Saturday, June 18, 2011

Bon vivant dancer does last waltz

John Pope, The Times-Picayune 

Henry George Schmidt, a bon vivant with a roguish eye who was a fixture on dance floors around New Orleans well into his 10th decade, died Tuesday at Chateau de Notre Dame. He was 100.
schmidt-henry.jpgHenry George Schmidt
Mr. Schmidt held a series of jobs. In his youth, he sold clothes to Huey Long, including a pair of pajamas that became notorious. But friends and family members said he never was defined by the way he earned a living.
To those who knew him, Mr. Schmidt was a free spirit who devoted his life to enjoying the city, often accompanied by his younger son, Jimmy. He could be counted on to show up, nattily dressed, at restaurants, dances and concerts by the New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra, which his older son, George, helped found.
"He enjoyed life more than anyone I know," said Julia Woodward Burka, a longtime friend. "What interested him was having a good life."
And wherever he went, everyone seemed to know him, Burka said.
Mr. Schmidt was a native New Orleanian who seldom ventured far from the Crescent City, even when he was drafted in World War II. After his family saw him off on the troop train, not knowing where he was going, Mr. Schmidt wound up being deployed to Biloxi, Miss., only 90 miles away, his son George said.
Mr. Schmidt grew up in a musical family. His mother sang in the chorus at the French Opera House, where he played backstage as a youngster; his sister was a vocalist with several bands; and an uncle played piano in a Storyville brothel and, later, accompanied silent movies on the organ in local theaters.
After Mr. Schmidt graduated from Jesuit High School, he worked at Stevens Men's Wear. One day in the early 1930s, U.S. Sen. Huey P. Long walked into the store with his entourage, and, George Schmidt said, his father took it upon himself to tell the Kingfish how to sharpen up his image to make a better impression in Washington.
For instance, he advised Long to wear double-breasted suits, and he told him to get a better set of neckties and a hat with a narrower, more fashionable brim than the one Long had been sporting.
And then one day, Mr. Schmidt sold his most notable client a pair of green silk pajamas with a paisley pattern and a cinch belt. The cost: $12.50, the equivalent of nearly $200 today.
That outfit became infamous because Long wore the pajamas to receive the captain of a visiting German ship when he paid a courtesy call on Long in his Roosevelt Hotel suite. International tut-tutting ensued, George Schmidt said, and anti-Long forces even re-enacted the scene for a newsreel to show off what they felt was Long's boorishness.
Years later, George Schmidt said he found the pajamas on display in a bedroom in the Old Governor's Mansion, which has been converted into a museum in Baton Rouge.
Throughout his life, Mr. Schmidt never left his house without being splendidly turned out from top to toe, Burka said, and that included a hat -- a Panama in summer, a fedora in winter.
But, she said, Mr. Schmidt advised that there's more to wearing a hat than simply plopping it atop one's head. "He told my husband, 'You've got to wear a hat with a jaunty air,' " she said.
Among the women whom the spiffily dressed bachelor dated were Dorothy Lamour, who went on to become a movie star, and Helen Kane, the model for the cartoon character Betty Boop.
From his youth well into his old age, Mr. Schmidt gravitated toward dances. Peggy Scott Laborde, a WYES-TV producer who interviewed Mr. Schmidt and his son George for her documentaries, remembered dancing with Mr. Schmidt at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival to the music of the New Leviathan.
"He was a great dancer," she said, "and this was when he was in his late 80s!!"
After Mr. Schmidt worked briefly as a Goodyear salesman, he and his wife, Jo, ran the Lauralee Guest House on St. Charles Avenue. Mr. Schmidt later was a clerk and checker for the New Orleans Steamship Association; it was the post from which he retired.
In his retirement, George Schmidt said, his father roamed the city, striking up conversations with strangers and tossing off stories about vanished landmarks and the people who inhabited them.
"When you talked to Dad, it was like an oral-history interview," the younger Schmidt said. "Dad had a historical memory."
Survivors include two sons, George Schmidt of New Orleans and James Schmidt of Hammond, and a daughter, Joanne Schmidt of New Orleans.
A funeral will be held Friday at 1 p.m. at Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home, 5100 Pontchartrain Blvd. Visitation will begin at 11:30 a.m.
Burial will be in Lake Lawn Park Mausoleum.

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