Gary Esolen, Founder, Publisher and Editor, 1981-1987
Ed. Note: Gary Esolen was the Founder and original Editor of Gambit, launching the paper on Dec. 8, 1980. Gary passed in September 2016. This piece was originally published on the occasion of Gambits 25th anniversary.
It hardly seems possible that it was 25 years ago when a small group of us, mostly veterans of local journalism in one form or another, got together and created Gambit. A quarter of a century. A generation, as things are often measured. Its both a long time and the blink of an eye. And from the first day we intended to make a difference in New Orleans, and to be around for the long haul.
When I reminisce about starting Gambit, I often remember the day we named the paper. Bart Loomis and Rosie Wilson had put some resources behind us. Philip Carter, who would be the chief investor, was not yet involved. We had typesetting equipment on the way, and a space to work in provided on spec by Joe Bernstein, upstairs at his old Spaghetti Factory Restaurant. I was living in a loft in the quarter, and one Saturday we assembled there, knowing it was time to name the baby.
Julia Nead, our first art director, had been playing with logo designs, and since we did not have a name for our newspaper yet, she used different words to illustrate the style she had in mind, which was a convergence of classical and modern typography. One of the words she used to illustrate her idea was gambit, picked up from the title of a Nero Wolfe novel by Rex Stout. When I asked her why she chose Gambit, she said Look at it. A big round letter, the G. A peaked letter, the A. A wide letter, the M. A thin letter, the I. And the T with its hat on. It has everything.
Julia was there, and Newt Renfro. Kathleen Bishop, our first advertising director. Tom Hasselle, our first business manager, who went on to manage weekly papers in New York City. There were probably a few others, but I just cant reconstruct the scene completely. We started out with fifty or so possible names, everything any of us had thought of and taken seriously enough to record. We did round after round of eliminations, and Gambit kept surviving. Was it because Julia had made it real to us with her logo design? Partly, no doubt, but whatever the reason, it had staying power for us.
In the end we decided it was a great choice. The word is most often used for a chess move in which a player gives up a piece, usually a pawn, for favorable position. But it has come to mean a provocative remark intended to start a conversation, and it has the general sense of a stratagem, both of which seemed right to us. More important, it was not an everyday word, so it was an empty vessel that we could fill with meaning. What was a Gambit? Whatever we made it.
We did intend to make something of it. We knew it would be focused partly on entertainment, on what to do tonight or tomorrow night or next weekend. In fact, that calendar of activities was the engine that would drive everything. But because we were in New Orleans, entertainment was not what it is in other places it was, and is, the deep culture of the city, its music and its food and its arts and its spirit. We intended to mirror that culture to itself. And finally, we intended to be a positive voice in the public conversation about our city, to help shape the future.
I leave it to others to remember how we tried to do those things, as many talented people (including Clancy and Margo DuBos, David Richmond, Errol LaBorde, Ron Ridenhour, Liz Galtney, Dana Standish, and others) joined with us over the years. And I leave it to them to judge when we succeeded, and when we failed, both of which we certainly did.
Instead, I am moved to reflect on New Orleans today, in the chaos and rubble left by Katrina, a city deeply wounded, its culture and very soul at risk, facing impossible obstacles and confronted, as the great cartoonist Walt Kelly had his character Pogo observe, with insurmountable opportunities. There could not be a time when the mission we imagined 25 years ago could be more relevant, or more urgent.
We liked to tweak at the big daily paper in those days, and we had a slogan, Gambit, because New Orleans needs a newspaper. The Times-Picayune is a better paper today than it was then, and is doing much that is important in the post-Katrina confusion. But I think it is fair to say that New Orleans needs a Gambit at this moment as well, and is lucky to have one.
I was hired by Gary Esolen and Phillip Carter to be the Advertising Director of Gambit. I was an account executive at the time for Figaro where Gary and I both worked.
