A Conversation with Roger Blais, Veteran New Orleans Bartender (with a Disco Past)
Roger Blais has been holding down the fort at the Windsor Court’s Polo Club Lounge most evenings since 1994. He’s had the same schedule for 23 years — always off on Sundays and Mondays. Always coming in around 4 in the afternoons, leaving his days free to spend with his wife Rose, work on his house and build things. He also takes a well-deserved daily power nap.
They say still waters run deep. On a recent night at Polo Club, in the lull of the dinner hour, the elevator doors opened and a local appeared who comes to enjoy a drink at the bar about every six weeks.
Before the local takes two steps towards the bar, the grapefruit juice and vodka are being poured over ice. As he sits, Blais puts the Greyhound down and says, “Welcome back, Mr. Hudson.”
Blais, a bartender for 40 years, has a reputation for speed and service. Even in the laid back atmosphere of the Windsor Court, his days of speed bartending and memorizing people’s drink orders come in incredibly handy. At age 18, Blais was cutting his cocktail teeth at a nightclub in Albany called Rudy’s. Known for his speedy skills, he was recruited to bartend at Andy Warhol’s Studio 54 in New York City. On the promise of finding money in the oil fields of Louisiana, Roger and his wife Rose settled in New Orleans and never left. The oil field was a bust, but his bartending background has afforded him a life he never dreamed.
But for such a storied career, Blais is very modest and gracious when walking down memory lane.
How did you hit on Studio 54 as a place to work?
You know, that’s a part of my life that … it was almost 40 years ago. It was fun and it was what it was, it did what it did. But I want to be known as the guy that takes excellent care of his guests and who rebuilt a house with his bare hands.
It just seems like Studio 54 was the top of the top and here at the Windsor Court you are now at the top of the top — taking the utmost care of the wealthy and glamorous.
Studio 54 was a fun challenge. In New York in the 70s, bartenders were considered good or bad based on how fast you were. I was an incredibly fast bartender. I was like … I’m not bragging … but I was hands and feet above most everybody.
You know the movie “Cocktail?” A lot of that was very true about that era of time. I mean, not the flipping of the bottles, but just being smooth. Having this great economy of motion, not wasting a step, no double moves. That’s how you knew you were good against some body else.
Owners from other clubs would come just to watch me work. I was lightning fast. I kind of had the reputation around town.
It was a semi-circular bar and I worked what was called the high corner. Right where the door was because we didn’t have a cover, we had a minimum. So there was a charge at the door, but you got two free drink tickets, so as soon as people walked in, they wanted their drink as soon as possible.
They would just line up. And once I waited on somebody once, I knew what they wanted. As I’m seeing people three and four down the line, I’m making their drinks before they get to the bar. So when they get up there I’m just handing them a drink and taking their money.
And it went on like that until 3 in the morning.
So you’ve always been a bit of a night owl bartender?
Right, I love having my days free. It allows me to do all of the building things that I love to do.
We close at midnight and we are out of here by 1 a.m. I’m up by 7 or 8. I take a power nap in the afternoon before work. It’s great. I love my power nap.
I’m not 22 anymore, so when I get off I just get in my truck and go home. When I was 22, the night was only starting when I got off of work. Especially in New York. We would just party all night long.
A lot of people say this, but I really feel it. I’m really fortunate that I met my wife. I’d still be living the bachelor bar life. In the 70s, it was crazy.
It must be lovely to spend the day with your wife.
Well, she works during the day. That’s why I get up so early, so spend the mornings with her. And we have Saturday day and all of Sunday.
It’s almost like you live two lives in a way.
Well [he laughs], I don’t know about all that. I mean, the reason why my wife and I came to Louisiana in the first place was that I wanted to do a project in Albany, New York, where I’m from. In the 1970s, downtown was being revitalized and all these old brownstones had fallen into blight. You could buy them for next to nothing and I realized they would be worth a lot of money some day if you re-did them right. The only problem was that I didn’t have any money at all. Someone told me that you could make money working in the oil fields in Louisiana.
My wife was teaching school and I asked her, “Hey, what do you think about living in Louisiana? I can work offshore and we won’t spend any money because I’ll be in the middle of the ocean and we can do this Albany deal.”
I made it sound like an adventure, and it was. Once we got down here we never left.
How did you settle on New Orleans?
I was destined to be in this city ... I had always wanted to come to Mardi Gras. We actually had planned a vacation to come here — this was back in the 1970s when everyone went through a travel agent.
We had plans to go to the Endymion Ball and everything. And this was the year that Mardi Gras got cancelled because of the police strike, so we ended up going to Florida instead.
Surely they must have still had a bit of Mardi Gras that year…
Yes, but the travel agents were telling all the tourists not to come down to New Orleans, that Mardi Gras had been cancelled. But I still had the urge to come here.
Were there a lot of people in New York that were talking about New Orleans at that time?
Yes, I would talk to guests in my bar who had come here and they told me it was a fun town. Back then the cops in New York were really cracking down and issuing DUIs. They were waiting outside of bars for people to leave. I was looking for something fresh and new. Something a bit more laid back.
Although The Windsor Court isn’t too laid back…
Well, I actually got out of the business for six and a half years. When I came down here I got a job working in the oil fields. I worked offshore.
And then you were affected by the oil bust in the 1980s?
Yeah, that was from 1980 to 1987.
Wow, that’s a long bust.
You know the oil bust that’s going on now? There was a bust just a big in the 1980s. Oil went down to $19 a barrel. So everybody lost their job. And guess what? I went back to slinging drinks.
Was the Windsor Court your first choice?
I mean, after the oil field, I kinda knocked around. I got into the real estate business for a while.
But that wasn’t the business to be in back then.
You’re right, that was dead. That was not a good business to be in. No one was buying houses. Interest rates were 20%. It was ridiculous.
Do you know were Ralph’s on the Park is? By City Park? Before it was Ralph’s on the Park it was a place called Tavern on the Park. I worked there for about five years.
A buddy of mine, Kenny Bryant, works at the Windsor Court and he had an opening for a bartender here. I got to the Windsor Court and I knew, this is going to be my last job.
I’ve been here 23 years.
They take care of you here then.
Very much so.
Do you have a favorite memory or moment working at the Windsor Court?
The first Super Bowl after 9/11 was in New Orleans. It was a Saturday night before the Sunday game and it was a who’s who of everybody in the world. Owners, politicians, actors, whatever … When Rudy Giuliani walked into the bar and everyone stops, stood up and gave him a round of applause. It was a heartfelt moment. You felt like a real American.
So when you mentioned you want to be known for building houses with your bare hands, that’s not a metaphor?
No at all. The house that I live in now I built by myself from scratch. Took me fours years to do. I did that before the hurricane, right around 2000 and finished up a year before Katrina. We were spared from the storm and we did very well.
Was it an empty lot?
It was an existing house that I tore almost completely down. I dug a new foundation with a shovel and poured the concrete with a wheelbarrow.
And how did you learn this trade?
I’ve had rental properties for a while, so you learn a few things.
You jokingly mentioned it took you two years to learn the bartending industry and it’s taking you 40 years to get out. What would you do if you weren’t bartending?
I think I’d like to build furniture.
You like doing things with your hands. Without a laptop and internet, I’m pretty useless to the world. All I do is push pixels around.
Well, lucky for me, people all get thirsty.