Remembering the Cocktail King of Bourbon Street
Earl Bernhardt reinvented New Orleans’ Bourbon Street with his beach-themed bar empire and over-the-top drinks, including the now famous Hand Grenade.
The last time I saw Earl Bernhardt he was sitting at an upscale craft cocktail bar a half-block off Bourbon Street in New Orleans with his business partner, Pam Fortner. They were sipping drinks and looking around and taking everything in, like tourists visiting from Omaha. This was their first time here, they told me. They wanted to check it out and see what the new neighbors were up to.
That was nearly two years ago. Bernhardt died last December at the age of 80. He left behind a wife, three daughters, his business partner, and five bars on Bourbon St. He also left behind a nearly four-decade era, one that could reasonably be called the Bernhardt Era of Bourbon St. It’s a time marked by extravagant, almost cartoonish cocktails, a beachbar vibe and ceaseless Jimmy-Buffet-inspired music. Not to mention an attention to detail that was unrivaled. Earl Bernhardt was the opposite of an absentee bar owner.
It’s common to hear Bourbon St. described as a “drinker’s Disneyland.” But that’s just wrong—every square foot of Disneyland was scrupulously engineered and designed with a corporate goal in mind. Bourbon St. happened naturally, without a plan, over centuries. It is, Bernhardt told Richard Campanella, author of Bourbon Street: A History, “the biggest disorganized street in the whole country.”
Beneath the neon and “Huge Ass Beer” signs and pavement redolent of gastro-intestinal disorder, Bourbon St. is a phenomenon of unplanning. “The dizzying, deafening artifact we see today originated organically, without an inventor or a vision or a legislative act,” Campanella wrote. “There is no Bourbon Street logo, no headquarters, no board of directors, no visitors’ center, no brochure, not even a website. The nightlife that made the street famous—after two hundred years of utter normalcy—was created spontaneously by a cast of local characters, who, in an uncoordinated attempt to make a living individually, succeeded collectively.”
Among the most prominent of those characters was Earl Bernhardt.
Bernhardt grew up in Mississippi, and started his career as a radio reporter for United Press International, covering the civil rights movement. (He lasted until a hostile mob flipped his car and set it on fire while he was in it. “That’s when I found [a] pay phone and called United Press in Jackson and said, ‘This is Earl Bernhardt. I quit.’”
He bought a share of a radio station in his hometown of Hattiesburg, and worked as a DJ, spinning country and western tunes. After a quarter century in radio, Bernhardt started scanning for an exit in the early 1980s when deregulation roiled the industry.
That’s when a friend suggested they apply for a concession stand at the upcoming 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans. They did, were accepted, and constructed an octagonal beach-hut style building under the monorail station. It was called Tropical Paradise, and had eight drink stations with a commercial blender, each run by bartender (whom they called “spinners”) whirring up drinks made with liquor, ice cream, and fresh fruit.
“People waited in line in the 100-degree weather for up to an hour to get on the monorail,” Bernhardt recalled in an oral history compiled in 2015 by Rien Fertel for the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). “When they got off…they came out right by a frozen drink concession and it was like built-in success.”
When the fair shuttered, Bernhardt took his profits and invested in a place a few steps off Bourbon St. He brought along one of his spinners, a woman from Nashville named Pam Fortner, whom he made partner. Their new place opened in December 1984. It was called the Tropical Isle.
But this wasn’t the entrance to a monorail, and it wasn’t a built-in success. Business was spotty and the barroom was often more empty than full. Not long after they opened, Bernhardt asked a voodoo practitioner called The Chicken Man to come in and consecrate their bar to improve their fortune. He painted small crosses with chicken blood on the walls, and hid a talismanic bag in the rafters.
And soon after, Bernhardt and Fortner made a fortuitous discovery.
They were at a Mardi Gras supply shop to pick up eight-inch backscratchers, which were used as novelty stirrers in a drink called The Tropical Itch. And Fortner happened to notice a bin of tiny, toy hand grenades as they strolled through. “Oh, wow, we ought to make up a drink to go with that,” she said.
Bernhardt and Fortner had been in search of a drink that could compete with the cocktail T-rex of Bourbon St.: The Hurricane, sold by the tankerful at Pat O’Brien’s bar, just a block away. So they set about concocting. “We decided we wanted it to have a melon flavor,” Bernhardt recounted to a newspaper reporter, “and we wanted it to be strong.”
