by Leslie Cardé
Award-winning venues around the city are amping it up.
WHEN YOU INFUSE an already fabulous venue with $41 million in renovations, your plan is to exceed all expectations. In the case of the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and the Audubon Insectarium, there’s now more to see, more to do, and more to learn. The Aquarium is consistently ranked amongst the top five aquariums in the country, alongside the Monterey Bay Aquarium in northern California, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, and the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. The New Orleans landmark is now attracting more visitors than ever, thanks to its new look and feel.
Enter the imposing glass structure along the river and set your eyes on a pink katydid, among other unusual critters in the insectarium, or gaze at the white alligators slithering in and out of their watery hamlets at the aquarium. Whatever you choose, it’s a visual feast for the senses. And, within the aquarium, if you want to get up close and personal with manta rays and small sharks, there’s the large touch tank which invites you to quite literally feel the creatures of the deep.
Ron Forman, the man who has been involved in running the Audubon Nature Institute for 50 years now, has overseen an umbrella entity that includes not only the Aquarium and Insectarium but also the Audubon Zoo, the Louisiana Nature Center, Audubon Park, Woldenberg Riverfront Park, the Freeport-McMoran Audubon Species Survival Center, the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center, and the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species. For Forman, whose raison d’etre has always been about global citizenship, there’s an elemental method to the madness and an underlying common denominator and purpose in running these organizations.
“It’s vital to teach the importance of conservation of wildlife, of their habitats, and of nature, generally,” said CEO Forman. “If you’re going to have animals on display, it must go beyond an attraction. It has to provide sustainable homes for wildlife, and we need to instill the notion, for example, of saving particular species like dolphins and sea turtles. We have families coming to us from all over the country and the world, and we have an important preservation message to impart. Since we at Audubon need to compete with other cities for tourism…. we want to be the economic engine which drives the train, enabling us to get our message out.”
There’s literally something for everyone inside this new adventure. The new butterfly exhibit inside the insectarium will have you marveling at these beautiful flying creatures as they spin around you, landing on your hands and on your head. Different species have been imported from other areas, and what may not be indigenous to the U.S., you can see on video. One particular butterfly has markings that appear to be the head of a snake. It’s camouflage at its very best!
What may have been familiar before will look different now. The Gulf of Mexico exhibit, for example, now has two vantage points… from the top of the tank as well as from below. The Amazon exhibit will expose children and adults alike to new varieties of reptiles and birds. The Bayou exhibit makes learning about the wetlands fun, and the Mayan exhibit will give you a feel of our neighbors to the south in Mexico and Central America with their reef residents, like moray eels, slipper lobsters and parrotfish, amidst a backdrop of sunken treasure and beautiful orange sea coral.
For the truly adventurous, there is Bug Appétit, a café where insects become tasty food. In this take-out space, ants, grasshoppers, and crickets are prepared using recipes from the great chefs of New Orleans. Insects, it turns out, are a healthy and low-fat protein alternative. My particular favorite? Chocolate chirp cookies… that’s right, made with crickets.
Upriver just a couple of miles from the aquarium and insectarium, is the National World War II Museum, which has been lauded with awards since its initial opening in 2000 under its original name, the D-Day Museum.
TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Awards have consistently ranked the museum # 1 in New Orleans, # 3 in the United States, and # 8 worldwide.
The museum came about when two University of New Orleans professors, Nick Mueller and Stephen Ambrose, wanted a museum to enshrine artifacts that had been collected. They wanted a place that would honor World War II veterans while explaining to the world why the war was fought, how it was won, and what it means today. However, after going to Congress for support, they were not getting traction and decided to take on the project themselves.
“Of course, they imagined something much more modest, like a little research museum that would be built at UNO,” said Pete Crean, V.P. of Education and Access at the National WWII Museum. “They thought they needed to raise $1 million, as Ambrose thought it would cost $4 million to build. Imagine, we have just completed a $400 million capital campaign. But the D-Day Museum was their brainchild. So, they started a board and formed a 501c3 non-profit corporation. Advisors early on decided the museum needed to be where tourists go… in the downtown corridor. By 2000, the museum had opened.” By 2004, it became the expanded National World War II Museum.
But nature was not cooperating. The following year, Hurricane Katrina hit the city, the levees broke, and the city sustained monumental flooding. While the museum itself did not incur massive flood damage because of its proximity to the Mississippi River, it was the end of tourism in New Orleans for some time to come. With a city underwater, the board met in Texas to decide the museum’s fate, and resoundingly that decision was to move forward with their vision and begin fundraising. By 2009, the museum re-opened with the Victory Theater. Since then, the expansion has been continual, with new exhibits opening every two years and new pavilions coming on board right up to present day.
