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Bright lights, different city

A hometown actor dreams of 'Broadway South'

August 29, 2007

There was a time when New Orleans' Canal Street was the Champs Elysees of the American South -- a smart stretch of glitzy stores, bright lights and glamorous theaters. Today, it is a tired place, home to T-shirt shops and empty storefronts.

Enter Roger Wilson, 50, a New Orleans native and star of "Porky's." Wilson left town when he was 14, but he was called back after the storm. First, he coordinated private relief efforts. Then he ran for City Council, promising to transform Canal Street into something he called "Broadway South."

Wilson lost the council race, but the Broadway South idea lived on. This year, he persuaded state lawmakers to pass tax incentives that he said would turn New Orleans into a market for high-end live entertainment -- from big musicals to touring national comedy acts.

The program is loosely based on an incentive package that has been luring filmmakers to Louisiana since 2002. In this case, producers of live shows will receive tax credits of as much as 35% on productions that open in Louisiana -- so long as they are the American premieres. Among other things, Wilson hopes this will help attract Broadway "tryout" shows, an idea that has already caught on in cities such as Seattle (which hosted the warmup of "Hairspray") and Chicago (where producers introduced "Spamalot").

Also eligible for tax breaks: developers who build new theaters or refurbish the boarded-up stately theaters that still line Canal.

Wilson predicts a day when the city can offer a broader entertainment experience for tourists: Bourbon Street party types could check out the world premiere of an Andrew Dice Clay or Aerosmith tour. The more genteel set might head for a big, gaudy musical after dinner at a Creole gem like Galatoire's.

Wilson -- who pitches the idea with the gregarious passion of a preacher -- also predicts a day when Fendi and Gucci stores will crowd out Canal Street's T-shirt emporiums:

"This," he says, "is an economic-development, job-creating, infrastructure-repairing, society-lifting monster."

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