A week or so back I was reading some interesting chicken soup recipes on another blog and I chuckled as the outlanders simultaneously displayed both admiration and confusion over the 300 plus year old cultural traditions that make New Orleans and the Mississippi Coast both charming and an enigma to outsiders. In the old days, especially south of I-10 here in Mississippi we viewed ourselves as a world apart from the rest of Mississippi. In Waveland, we considered ourselves a suburb of New Orleans. Many of our Dads commuted daily to New Orleans to work; many New Orleanians has second homes or retired to Waveland, where our population would seemingly double in the Summer.
Most of our cultural traditions we hold close. For example, I never fully explained to Nowdy, for instance, that “Later” is a common substitute for “Good bye” down here. To understand the people and culture you really have to live the experience. Despite Mississippi’s own rich history of outragious politicians they seem minor league in comparison to characters like Earl Long or Leander Perez, who ruled Plaquemines and St Bernard Parishes for many years. Closure from the impacts of Perez family rule would many years later find my best friend escorting his Mom to
Buras Pointe a la Hache to collect her share of the oil royalties her cajun family, like so many others, had been swindled out of by the Perez family.
This morning we learn of the passing of another cultural icon, Al Copeland. Al was equal part fried chicken king, speed boat racer, serial spouse and modern day Kris Kringle (not to be confused with Mr. Bingle 😉 ). His name was also associated with judicial bribery long before it became fashionable in Mississippi.
Born in poverty, Mr. Copeland burst onto the scene in 1972, when he opened his first Popeyes fried-chicken stand. The Arabi restaurant was the start of a franchise that, under his leadership, had 700 outlets, in the United States, Puerto Rico, Panama and Kuwait.
The money he earned led to public displays of opulence such as speedboats kept in a glass-walled showroom along Interstate 10 when he wasn’t racing them, a Lamborghini sports car parked outside his corporate headquarters and, of course, the massive Christmas displays that required sheriff’s deputies to direct the traffic outside his Metairie home.
There also were over-the-top weddings with such touches as fireworks and a model of Cinderella’s pumpkin coach. These weddings ended in equally spectacular divorces; the divorce proceedings from his third wife wound up bringing down the original judge hearing the case as part of a massive federal investigation of courthouse corruption.
During Carnival, Mr. Copeland not only sponsored parade floats in Jefferson Parish but also rode, said Peter Ricchiuti, a Tulane University finance professor who saw Mr. Copeland in one such procession.
Ricchiuti said he overheard this exchange between two other spectators: One man dismissed the spectacle as an indication of new money, but the other man replied, “If I had money, that’s what I’d do.”
Indeed it seemed as though Al could never get enough of Al to ever satisfy the showman trapped inside him, the public fascination of his rags to riches story would also never subside as he passes from this world to legend. I wonder if Anne Rice will be attending the services after his dust up with her several years ago.
One such restaurant, Straya on St. Charles Avenue, triggered a noisy public feud in 1997 with novelist Anne Rice. She used her voice-mail message and a series of full-page advertisements in The Times-Picayune to attack the restaurant’s decor, which included tasseled black curtains and a pair of sleek black-leopard sculptures flanking the entrance to the rest-room area.
“The humblest flop house on this strip of St. Charles Avenue has more dignity than Mr. Copeland’s structure,” she said in her opening salvo.
One reason she felt so passionately about the building at 2001 St. Charles Avenue was that she said that the Vampire Lestat, her dominant character, left her there, before Straya opened, after seeing his reflection in the window of what had been a Mercedes-Benz dealership. Rice also said she had planned to open a restaurant, Cafe Lestat, in a Magazine Street building she owned, but that never materialized.
Mr. Copeland’s response, also in a full-page ad in The Times-Picayune, was good-humored, offering to treat her to dinner and to help her find Lestat. He even spoke of launching a monthlong “Find Lestat” promotion and dressing his staff like vampires.
But he also filed suit, claiming that she had defamed him and that she violated fair-trade laws because “her comments were made in the context of her being a business competitor,” Mr. Copeland’s lawyer said.
Civil District Judge Robin Giarrusso threw out the suit. Mr. Copeland, accepting defeat, invited Rice to dinner. Rice, who did not accept his offer, moved to California in 2004, settling in Rancho Mirage after brief stints in San Diego and La Jolla. Straya, a phonetic spelling of “strella,” the Spanish word for star, has become a Cheesecake Bistro.
As the people in “the City” will attest Al Copeland was indeed “naturally N’awlins”. To read the full story on his life and untimely passing in today’s Times Picayune click here. Al you will be missed.