Frenchmen Forefathers

On Sunday, New Orleans will honor R Bar founder, Tom Epps, with a second line through the French Quarter. Sadly, Epps was not the only notable bar owner to pass this year. Over the summer, a bicycle accident claimed d.b.a.'s Ray Deter. Today, a longtime friend to both men, Roger Steinbrink, pays tribute to these two Marigny stalwarts.

 

This is a tribute to two fallen heroes. Tom Epps , founder of the R Bar, was tragically killed in an accident while riding his motorcycle in Santa Barbara, Ca, in April. Ray Deter was killed as he was riding his bicycle in New York City in June. They were the two of the key players in the rebirth of Frenchmen St., though neither of them actively set out to do that. It was a by-product of their collective endeavors to bring good vibes and good drink to a neighborhood that sorely needed both. That both bars are still survivng and successful is a testament to their foresight, and hard work that benefits us all to this day. I was fortunate enough to be friends with both of them, and the person who did the actual work to bring their dreams to fruition. This is an account of my relationship with both of them. They will always be an inspiration to me and all who knew and loved them.

 

They will be missed, but not forgotten. This Sunday, Sept. 25, there will be a second line for Tom Epps at One Eyed Jack's on Toulouse St. in the French Quarter. The party starts at 6 p.m. and the second line begins at 7 p.m.. All are invited. Please come out to celebrate the life of this wonderful man.

 

 

I first met Tom Epps and Heidi Mueller in 1995. His manager of the R Bar at the time, a handsome young Irish fellow named Ronan, was a friend of the man I was working for, and Ronan asked me to come by and look at some windows that the new proprietor was having problems with.

 

 

Tom & Heidi’s apartment was on the second floor, above the bar. I was curious to see the new R Bar, as it was called. In its former incarnation, it was known as Griffins, a threadbare, dumpy, old man’s bar where the average age of the patrons was 65 going on 99. It was one of those corner bars that you see in every city where the old men sipped their beers all day to pass the time while they waited for their next social security checks.

 

Into this quiet, pastoral, geriatric ward on the corner of Royal & Kerlerec Sts. came Tom Epps & Heidi Meuller to rock 'n roll the place. They had the "street buzz" going for them, as is usually the case when a bar changes ownership in New Orleans, and the younger crowd is talking about it.

 

I hung out at nearby Cosimo’s, an old, local French Quarter holdover from the old 60’s-70’s post – hippie crowd. It was comfortable and predictable like an old pair of top-siders. My friend Rob told me about the R Bar, and said the new owner might have some work for me, so I sauntered over one fine afternoon to check it out. Locals don’t walk in New Orleans, they saunter or sashay. I have lived here long enough to mispronounce all the street names correctly, so I consider myself a local. Therefore, I saunter, as I’m not of the proper gender or sexuality to sashay.

 

The R Bar had been open only a short time, and the place had already taken a bizarre turn for the better. They painted everything black, even the floors, which were accented with strange herioglyphs. There were all kinds of old, strange mirrors on the walls, which gave the place a kind of creepy haunted house feeling, which was much to my liking. I couldn’t wait to meet the new owners. I think I was hoping for a punk rock Gomez & Morticia Adams. I almost got them, only Tom and Heidi were way cooler. While I was waiting to meet them, I scanned the jukebox; a sure way to gain some insight into the new owners. When I saw The Cramps, John Lee Hooker, and Link Wray on the box, I knew that things had decidedly changed for the better.

 

Tom and Heidi came out of the office all smiley, cool and laid back. Tom said the apartment above the bar had some windows that were messed up due to shoddy installation, and I told him, no problem, I could fix them right away. He had some other stuff he wanted done also.We talked quite a bit that first day about everything that could be done in the apartment and downstairs in the bar. We had a lot in common on an aesthetic level, and a lot in common on being in the mindset of old hippie types. It’s not really typical to get into that much deep conversation with a prospective client at the first meeting, but Tom was not your typical guy. He had a sincere openness about him that was disarming and made you feel like you’ve been friends forever.