In the late-1980s, Bourbon St. was in the late phase of a major character change. Since World War I, the street had been home to nightclubs and bars possessed of various degrees of classiness. Most clubs were inward focusing—you’d buy a ticket, check your coat, and enjoy drinks and a show.
But starting in the late 1960s, Bourbon St. turned inside out; the show now took place on the street. (The reasons for this were several: the city passed laws requiring doors be left open to allow police to watch for drug-dealing and cat-selling; go-cup ordinances were passed, which legalized drinking on the street; and hippies and other counterculturists arrived, who disdained nightclubs as places for squares and preferred hanging on the street.)
With imbibing moving from club to the curb, Bernhardt and Fortner saw an opportunity to make every drink a walking advertisement. They worked up another concoction called the Shark Attack. They’d seen a local bar serving a drink by that name, which featured a tiny plastic shark as a garnish. “Gosh, we can improve on that and make it a dramatic thing,” Bernhardt said. “And we did.”
The Shark Attack became bar-top theater, and was served amid clanging bells, flashing lights, and the theme music from Jaws. Each time one was ordered, a bartender blew a whistle and shouted for everyone to get out of the water, then plunged a hollow, grenadine-filled plastic shark into blue, Collins-like drink. Blood rose to the surface. Everyone cheered, more importantly everyone who walked down the street bearing a cup with an eight-inch shark tail emerging out of it became an unpaid billboard for Tropical Isle.
So, too, with the Hand Grenade—which was eventually served in impossible-to-miss, luminescent plastic grenade-shaped glasses. Bernhardt was also clever enough to trademark it such that nobody else could sell it by that name. He offered a $250 bounty to snitches who reported Hand Grenades being sold elsewhere in the country, and claimed to have sent “hundreds” of cease-and-desist letters to violators and $250 checks to informants. “In fact, we’re in a law suit right now with a company that tried to take off on the name grenade and they called it ‘gurrnade,’” he told the SFA in 2015.
Bernhardt and Fortner lost their lease on the first Tropical Isle years ago, but by then had the wherewithal to set up shop right on Bourbon St., across from where they started. They eventually opened two more Tropical Isles, along with two other high-volume bars on Bourbon St.
And that provided a platform for another bit of intuitive Bernhardt brilliance: becoming the godfather of Trop-Rock.
In the 1980s, Jimmy Buffett’s beach-slacker ballads filled the airwaves. The singer became associated with Key West, but he began his career busking on Bourbon St. and there was a lingering fondness. Bernhardt had been auditioning bands when one headed up by Al Miller came through. Miller knew every song in the Buffett canon, along with a great many other tunes possessed of a twangy beach party sensibility. Bernhardt signed Al Miller and his Late as Usual band to a regular gig.
“I think he recognized that people come to New Orleans to escape, and the tropical theme is the ultimate escape,” says Jerry Diaz, who founded one of the original Parrothead clubs in Houston and over the years has been a frequent visitor to Bernhardt’s bars.
With Bernhardt’s encouragement, Diaz launched Pardi Gras in 1992, originally as a gathering for the Buffett tribe, with parades and concerts on Bourbon St. Over time, it evolved from Buffett-fest to a more general celebration of trop-rock, which Earl once described as “like Jimmy Buffet and rap and reggae and country kind of all mixed together.”
Diaz credits Bernhardt for lighting a fire under the genre by promoting it ceaselessly at his clubs. “He started trop-rock music if you ask me,” Diaz says. “It wouldn’t have happened without him.”
Historian Richard Campanella also credits Bernhardt for popularizing the beach town vibe on Bourbon St.—despite the fact that no one but the most hygienically challenged would consider going barefoot here. “In the process, the duo reconstructed the prevailing Bourbon St. thematic motif from one of nocturnal jazziness to beachy topicality and Caribbean escapism,” Campanella wrote.
“Bourbon St. is kind of an evolving thing,” Bernhardt told Campanella. “It never stays the same. Sometimes you’ve got too many T-shirt shops, the next thing you know you’ve got too many Daiquiri shops; now we’ve got too many strip clubs.”
Shortly before his death, Bernhardt and Fortner reformatted the Funky Pirate, their blues-on-the-beach bar, into the Bourbon Street Honky Tonk, the first honky-tonk-style bar on the street, boasting a Broad Street in Nashville vibe, although still with Hand Grenades.
If Bourbon St. starts pivoting away from the beach and heading for the dance hall, chasing after Broad St.’s success, it would seems somehow appropriate that the beginning of the end of the Earl Bernhardt-era on Bourbon St. was started by Earl Bernhardt himself.