By Rodney Harrington
A few days ago I was walking on the downtown riverbank on my lunch break. I marveled at how much work was being done. I also thought about how great it’ll be when it’s finished.
As I walked past the site of the stage, I was surprised to see that it had been reduced to a pile of rubble.
I noticed the pieces of bricks that had once made up the base of the stage, and what was left of the steps around back that so many musicians, politicians, schoolchildren, and tourists had ascended over the years, it occurred to me that a very significant part of Natchitoches history was unceremoniously lying there in that nondescript pile of broken bricks, concrete, and dirt.
I paused there for a few minutes and the memories came rushing back. I calculated that my band, Johnny Earthquake and the Moondogs, had performed on that stage at least 50-75 times. I’m pretty sure that’s the most that any band has played on it.
I’m not sure when the first time was, but it was probably for either the Christmas Festival or the very first Jazz/R&B Festival, which was nearly 25 years ago. I remember as a fledgling band in Natchitoches you felt you had “made it” when you got to perform on the “Big Stage.”
The stage on the edge of that river created a unique venue for musical performances. The Jazz/R&B Festival wouldn’t exist if not for that stage. In 1994, that first year, we used the Moondogs’ sound equipment and Charmaine Neville was our headliner. At least three or four hundred people showed up.
The festival has grown over the years into one of the region’s top music events, drawing thousands of fans every year and featuring national and international acts such as Grand Funk Railroad, Eddie Money, Perry Sledge, Irma Thomas, .38 Special, Edgar Winter and more. They all performed on that modest stage.
Every year, I would say the star of the Festival is the venue; that riverbank and that stage which the Festival dubbed “The Fleur De Lis Stage.”
Many of the musicians would often comment about what a great “vibe” it created. These road-weary veterans, who could be jaded from the rigors of touring, found it was refreshing and a fun place to perform. I heard this countless times.
I remember singing with James Burton and Rick Derringer, performing with Joe Stampley, Sam the Sham and Wayne Toups, and on one very special evening, having Trombone Shorty, Burton and T. Graham Brown on the stage with us at the same time.
I remembered taking a “leap of faith” off the stage for a crowd-surf one cold Christmas Festival day.
Speaking of leaps, I remember about 20 years ago our trombone player at the time, Jeff Mathews (now NSU’s Band Director) and I thought it would be a good idea to, upon playing the final note of the evening, to dramatically leap off the stage. Turns out it wasn’t the greatest idea. My knees still hurt.
For me, the most special moment occurred about 15 years ago when my sons Curt and Eddie, musicians in their own right, performed with the Moondogs. It was our only public performance together.
I believe the stage was constructed in the 50s and renovated in the 70s. Since its construction, it’s served as the centerpiece of riverbank activities. Many a band has performed there during the Christmas season and many a Miss Merry Christmas and Christmas Belle has graced the stage. There’s been lost of Festivals including the Meat Pie Festival, and the Barbecue Festival, the Green Market and more. Many NSU-related activities were featured on that very stage, the most famous of which was the Homecoming pep rally that ended with Oprah Winfrey firing up the crowd.
The riverbank and stage have been featured in several movies over the years including, of course, Steel Magnolias.
After 9-11, we organized a concert to raise funds for the families of the first responders in New York who lost their lives. The event ended with everyone singing “United We Stand.”
About 11 years ago Governor Blanco presented special awards to the surviving World War II veterans in our area. My son Eddie, who was working at the governor’s office, made the presentations. Among the honorees was my father, Billy, who was so proud to have his grandson present him with the award. Sadly, my Dad passed away a few months later and most, if not all of the veterans who were honored that day are no longer with us. Their families have memories of that day and lots of pictures and in the background is the stage.
The renovated riverbank is going to be fantastic and there will be a huge covered, state of the art stage to replace the old one.
Beginning with next year’s Christmas Festival, new memories will be created on the new stage on the new riverbank. Forgive me, though, if every now and then I get a little nostalgic for the old brick and concrete “Fleur De Lis Stage.”
Oh, and by the way, I have a confession to make. I stole one of the bricks. Please don’t tell the District Attorney.