Bourbon Street is home to many a queen, but only one reigns supreme. Her highness’ name, for the uninitiated, is Chris Owens, and her kingdom is the club she owns at the corner of St. Louis and Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
Owens, a tall drink of Texas water who will celebrate her 83rd birthday on Oct. 5, 2015, is a French Quarter icon, a whirling dervish of sequins, song and dance in the style of old-world burlesque.
Backed by a kickin’ band of musicians and singers, Owens performs at her club six nights a week, with not much sign of slowing down.
Chris Owens struts her stuff at her Bourbon Street club — Photo courtesy of Beth D'Addono
Her endlessly fishnetted legs keep the beat to everything from salsa to disco, and while her vocals may be a bit throaty, there’s no mistaking a show biz pro once she takes the stage.
Sporting a mane of long black hair that puts Cher to shame, Owens kibitzes with the audience and shimmies and shakes and parades like it’s Mardi Gras morning. This is the kind of floor show that used to be the norm on Bourbon Street before strip clubs and T-shirt shops took over the landscape.
“I’ve never seen anything like her, and I probably never will again,” says recent audience member Chuck Epstein, a visitor from outside Philadelphia. “She really knows how to capture the audience and make them part of her show.”
Philly visitor Chuck Epstein gets into the spirit of things during one of Chris Owens' shows — Photo courtesy of Beth D'Addono
That’s for sure. Epstein, a guy who typically runs the other way from audience participation, actually got onstage wearing an oversized foam cowboy hat and galloped around on a stick horse during one of Owens’ country croons.
His wife Johanna Dunn took the stage and shook maracas during a merengue number. A friend of theirs, who preferred to remain nameless, found herself playing horsie astride one of the band members, slapping his behind upon request.
“I really can’t believe I did that. But it was a blast,” she admits.
“The show was very fun,” adds Dunn, who visits New Orleans at least twice a year. “I was impressed with her sexy physique – so glamorous! And I wanted to know more about her hair, makeup, costuming and choreography.”
Owens has been a fixture on Bourbon Street since the 1960s, but her connection to New Orleans doesn’t end there. She's also the grand marshal of one of several Easter parades that roll through the French Quarter, a role she played to the hilt during the 32nd annual Chris Owens French Quarter Easter Parade this past April.
And if you dip into the New Orleans Musical Legends Park on Bourbon Street, you’ll find a nubile statue of the curvaceous Miss Owens alongside the likes of Al Hirt, Pete Fountain and Fats Domino.
Please understand that Chris Owens doesn’t need to work: her assets include the building at 500 Bourbon, with its multiple shops and many apartments. But this is a woman cut from the same cloth of the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ethel Merman, showstoppers who couldn’t imagine their lives away from the stage.
There’s not a lot of real New Orleans on Bourbon Street these days. Irvin Mayfield’s Playhouse is one exception to that rule. The other is the Chris Owens Club, where you'll find Owens strutting those famous gams on the city's tourist-fueled party street six nights a week.
“She really is a part of the history of this city, the vaudeville aspect that used to be more the norm on Bourbon,” says Jamie Ruth Dehlin, a local tattoo artist who recently opened her own shop, Treasure Tattoo, on St. Claude Avenue in the Marigny. “I've been going to see Chris Owens since the '90s. I think the main reason I like her show is because it's just fun; she is a true entertainer!”
In fact, Dehlin's seen the Chris Owens show more than a dozen times. It just doesn't get old.