I recall being flattered and also so excited to be part of creating an alternative paper with quality journalism/reporting along with an entertainment source. My first hire was Amie Nissenbaum and we knocked on so many doors to tell our exciting new story. Gratefully so many local businesses bought small ads to support us and we collected all the money by hand.
Another account rep I hired was Margo who later became the publisher. It is so exciting to see you celebrate 40 years and to have been part of creating this amazing paper. Keep up the good work.
The early days of Gambit were filled with a bunch of dreamers who eagerly wanted to share in Gary Esolen's and Phillip Carter's vision to create a weekly newspaper that featured the arts, the culture, and serious political commentary. It's hard to believe that was 40 years ago. We did it all we sold the ads, we picked up the ads (camera-ready) and we collected the money. If we didn't get the money in on time, the ad was pulled and so was our paycheck.
As the staff grew, so did Gary and Phillip's vision. They started a tourist newspaper and I became Editor. I went to every hotel in the surrounding area with a cardboard mock up of "The City New Orleans for Visitors." I met with all the GM's, and in the end, there was only one hotel who wouldn't take the chance. After about a month, they called me back asking to distribute the paper in their hotel. That was truly satisfying!
A weekly, a tourist paper and next came Real Estate Marketplace. It lasted less than a year but Gary tried all markets.
We did it all by hand, we didn't have computers. We did all the layouts on boards. If we needed to change an ad position, we literally peeled it off the boards and manually moved it.
I was the first official Managing Editor of Gambit. I still had a few accounts and I still did the ad layout weekly. We didn't have computers. We did all the layouts on boards. If we needed to change an ad position, we literally peeled it off the boards and manually moved it. I was responsible for all the special sections...Restaurants, Home, Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, etc. For the Jazz Fest edition, I met with the editorial department and together we came up with the name Count Basin, which still exists today. We were a group of people who would divide and conquer. I reviewed some of the food, the music, and the crafts at Jazz Fest, along with the other staff writers. We came back together at the end of each weekend and shared our best of list, thus Count Basin was born.
We had the best trade in the world with Arnaud's. We ate there for group events and we took clients to the famous restaurant, several times a week, and became self-declared food snobs.
The sales staff delivered wine to our top advertisers every year at Christmas. Wearing Santa hats and singing Christmas carols, we showed up to spread a little good cheer and frankly embarrass ourselves. One bottle for them, two for us and so on. I wish we had Uber back then.
We had the best Christmas parties. People would clammer to get an invite. We were colleagues, we became close friends, with a shared vision that actually took off. Wow.
Staffers in 2010: From left to right, standing: Kandace Power Graves, Missy Wilkinson, Clancy DuBos, Alex Woodward and Lauren LaBorde. Seated: Will Coviello and Kevin Allman
I somehow squeezed into Gambit at the peak of the financial crisis and decline of alt-weekies across the country. Over the next 10 years, we covered a critical period in the city, encompassing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a growing gentrification crisis, the BP oil disaster, a regressive state legislature, the collapse of Jim Crow monuments, and the dawn of the Trump era and surveillance state. I drank roughly 8,500 cups of not-good coffee.
But I had a loose leash and the immense privilege to write about the citys musically diverse DIY scenes and talk to the people who have shaped the culture of the city and world probably the best and most important role for any kind of alternative publication, to step outside the echo chamber and preserve through some words and photographs the things that matter most.
A staff dinner featuring Will Coviello, Alex Woodward, Kandace Power Graves, Kevin Allman, Lauren LaBorde, Missy Wilkinson and Megan Braden-Perry
Its essential to have some kind of regularly printed, widely available space to document things as they are, with voices from the people living them, without powerful people determining how and what to say, especially now.
Seems pretty simple, but it has always felt like such a fragile thing, and the newsroom at Gambit felt like it was fulfilling some moral obligation to the universe, aware that it could all disappear tomorrow. It also made an awards show for locals who are too online and taste-tested all the king cake vodkas.
