one reasonably famous person introducing himself as another reasonably famous person. Then you have to find that funny.

That's a lot of hoops for a one-liner, and in a crowd of 80, one man chuckled quietly. But that's OK. With decades of magic and comedy behind him, Anderson, 53, isn't trying to win over a crowd, not these days. He's trying to help save New Orleans.

He has opened his club, which was closed for weeks by Hurricane Katrina, to community meetings attended by a motley collection of advocates wearing tattoos, nose rings and plumed houndstooth hats.

Founded on frustration over the plodding pace of recovery and the perception that government promises to rebuild are disingenuous, it is a legislature of the strange and the dispossessed, and Anderson is the presiding officer.

The group meets once a week at Oswald's Speakeasy. Yes, it's named after Lee Harvey, with a drink called the Grassy Knoll and a periodic feature called the Zapruder Film Festival.

Some fanciful ideas have been proposed behind these doors in the last six weeks, including a plan to legalize prostitution as a way to renew tourism. But the merchants and residents are serious about many issues, peppering officials with questions about whether out-of-town police supplementing the locals will be savvy enough during Mardi Gras to distinguish between benign debauchery and actions that constitute genuine unlawfulness.

The group has been, at times, surprisingly influential. It was instrumental in persuading the city to ease the post-storm curfew in an effort to increase bar business.

In the meantime, Anderson has become a high priest of sorts among his fellow "Quarter Rats" -- the faithful denizens of the district who see no need to travel outside its 78 square blocks.

Through it all, he's trying to discern the future of a business empire that would only fly in New Orleans -- his club, his variety show and his two shops, the one with a statue of a guy in a lobster suit and the other decorated with the framed skeletal remains of a cat named Fluffy.

Anderson's charisma and an unusual skill set -- magic and comedy, along with picking pockets, piercing his arm with long needles and playing Beethoven on a recorder through his nostril -- helped give him a serendipitous career.

Playing variations of the same character -- Harry the Hat, kindly con man -- he worked the streets and the comedy clubs of Los Angeles. That led the way to a successful run on television, including "Cheers," "Night Court" and "Dave's World."

Along the way, it became clear that things happen to Anderson that don't happen to other people. (He once toured with a pet monkey, and a physician named Dick Chopp performed his vasectomy.) So it surprised no one when, in 1997, after 400 episodes of television, he quit.

Anderson had never been enamored with the L.A. scene. In all his travels, there had been only one city he had ever loved: New Orleans, where he had lived for two years, doing his shtick and, at one point, spending the weekend in Orleans Parish Jail when he got caught running a con on the street.

He took a scouting trip to make sure he wasn't romanticizing the city. What he found was the anti-L.A. Cramped quarters were a great equalizer; no one has room to build a pool.

"And you'd look pretty stupid driving around the French Quarter in a Porsche," he said. Everyone he met -- hippies, artists, junkies, bikers -- was in exile from someplace.

"Living in the French Quarter is the closest you can come to expatriating without leaving the country," he said.

He moved here in 1999 and began to pursue what he had come to realize was his dream all along, to run a one-man variety act at his own club. He bought a building on a corner of the Quarter and opened in July. Five nights a week, surrounded by 88 seats, a totem pole and a sign for "Spade & Archer," the name of the detective agency in "The Maltese Falcon," he performed a 90-minute show called "Wise Guy."

He did a bit called the "Middle Aged Straight Jacket Trick," which entailed freeing one hand, reaching into his pocket for a $20 bill and paying an audience member to get him out. There were math and memorization stunts and dramatic stories told from the perspective of a carnival owner. He opened to so many standing ovations, he said, "I felt like Wayne Newton."

He and his wife, Elizabeth, opened side-by-side shops that they tended by day. His was a magic shop where he shaved cards and made double-headed quarters. Hers was called Sideshow, and featured tarot cards and two-headed ducks made by a local taxidermist.

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