Thursday, March 30, 2023
By Lydia Blackmore, decorative arts curator, and Molly Reid Cleaver, senior editor

In April 2022, the legendary Bourbon Street entertainer Chris Owens died at the age of 89. For more than 60 years she was Bourbon Street’s star attraction, a singular figure who stood out—all sequins and legs and gravity-defying black hair—against the district’s sea of burlesque performers and jazz ensembles (and, later, pole dancers and cover bands). For visitors to New Orleans, hers was one of the first faces to greet them: full-length posters of Owens in her regalia decked the terminal walls of the old Louis Armstrong International Airport. For locals, she was an icon of outlandish extravagance, serving as the permanent “grand duchess” of the French Quarter Easter Parade.  

Two months after her death, a sale of her estate was announced. Fans and relic hunters rejoiced. The Occasional Wife, a consignment and estate-sale service, held a three-day sale of items from her home and club, and Neal Auction House featured treasures from her closets, jewelry boxes, and private rooms at several sales. The offerings included furniture in an array of styles, from Louis XV armchairs to a glass coffee table anchored by a bronze sculpture of a writhing woman; photographs of Owens with celebrities such as Muhammad Ali; and custom outfits and costumes, including a number of colorful fur jackets and several of her iconic Easter ensembles. Like Owens herself, the estate appealed to the “crème de la crème”—a term she used to describe her early audiences—as well as everyday peopleA 14-karat gold coin belt sold to an unknown buyer for $32,000, while THNOC Education Specialist Collin Makamson and his girlfriend put in a lowball offer on a lion's-head accent table and were soon surprised to find themselvs in possession of it. 

Photograph of a dark-haired woman wearing an elaborate, floor-length lavender dress and matching hat.

Owens served as the grand duchess of the French Quarter Easter Parade every year since 1983, and her costumes were custom-made from her own designs. The lavender ensemble seen in this image sold at auction to an unknown buyer for $480. (THNOC, 2022.0109.8) 

Before the estate was made available to the public, The Historic New Orleans Collection was able to preview some of the offerings and purchase a select few. In addition, THNOC was connected to Owens’s niece, who donated an additional group of objects documenting the entertainer’s career. Included in these acquisitions are a white fur stole, posters, photographs of Owens, instruments, and more. Together, these pieces create a cohesive collection representing a giant of New Orleans entertainment. 

As Doug MacCash wrote in her obituary for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate, “The French Quarter is the heart of New Orleans, Bourbon Street is the heart of the French Quarter”—that’s debatable—“and since 1956 Chris Owens was the heart of Bourbon Street.” 

Photograph of a dark-haired woman in an outdoor backstage area, holding a microphone and wearing a multicolored performance ensemble.

Owens kept taking to the stage into her 80s, up until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of venues and restaurants. She’s seen here, in an image by photographer Jules Cahn, coming offstage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival sometime in the 1980s or early ’90s. (Jules Cahn Collection at THNOC, 2000.78.8.249)  

Chris Owens was born Christine Joetta Shaw on October 5, 1932, in Stamford, a small West Texas town. One of eight children, she grew up on a farm and ranch and studied nursing at Texas Wesleyan College (now University) before moving to New Orleans at the age of 20, joining her eldest sister there. While working as a medical receptionist, Shaw met local car dealer and impresario Sol Owens. They married in 1956.  

The couple opened a nightclub, Club 809, at 809 St. Louis Street, just off Bourbon. Within a few years, the club was thriving, largely because of the Owenses’ charisma. The couple dominated the dance floor, showing off Latin moves they learned at the famed Tropicana club in Havana, Cuba.  

“We’d go [dancing] every night,” Owens said in her 2014 oral history for THNOC. Bandleader Xavier Cugat “would shine a light on us, and so then people would . . . just get off the floor when we’d start to dance Latin music. And just by continuing doing it and going to Havana and going to all the famous watering places around the country, that really highlighted my career.” 

Black-and-white photograph of a dark-haired woman in a white dress dancing.

Chris and Sol Owens, at right, dance at an unknown club in the 1950s. (THNOC, 2022.0109.11)

It’s difficult to overstate the explosive popularity of Latin music and dance styles in mid-1950s America. Perez Prado was “King of the Mambo,” Dean Martin’s “Papa Loves Mambo” was a huge hit, and I Love Lucy was bringing Cuban music into millions of people’s homes every week. With her beauty and skill, Owens became a face of the trend, appearing in the Saturday Evening Post and the syndicated column of New York gossip reporter Walter Winchell.  