My two years at Gambit, a full three decades back, easily remain the most rewarding and just-plain-fun seasons of my professional life.
If you worked at Gambit in 1990-1991, you would have been at the center of a New Orleans cultural renaissance in which sounds from the Neville Brothers, the Radiators, Dr. John, Harry Connick Jr. and Wynton Marsalis were the in thing in the music world; in which New Orleans novelists such as Sheila Bosworth, Nancy Lemann, Eileen Gilchrist and the late John Kennedy Toole, some of them mentored by the great Walker Percy, were being published and promoted in elite circles; in which the food and arts and vibe were even more entrancing than usual; and in which the long-woebegone Saints had finally established themselves, via the Dome Patrol, as consistent regular-season winners.
If you worked at Gambit back then, the politics was fascinating and raw, fun, and controversial. You would have seen Lindy Boggs graciously bow out of her familys 44-year hold on New Orleans congressional seat, while Dollar Bill Jefferson edged Marc Morial in a battle royale to replace her. You would have seen the New Orleans-area delegation, full of outsized personalities led by the inimitable John Hainkel, all but dominate the state legislature. You would have lived through the rise and flameout of neo-Nazi David Duke, culminating in the internationally covered circus of his loss for governor when electing the crook was more important.
You might have heard Duke admit that not a single word you published about him was factually inaccurate, but that I guess I just dont like what you make those facts say about me. You might have endured anonymous day-before-election phone calls threatening that today you would suffer what happens to n----- lovers.
You might have watched one night as Twice-and-Future-Governor Edwin Edwards tried assiduously (and failed utterly) to put the moves on an attractive Gambit ad rep.
With such constant fodder as entertainment, you might think wrongly that you wouldnt be so nonplussed when first-time candidate David Vitter bizarrely hurled at you a string of F-bombs for describing his campaign flyers as glossy (obviously, a mere type of paper), because he thought you were insinuating he was slick and insubstantial.
If you worked at Gambit then, the quintessential New Orleanian Ronnie Virgets would have ambled into the newspaper offices weekly with his enrapturing, oft-handwritten (and thus barely decipherable) vignettes for publication. You might have seen comedienne Ellen DeGeneres chatting up publisher Margo DuBos in Margos office.
And you certainly would have seen a great admixture of good-natured hilarity, insightful wisdom, earnest striving and abiding love of south Louisiana that marked Margo and Clancy DuBos successful attempts to bring ownership of Gambit back to the New Orleans (from a Virginia-based outfit) and make it even more an expression of the citys very soul.
Happy 40th Birthday, Gambit! Thanks for exemplifying the Best of New Orleans.
Megan Braden-Perry, pictured at Harrah's
I would say my top three Gambit memories are:
1. I was an intern, and the Lucky Player king cake vodka just came out. Sitting at the little intern desk, I tweeted that I didn't want to look like a lush by asking for a sample, but that I really wanted a sample. Enter: Kevin Barman Allman, vodka bottle and neon green shot glass in hand.
2. Somehow, at 40 Under 40, Clancy and I started talking about Mike Persia Chevrolet, a looong gone dealership. He starts making the Mike Persia Chevrolet beat on the table, and singing the jingle! At this semi-fancy affair!
3. I had jaw surgery (that was stupid, I don't trust doctors at all), and I was still loopy when I came back a few days later. Kevin shows me a house arrest bracelet on Charles Maldonado's ankle, as if to say WOW look you're gonna love this story! But I thought he got arrested over the weekend and was so sad about it.
Former managing editor Shala Carlson, former longtime managing editor and editor in chief Kandace Power Graves and former editor Michael Tisserand, c. 2000
Looking back over my seven-year stint as editor of Gambit Weekly, one thing I remember most fondly is the laughter. There were plenty of stresses in putting out a paper each week even in those halcyon days before those gentle weekly rhythms were supplanted by a ravenous 24-hour online news cycle but I recall many times when those stresses dissolved in the kind of teary-eyed laughter that Ive never experienced at work before or since.
