She turns back time on Bourbon Street

Chris Owens performs at her club in the French Quarter of New Orleans. She has entertained in the city for more than 50 years. Chris Owens performs at her club in the French Quarter of New Orleans. She has entertained in the city for more than 50 years. (Bill Haber/ Associated Press)
By Mary Foster
Associated Press / July 21, 2009

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NEW ORLEANS - The band kicks up the tempo, the crowd applauds, and Chris Owens prances out on stage at her Bourbon Street nightclub, her black curls flying and sequined tights twinkling.

It’s show time, and this is a night for performing like all others. Only this French Quarter first lady has been entertaining audiences for more than 50 years, a fixture on a New Orleans night-club scene that faded long ago even as she outlasted many a singer and dancer in a city awash in revelry.

“I can see you’re ready to party!’’ Owens tells adoring fans.

For the next hour or more, Owens will wow the crowd with nonstop dancing and singing while exhibiting the enormous energy of a woman decades younger.

“I’ve always loved to dance,’’ Owens said. “That’s how it all got started, and that’s what keeps it going. It’s that special way your backbone slips when you feel the rhythm. I was born with that.’’

Owens’s Las Vegas style review is a throwback to Bourbon Street in its jazz-steeped heyday. Backed by a band, she works the crowd masterfully, picking some from the audience to bring on stage as she dances, sings, and pokes fans with good-natured jokes.

“She’s the last of the real entertainers, the entertainer with an act,’’ explained clarinetist Pete Fountain, who had clubs on Bourbon Street from 1959 until 1977 when the nightclub scene began to fade. “That’s what clubs used to be like. People would dress up and come in, have a few drinks, and watch the show.’’

The acts that made Bourbon a magnet for entertainment seekers are long gone. The burlesque houses of the ’50s and ’60s, featuring exotic dancers with names like Blaze Starr, Lilly Christine the Cat Girl, and Alouette Leblanc the Tassel Twirler are no more. Elaborate shows with gaudy props and old-school entertainment have given way to rowdy bars and strip joints advertising “barely legal’’ girls and “live sex acts.’’

“She’s the only thing left from what the French Quarter used to be,’’ said David Otillio, 50, a longtime fan attending a show. “Nobody knows how old she is, I’ve heard everything from 65 to 84, but whatever it is, she’s amazing.’’

And Owens won’t give her age, throwing out her stock response: “A woman who will tell her age will tell anything.’’

No matter the years, so many signs of youthful vitality remain.

She proudly boasts of a 36-24-36 figure. And standing 5 feet 7 inches, she has a 128-pound body that has changed little over the years; her flexibility and energy seem endless.

Owens performs three nights a week at her club and also books private parties. Between acts, she also manages 25 apartments and four shops in the club building and keeps the books for all of her businesses. Oh, and she’s also the star of the French Quarter’s annual Easter parade.

Not bad for someone who runs on little sleep. She frequently goes to bed at 2 a.m. and gets up at 5 a.m., she said.

“It’s all exercise and diet,’’ Owens said. “I’m very careful about both.’’

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