The new Liberation Pavilion, opening November 3rd, will show in words, pictures, videos and actual artifacts what the cost of victory was about. It will show how we dealt with the refugee crisis, look at prisoner-of-war stories, the war orphans, and explore both the emotional cost of war by highlighting mental health issues like PTSD while spotlighting the physical costs, as well. The pavilion even has an exhibit showing how newly blinded soldiers learned to read Braille. And there is also an entire exhibit on the Holocaust.
“There is a really cool theater inside this pavilion called the Liberation Theater, explained Crean. “The half-hour film is not narrated and is in three ten-minute segments containing 25 oral histories of those who were either liberated or who did liberate those prisoners in camps. The theater is on a rotating platform that turns in its entirety after each segment. It’s a very emotional film. You’ll hear astonished servicemen arriving at the gates of a concentration camp, asking why anyone would do this to other human beings.”
Or how, when the Americans arrived, camp victims who didn’t speak English were singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as everyone broke down in tears. The stories are nothing short of inspiring and are too numerous to recount, but the Liberation Pavilion was 11 years in the making, and nothing was missed.
The 2nd floor of the new pavilion explores how America emerged out of WWII as the leader of Western democracies and how the War paved the way for an international declaration of human rights. It takes a hard look at how African American GIs came home to a Jim Crow South. And it explores the technological advances which came out of WWII – – – plastics, the computer, remote phone technologies, medical advancements, even Tupperware. Prior to WWII, there was no Saran Wrap, there were no jet engines, or any satellite communications.
It’s hard to miss this museum while driving along I-10 through the downtown area. Its magnificent architecture, designed by Bart Voorsanger, is a symphony in projected metal. As many who know him say, he’s never met a right angle he liked. But the magnificent exterior is surpassed only by its thought-provoking interior.
Today, less than 167,000 American veterans are left who served in World War II, out of the original 16.4 million men and women. But this museum serves as a lasting tribute to them and will continue to long after the last veteran has passed on.
Venture across New Orleans to the towering oaks of City Park in Mid-City, and you’ll find the 55,000-squarefoot Louisiana Children’s Museum. It found a new home in 2019 when it moved from the Julia Street location in the CBD to its place on a lagoon surrounded by soaring greenery. Much of the storied structure is glass, bringing in natural light and, most importantly, connecting kids to nature. In 2022, the American Institute of Architects gave it their design award for just that reason.
Earlier this year, Tifferney White became the new CEO of the Museum, and she sees great things ahead. With her vast experience running museums in Charlotte and Las Vegas, she has been involved in community outreach since she first began working in museums and believes that there’s a way to bring in a new diverse population of kids to the museum— but only if they know it’s here. In her past, that often meant introducing children to the museum by bringing some of the enticements remotely to community centers around their cities. But now, she’d like to find a way to get children to actually experience the joy of being in a uniquely designed space that encourages fun and learning. The purpose of any museum is to open up new horizons to children, and White believes that you’ll never know what children can become if they’re not exposed to new experiences. She took that theory quite literally when she brought a “guest” into a Charlotte community center.
“These were kids who didn’t frequent zoos or museums, so I decided to teach them about birds and reptiles, and that included snakes,” said CEO White. “I had to learn about these animals myself, so I found someone who could teach me how to handle a boa constrictor. Once I felt comfortable, I arrived at this community center and brought all of my boxes inside.
Toward the end of the session, I announced that I had brought a friend along and wanted to introduce him to everyone, but cautioned he didn’t like loud noises. The kids got very quiet. When I brought that snake out of the box, the gasps were audible. Some even moved to the back of the room.
I explained that reptiles were cold-blooded, and that my friend didn’t mind being touched if they promised to stroke him with two fingers in a certain direction. By the end of my visit, everyone had petted him.
You just never know who in that room might have been inspired to be a veterinarian — all because they were exposed to something different at a young age.”
At the moment, the Museum encompasses exhibits specifically designed for children from birth to 3rd grade. There are infant areas with soft building blocks, bean bags to sit on, and even a waterbed surrounded by cushioning so that play and exploration can occur without hard surfaces’ physical dangers. And every area of the museum has a book nook with age-appropriate reading material reflecting the diversity in the community.
