Harry Anderson, who was found dead on Monday at 65, became a television star in the 1980s through roles on “Saturday Night Live,” “Cheers” and, of course, “Night Court.” But to Anderson, who grew up as a street magician, Hollywood never felt like home.
Despite his celebrated television career, which garnered three Emmy nominations, Anderson’s heart was never truly in acting.
“I’m a magician, or a performer, by nature, and that’s always what I’ve been,” he told WGN9 in 2014.
So in 2000, he decided to pack up and abandon California.
“I don’t understand why guys have that Don Knotts syndrome of having to be out there [chasing roles in middle age],” Anderson said of leaving Hollywood.
He headed for a town known to celebrate the weird, magic and occult, where Anderson had lived in the 1970s: New Orleans. There, he met his wife Elizabeth Morgan and the couple opened Oswald’s Speakeasy, where he performed magic to interested tourists wandering the French Quarter’s cracked streets. A few narrow blocks over, they opened Sideshow, a magic shop that Elizabeth ran.
And there they found happiness — and soon a higher calling — for a while.
“I am richer than Davy Crockett,” Anderson told People after the move. “I can settle back and do what I want to do. And what I want to do is card tricks and magic.”
Like for so many New Orleanians, though, life forever changed with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. In the storm’s wretched aftermath, Anderson dug his heels into the bayou, proclaiming his dedication to the Crescent City.
“I’ve lived in a lot of places, and this is the only town I love, the only town I’d take a bullet for,” Anderson said months after the storm, according to the Times-Picayune. “Right now I feel like I have an Uzi aimed at my head, but I’ll take a lot more bullets if there are people standing next to me.”
The storm left the city deeply broken, struggling to rebuild its basic infrastructure. Crime was rampant. Streets were impassable. Ignored trash gathered into house-size piles. Tourists avoided the place as if it were cursed. Tasks as simple as finding groceries became herculean.
Anderson wanted to help.
So he opened his nightclub to the public as a safe harbor, gathering locals each week for what he dubbed French Quarter Town Hall meetings, where they could discuss everything from the pain of losing their city to their plans for rebuilding it.
“As a business owner, it’s been six months of ‘Are they ever going to pick up the trash?'” Anderson told CNBC of his town halls. “There were a couple hundred people in the Quarter, and nobody knew what was going on. Nobody knew where you could get food. Nobody knew where you could get a warm beer. So we had these meetings initially just as kind of a ‘Lord of the Flies’ island meeting.”
These soon began resembling actual town halls, drawing about 150 people each, including government officials from New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to discuss the city’s rebuilding.
“Many locals, in fact, gave Mr. Anderson a lot of credit for kick-starting the Quarter’s recovery,” the New York Times noted in August 2006.
But during that year, Anderson’s feelings for the city changed drastically. Tourists had been replaced by floodwaters, and a year later, they still hadn’t returned. Anderson and his wife found it difficult to keep their businesses afloat.
“We had one day where we didn’t sell anything — and someone returned something,” Anderson told CNBC during Mardi Gras 2006. “It’s been very tough.”
One night, he looked around the club during a performance, and in despair told his piano player, “I had more people in my car last night.”
Meanwhile, many of the city’s residents fell into deep depressions, Elizabeth Morgan included.
“It was an empty time. I was getting farther and farther away from other people, and happiness,” she told the New York Times, adding that she still worked in the shop, “but the passion for it was gone.”
Things just worsened for the couple, according to the newspaper.
Harry Anderson was attacked on the streets of the Quarter by a stranger who smashed his face into a building’s facade, saying, “You killed the Matador” — a reference to the bar Oswald’s Speakeasy had replaced. The city then tried to more than double the couple’s property taxes, while the area’s power company Entergy sent a $900 bill for an apartment in their building — one that didn’t have electricity.
But the “nail in the coffin,” according to Anderson, was the reelection of Mayor Ray Nagin, whom many criticized as deepening New Orleans’s problems after the storm. Nagin was eventually convicted of 21 counts of bribery, wire fraud, tax evasion and other charges and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
The couple, saddled with bitterness, decided living in the city wasn’t worth the struggle any longer, so they packed up and moved to Asheville, N.C.
“This city hasn’t evolved,” Anderson said of his once beloved New Orleans. “I just feel this place is stuck on stupid.”