I’ll never forget that night,” Owens said of the time she first met Winchell, at the New York City nightclub El Morocco. Actor Jackie Gleason was at a table, and when Winchell asked Owens to dance, he sidled them up to the star, saying, “‘You’ve got to watch this girl, watch this girl do the mambo.’  

Then, nobody was really moving their bodies. People would really dance kind of stiff, but I was going to Havana then and dancing the way they did in Havana. That’s what really started it all off.” 

A framed color photograph of a dark-haired woman who is wearing a red and silver dress, dancing in a crowd.

Owens made her name as a mambo dancer in the 1950s. (Image courtesy of Neal Auction Company)

Meetings with Hollywood producers and engagements at other famous venues followed. Her glamour-girl image ascendant, the Owenses parlayed that success into a full stage act for Chris at Club 809.  

“Sol was my manager, so I left everything up to him,” Owens said. “They [Hollywood producers] said, ‘Oh, my god, we’re offering you more than what we’re paying Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s up to him.’ Sol said, ‘No, we just bought our club,’ and so we stayed in New Orleans.” 

Hear Chris Owens describe her first stage act and early success

Clip from Chris Owens’s oral history for THNOC, conducted by Senior Historian Mark Cave in 2014. (THNOC, gift of Chris Owens, 2014.0140.2)

Album covers for "Chris Owens With Love" and "An Evening with Chris Owens." On both covers, a dark-haired woman poses for the camera.

Owens released three LP records, two of which THNOC acquired with the Chris Owens Collection. (THNOC, gift of the estate of Chris Owens, 2022.0144.11, .12)   

In 1968 the Owenses purchased property across the intersection from Club 809, at 500 Bourbon, creating a larger venue on the ground floor and maintaining their own residence and rental units upstairs. Her cha-chas and mambos, backed by a troupe of “Maraca Girls,” became the hit of Bourbon Street, putting her on par with Al Hirt and Pete Fountain. “Every major legendary star in Hollywood would be brought in by friends when they’d come to town,” she said.  

In 1976, the Owenses dropped the old 809 moniker to name the club after its star. It remained the Chris Owens Club ever after.  

This clip of Owens’s live act was shot in 1993 by WYES-TV as footage for the station’s documentary Bourbon Street: The Neon Strip, produced by Peggy Scott Laborde. (THNOC, gift of WYES-TV © WYES-TV, 1997.65.30; posted with permission) 

Owens was the star, but audience engagement was an important part of her appeal. In the early years, she would pass around maracas and conga drums, encouraging spectators to feel the rhythm. As her act progressed, she would bring people up on stage, getting them to dance and declaring them “hot.”  

After her husband died, in 1979, Owens took over ownership of the club and the apartments above, where she resided for decades. In 1983 she became the grand duchess of the French Quarter Easter Parade, known for the elaborate bonnets worn by celebrants. Owens kept this honor for the rest of her life, typically parading with her longtime companion, Mark Davison, until his death in 2019. She continued performing at her eponymous club until the COVID-19 pandemic stopped live performances. Two weeks before the 2022 Easter parade, she passed away, on April 5. 

Color photograph of a dark-haired woman wearing a white minidress, a long white fur stole, and sequined silver boots.

In this promotional photo, Owens holds a long white fur stole, showing off her glamorous style. Both the photo and the stole were acquired by THNOC in 2022. (THNOC, 2022.0109.4) 

The posters purchased from Owens’s estate include one listing the performances at the Chris Owens Club during the 1990 Super Bowl weekend and another from the 1991 Carnival season, when Owens reigned as queen of the Krewe of Tucks alongside New Orleans coroner and trumpet player Dr. Frank Minyard. The donation consists of percussion instruments from Club 809, photographs, music records, and several community awards, including one from Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee bestowing upon her the title “A Very Nice Lady.”  

Color photograph of a pair of colorful maracas. Both maracas are marked "Mexico."

The new Chris Owens Collection includes several pairs of painted maracas, as seen here, and other percussion instruments. (THNOC, gift of the estate of Chris Owens, 2022.0144.3)

 About The Historic New Orleans Collection

Founded in 1966, The Historic New Orleans Collection is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to the stewardship of the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Follow THNOC on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.