Chris Owens: The Queen of Bourbon Street

Originally published 3/18/2013

The longest-running female entertainer in New Orleans shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. She has been electrifying audiences for decades with her incredible dancing and interactive show.

“I’m originally from Texas from a family of eight children,” recalls Owens. “We were a very musical family, all of us. One of my brothers is a songwriter in Nashville.”

Already musically oriented, the Texas native, who began her career as a nurse, originally moved to New Orleans to be with her eldest sister and the man who eventually became her husband, Sol. It was because of Sol that Owens landed her fi rst performance.

“When Sol and I got married, we’d frequently go to Havana, Cuba, where we would go out dancing all the time. He was a great Latin dancer,” says Owens. “That’s how I got my start in show biz. I danced for the shows there, at the popular clubs there at the time: Montmarte, Sans Souci, and the Tropicana. Sol eventually bought this lounge. It was just something on the side. I was working as a nurse at the time, and he was in the automobile industry. We went out dancing every night.”

Owens still holds a strong affection for her time in Havana–she’s even considered moving back. However, it would not be the same without her late husband, and the thought slowly evaporates. Owens made such an impression in Havana that upon her visits from New Orleans, her return would often be greeted with a headline on the front of the local newspaper.

“It was my playground of the world,” recalls Owens.

Even though she loved her second home of Cuba, she could not face it today.

“I don’t know if I could really go back [to Havana]. I have memories before Castro. My friends had the Tropicana nightclub, the biggest in the world. When Castro moved in, he kicked everybody out. They got out with their money, but they had to leave their mansions. They moved to Miami Beach, tried to open a club there until they thought they could return to Cuba. It was really a sad situation, especially since all my friends were over there. They eventually took the Tropicana and turned it into a military drilling base.”

Though she would never return, Havana opened Owens up to many other worlds.

“I’ve entertained three Latin presidents: one from Honduras and two from Guatemala. The one from Guatemala didn’t speak a word of English. We took them to dinner at Antoine’s, and they had their Secret Service with them. They would militarize the club—around the back alley and throughout the club so nobody would see them.”

Owens also recalls a suprise encounter during a performance for a former Israeli Prime Minister.

“At one point during that show,” recalls Owens, “our lighting director abruptly turned all of the lights on in the house; he wanted to create excitement for the show. The prime minister thought he was being shot at when this happened. After that, BOOM—he was out the door!” Sol Owens eventually bought the building on the corner of St. Louis Street and Bourbon, and opened the Chris Owens Club, where she still entertains today. Now, owning her own club, Owens found ways to further entertain the growing crowds by involving them in the show.

“Our club was so popular that we had a line around the block to get in,” says Owens. “When we used to return from Havana, we’d bring back all of the Latin percussions; we’d bring back the maracas, the Congo drums, the bongos. I started passing them out to the audience—it turned into a big party every night. I began encoporating outfi ts into my performance as well—I’d started going out in cocktail dresses and a beaded handbag. Sol put in this big, big spotlight. You could see it all the way to Canal Street! I felt like I had gone as far as I could on my own dancing, so I started teaching the hostess and waitresses to line-dance behind me. I taught them the Cha Cha, the Mambo, the Merengue.”

Owens’ star had grown so big, her persona began to cross over into her personal life. When Sol and their friends would frequent other clubs, just out having fun, it always eventually turned into show business. “I was literally pushed into it,” says Owens.

With a growing fan base, Owens decided to advance her act.

In addition to dancing, Owens decided she needed to begin singing to complete her performance. She enrolled in vocal courses, and began the process of recruiting a backing band. Once again, Owens’ efforts to further herself paid off, expanding her fame and infl uence.

With the band, Owens began recording albums. Demand for her performances had her booked for Vegas tours and shows on cruise ships. Always looking to continually grow and improve her act, these doors opened up more to her than just fame.

“Singing opened up a whole new world for me,” recalls Owens. “I traveled all around the globe. I was exposed to so many new ideas that I incorporated into my own show.”

Her friend and manager Kitsy Adams explains Chris Owens’ success: “It grew into the dynasty that it is today. Back when dancing was dancing, it was really an art. And she still has that, and that’s what the attraction is.”

Also integral to an Owens show are her elaborate outfi ts. She has become known for her custom clothing and eye-catching style…and big hair.

“They tease all the country girl singers like Dolly Parton about their hair, saying if you’ve got big hair, you must be what?

A redneck. I’m not a redneck. I like the style. It goes with my face well. I’ve been doing this for a long time now. I’m the type of person who thinks, if it looks good on you, then don’t change it. Look at Beyonce, how fabulously she wears that big, fl uffy hair.”

Owens prides herself on designing most of her outfi ts on her own as well, a practice she has kept since learning how to sew in high school during Home Economics class. However, she is also voracious consumer of fashion, scouring the coast from Beverly Hills to Vegas to Miami Beach for the latest styles.

“When I design, I know exactly what I want,” says Owens.

Owens’ sense of style can be seen all  throughout her home, which also serves as a refl ection of her travels.

“Everything you’re looking at is from all over the world,” says Owens. “You might see pictures of [late Jefferson Parish sheriff] Harry Lee a lot; he was one of my close friends. That was so sad when he passed away.”

Although Owens loves being at her club, she cannot wait to perform at French Quarter Fest on the Jackson Square Stage on Friday, April 12th at 5:45 p.m. “I’m excited about going back to French Quarter Fest; the crowds are wonderful. It’s a fun show to do, and people from all over the world come. The stage is huge and the crowds are unbelievable. I get a bigger band together and have more backup dancers. I even recruit backup singers—I just make it more grandiose,” says Owens excitedly.

Owens says she plans to keep her act going for as long as possible. “I pride myself on being the only show of its kind on Bourbon Street. It’s a very cleancut show, very family-oriented. I do all types of events: bachelorette parties and birthday parties have become a big thing. I involve them in the show. It’s more fun for people getting involved. People love that. The audience just goes crazy.”

“I was asked [about retiring] after my husband passed away in ’79. Eric Paulsen, from Channel 4 at that time, said, ‘Do you plan on retiring?’ I said, ‘Retiring? I feel like I just got started!” says Owens.

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