Elementary-age kids will be fascinated by the supermarket where they can buy items to cook in a recipe. And the museum considers it important that kids learn where the food on their plate comes from and how it gets there. The “Follow the Food” exhibit lets kids experience what it’s like to shuck corn without actually getting out into the field.
Through pulleys and Velcro, the simulation all comes together. And through conveyor belts, they learn how food is sorted and comes to market.
White’s favorite exhibit is The River, which features a raised platform of meandering water that snakes through various states, starting in Minnesota and ending in Louisiana. Kids are encouraged to put boats in the river and move the locks so the thrust of the water waxes and wanes. In one exhibit, they learn about geography and the importance of engineering.
An artist-in-residence at the museum encourages creativity in a space that allows one to experiment and try one’s hand at different artistic pursuits. Children have a lot to say about the world if given the freedom to express themselves, whether it’s in paint, yarn, or even popsicle sticks.
White would like to see the Children’s Museum eventually include kids from the 4th grade and up on whatever level that means to get them in the door.
In a city of historical venues, what’s more historic than the Saenger Theatre in the heart of downtown New Orleans? On the National Register of Historic Places, it’s been around since 1927 and has seen its fair share of turmoil, including recovery from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which prompted a $54 million renovation.
The theatre came to be when the Saenger brothers, who were pharmacists in Shreveport, put a mutoscope in the drug store, enabling customers to use a hand-crank to see moving pictures. Realizing people were entranced by movies, they bought The Strand Theatre in Shreveport, where vaudeville players entertained the theatre patrons. The brothers began building their own theatres and eventually built the existing Saenger Theatre on Canal Street at a whopping cost of $2.5 million – – – a fortune back then. It was their biggest and most ornate theatre, and the brothers moved their corporate headquarters to New Orleans. Today, part of its allure is bringing Broadway to the city.
I asked the longtime General Manager of the Saenger, David Skinner, how touring companies come about today. “Producers on Broadway determine whether their show can make money touring,” Skinner explained. “In other words, does it have broad appeal? Shows need to tour for at least a year to recoup the cost of touring. “Les Miserables,” for instance, is a proven entity.”
That’s why it rotates through many theatres like the Saenger every so many years, as the successful hit finds new audiences and is seen again and again by many rabid theatergoers who love its unusual storyline and unforgettable songs.
The 2023-2024 Broadway in New Orleans season is a lovely mix of classic musicals, a brand-new musical premiering in New Orleans, and a comedy.
“First out of the box is “A Wonderful World,” the story of Louis Armstrong,” Skinner explained. “It will be seen for the first time, not on Broadway, but right here in New Orleans. It’s being produced by Vanessa Williams and contains 26 of Armstrong’s songs, including “We Have All the Time in the World”, written by John Barry, and originally recorded for the James Bond classic, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, and later reprised in “No Time To Die”.”
The remainder of the season includes “MJ the Musical”, based on the life of entertainer Michael Jackson, followed by “Wicked”, the untold story of the witches of Oz, which won three Tony awards when it debuted on Broadway. Next up is “My Fair Lady” which won six Tonys, including best musical. If you haven’t seen this outstanding musical, now’s your chance.
“Les Miserables” is up next and tells the story of Jean Valjean, who is imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. It’s the winner of eight Tony awards, including Best Musical. “Ain’t Too Proud”
follows The Temptation’s extraordinary journey from the streets of Detroit to the Rock‘n Roll Hall of Fame. The classic “Annie” tells the story of Little Orphan Annie, and originally won seven Tonys, including Best Musical. If you loved “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the film with Robin Williams, the musical is coming to town with the same actor in the lead role who played it on Broadway. The season closer is “Clue,” a comedy based on the famous board game. It’s a murder mystery where the ending is decided by the audience.
But don’t ask Skinner what’s on tap for the 20242025 season. That’s a very well-kept secret.
The Saenger is awash with colorful stories and anecdotes, but perhaps my favorite involves the renovation of the starlit ceiling in the main theater. After years, many incandescent lights had burned out and couldn’t be reached to be replaced under decades of paint. During the massive renovation post-Katrina, the ceiling was redone, and fiber optic lights were installed where there had been no lights for decades. Someone commented that the night sky looked like a replica of the summer solstice of 1927. Skinner decided to confirm that notion with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the famous astrophysicist, who happened to be in the theater one evening. It seems half of the ceiling is correct, but the other half is merely a duplicate of the first half. Who but an astrophysicist would know the difference?
It’s just one more story that makes this magnificent theater one of a kind, in a city of classic venues that are all unique in their own very special ways.