 

So began a long and mutually beneficial relationship that I will always treasure as one of the high points of my life and career. You see, up until that point, I was always working for someone else, just making a living, getting by. After fixing the windows for Tom, he said he had a few more projects for me. Well, one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew I started renovating the guest rooms*, and eventually the bar. Due to his confidence in my abilities, my creative juices started to flow. Idle comments and random thoughts with a little embellishment became artwork. Jokes became wall and ceiling sculptures. It was the best job I’d had in quite a while. I couldn’t wait to come to work and tell them my latest idea. Those first few months were very busy. After a lot of long hours implementing the changes, the eventual result was The Royal St. Inn & R Bar – the coolest and hippest bar in New Orleans.

 

The guest rooms were works of art in their own right." The Bukowski Suite" was inspired by the legend that "Hank" himself signed his name in the fresh concrete by the fire hydrant in front of the bar, a legend that I subscribe to, as Griffin’s was the perfect sort of bar that Bukowski would hang out at. The "Kiss & Tell” suite was sweetly decorated by a beautiful picture of a little boy kissing a little girl. "Ghosts in the Attic" was equally inspired with the glow- in- the -dark eyes on the walls. Even the hallway leading up to that room wasn’t safe from our artistic sensibilities, as Tom gave me permission to seal up a void in the wall with a "time capsule" of sorts. I pulled a piece of 2"x4" out of the wall somewhere that was about 18 inches long & had about 20 bent nails sticking out of it at odd angles. I merely put a base on it and put a little plaque on it proclaiming it "Monday Morning". They loved that. We also put in some wind-up toys that we hope will spring to life one day when some future carpenter eventually opens the wall. One day, Tom came in with an oversized red "R" that he picked up downtown from the closing of the old McCrory’s 5&10 cent store on Canal St. We promptly mounted it on the ceiling with that day’s Times-Picayune in it for posterity.

 

I felt like some kid turned loose in an artistic fun house where the only constraint was your own creativity. I’m sure they felt the same way. How else do you explain an upside down skeleton band hanging from the ceiling, & a rare Harley Davidson racing bike slapped against the wall atop a beer cooler? The Harley had quite a pedigree. Tom told me that it was a 1970 racing bike, and that there were only 200 built, but some flaws were discovered that caused Harley – Davidson to re-call 100 of them and they were destroyed. Tom had one, because back then he was a professional motorcycle racer, and he was sponsored by Harley.

 

Tom was born and raised in rural Alabama, dirt poor, he said. He started out racing on the backwoods circuit, but having a natural talent he soon progressed to the bigger leagues. He was also a natural athlete and had the stuff to win a scholarship to University of Alabama. He told me a story once that he talked to the coach about his financial situation, being one of abject poverty. The coach gave him a handful of coins and told him to rattle them around in his pocket & he’d feel much better.

 

After college, rather than be drafted into the U.S. Army, he joined the Air Force. It turns out he was talented enough to be put into flight training. He became a pilot & flew in Viet Nam. After his service, he hooked up with Delta, and became a professional pilot for many years. That’s where he met Heidi. She was a flight attendant, and it was love at first sight. They became inseperable and decided that, after seeing every city in the country countless times, New Orleans was the best for people of their temperament.

 

Tom, being the naturally talented guy that he was, also excelled at being a bar owner. He and Heidi were always trying to promote good times by doing things like getting a barbers chair, and offering haircuts with a shot for ten bucks. There was always something happening at the R Bar.

 

 

The fun didn’t stop there either. They were always generous when it came to their employees. The annual summer employee road trips were always full of good natured, alcohol-fueled adventures & riotous shenanigans. Who else would close up their bar for a week and take all of their employees off on a grand escapade in some unwitting locale? I was technically not an employee, but they generously invited me to come along on their joyous journeys. From the ruins of Tulum to the beaches of Florida and many other places, came a crew of happy, gleefully looney, harmless maniacs, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since "The Merry Pranksters" of yore. Tom and Heidi, the grand masters of the joyous proceedings, sat back and watched with benevolent amusement, like indulgent parents with their precocious darlings, as we wreaked havoc on the sensibilities of anyone who was fortunate enough to be within drunken shouting distance of our good cheer.

 

I’ve always thought of bars as community centers for people who like to drink. Also as community theaters, when you consider some of the drama and trauma that happens there.  R Bar was no different. The collections of characters that came and went were always a delightful bunch. There were still some holdovers from the old Griffin days and they were well respected & bought many rounds by the new crowd.

 

The important point that I would like to make is that Tom and Heidi, by creating the R Bar, were instrumental in bringing about the revival of Frenchmen Street, alhough they didn’t know it at the time. This came about when Ray Deter, the owner of a New York City bar called d.b.a, came to New Orleans with the idea of opening a location here. He was scouting around when he came across R Bar, and was knocked out by the decor & vibe of the place. He became friendly with Tom and always ended up there after his scouting missions. R Bar became his home base. He asked Tom who was responsible for all of the work and Tom gave him my name. At the time I was in Baton Rouge selling Christmas trees and I didn’t have a cell phone back then, so Ray scribbled his name and number on a cocktail napkin and told Tom to make sure I got it on my return. From that hastily scribbled napkin came the renaissance of Frenchmen Street.

 

Ray Deter was another man who changed my life in a good way. He was full of boundless energy and enthusiasm, another man on a mission who was also a genuinely nice guy. His mission was "Drink Good Stuff", which I wholeheartedly subscribed to. Ray and his business partner, Dennis Zentek, were scouting locations for their new upscale drinking haven, and settled upon the old Marigny Theatre right in the middle of Frenchmen St. between Cafe Brasil and Snug Harbor.

 

When I first met Ray and Dennis, I was impressed with their savvy and energy. They both talked fast and often finished each others sentences. They obviously knew their business, and were anxious to start right away. We had many meetings at the R Bar planning the new d.b.a.

 

Ray and I had much the same philosophy when it came to building renovation. Instead of tearing everything out and starting over, we worked with what was already there, enhancing the qualities of the old atmosphere; re-using everything that was existing to create a new space.

 

The old Marigny Theatre had seen better days, as had Frenchmen St. itself. Once they acquired the property, we wasted no time gutting the old electrical, plumbing and partition walls that were no longer needed. We kept the original structure relatively intact, concentrating our energies on updating all the old systems to handle the requirements of a modern bar. Ray was sensitive to the historical value of the old place, and design-wise, we did everything we could to retain the building’s original character and integrity.

 

As we cleared out all the old junk, we found a sign that said, “Their plot, well planned.” We both smiled and hung it up as a source of inspiration for our adventure. Adventure it was, as we plowed ahead, working hard towards a deadline that was simply "get it open, ASAP!"

 

As weeks turned into months I got to know Ray as a person, not just a client. There are many adjectives to describe him; passionate is one. He was passionate about everything he did, and that’s what I think made him so successful. His passion was coupled with an intensity that was tempered by compassion, and a good word for everyone. He was very understanding. I never heard a harsh word escape his lips, which was unusual, considering the pressure he was under to make it all happen. He also seemed to be extremely popular, judging by the number of phone calls he received on a daily basis. When he would get a call, he would immediately start pacing back and forth rather intently until the call was over. I find myself doing that now. It’s an endearing idiosyncracy that I’ve embraced.

 

At one point, Ray and Dennis decided that I should go to NYC and visit the d.b.a. up there to gain some insight into the vibe they were trying to recreate in NOLA. It was a wonderful trip, and I picked up many ideas for d.b.a. New Orleans. When I returned, we implemented many of the design qualities of the original into the building on Frenchmen St.

 

As hectic as things were, there was always the chance of people getting "rubbed the wrong way." That didn’t happen to us. Despite the frenzied pace as we raced towards completion, Ray always maintained a patient, and understanding demeanor. It was much to his credit and direction that things got accomplished as fast as they did.

 

Ray will always be remembered by me for his heart of gold. He was always kind to everyone he met. He became more than a client. He became my friend. After Katrina he was one of the first to get through to me and see that Maggie & I were alright. I never forgot that.

 

Both of these men were very important to me in that for the first time I was given an opportunity to express myself in a creative manner at their respective establishments. In both cases, it was a collaboration that yielded exceptional results. The unanticipated results were the resurgence of Frenchmen St. as a destination for music, good times, and drinking "Good Stuff". They will be sorely missed by those of us who knew and loved them, and always an inspiration to me for what was accomplished.

 

So to you my brothers, I salute you. May God always be with you.

 

* My old friend from Chicago, Freddy & his wife Vicki, were the very first guests to sign in to The Royal St. Inn

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