Part of this was the environment that Margo and Clancy DuBos fostered, one of cutthroat Halloween costume contests and Secret Santas whose gifts often outdid anything received in the stockings back home. More often it was just the surprise dissolution of seriousness into something like mad hysteria. One example: Mark Karcher, a supremely talented artist who got bumped up to administrative director, had that mix of personal warmth, wit and cynicism that makes for the best comedy.
One time in a meeting to choose a cover headline, we started talking about how the biggest cop-out headline is the one phrased as a question: Are Our Wetlands Vanishing? instead of Our Wetlands Are Vanishing. In every meeting after that, Mark started flapping his hand over his head in imitation of a question mark, spinning around a little, begging, Pick me! Pick me! I learned a lot from working with great writers and editors at Gambit, and Im proud of the work we did but Mark Karcher as a walking question mark might be what I miss the most.
When I was in high school, I remember reading a Mark Twain quote, Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life. That always stuck with me.
I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the arts, but I didnt know how I was going to make a living from it. Starving artist was not an option for a career choice, especially for my hard-working Guatemalan mother who wanted me to be the first college graduate in the family. Thankfully, I discovered graphic design during my sophomore year at the University of New Orleans and graduated with a B.A. in Fine Arts in May of 1991.
In the fall of 1991, after a summer course of computer graphic design, I was ready to enter the workforce but didnt know where to begin. I asked my Graphic Design professor for suggestions and she told me Gambit was looking for an intern. I thought, Great! Wait. Whats Gambit?
I thought this would be a great opportunity to gain some experience until I could find my real job. I never imagined I would still be working for Gambit 29 years later. But once I learned what Gambit was all about, I knew this was the place for me.
In 2000, as the new Production Art Director, I began designing the covers and inside pages of Gambit. I always felt it was a big responsibility to design what would be the first impression readers would have, but I welcomed the challenge. The process was usually a fun, collaborative effort involving the publisher, editor and myself. Sometimes we reached out to other staff members to help with the brainstorming process because great concepts and headlines could come from anyone. We were, and are, a scrappy little think tank.
Over the years, Ive also done several redesigns of Gambit. With each redesign, my objective wasnt just to refresh the brand identity, but also to create an experience that matched the content, fresh and fun. I wanted to make sure the design allowed a comfortable flow for the reader while still providing some eye candy.
Having the longest tenure at Gambit, I have worked with many people and a wide range of talent inside and outside my department. Our writers and designers have won many awards locally and nationally. Im grateful to have won some of those awards myself. Ive made many friends with the people who have come and gone. And its always a welcomed surprise when they stop by the Gambit office for a visit to reminisce and catch up.
One of my proudest skills has been having a knack for recognizing raw talent in young designers and providing them with an opportunity to learn and grow. Mentoring young designers into polished professionals has been one of the biggest joys of my job. But the students have also been teachers. The young designers have often brought fresh ideas as well as new techniques to share with the Creative team. Everyone has something to offer and there is always something new to learn no matter how long youve been doing the job.
Ive loved being a part of a publication that is recognized and loved by the community. I never realized how much our publication mattered to the city until I heard one of my favorite Gambit stories.
It was at the time the city was trying to recover from Katrina. We had never missed an issue hitting the streets until the Aug. 30 issue in 2005. And, for about 2 months, Gambit was absent from its racks.
In mid-October 2005, the owners of Gambit decided to restart publishing Gambit, but could only gather a skeleton crew. Only a few of us were able or willing to come back to live in the midst of the devastation. Working on the first issue of Gambit post-Katrina was a welcomed distraction for me and it also created an unexpected sense of normalcy. During the week, we scrambled for content and built pages under pressure while wondering how will the city receive us?
The Nov. 1 issue went to press on a Friday and began distribution that Sunday morning. A Gambit writer was sitting in the Bluebird Cafe when the first bundles of Gambit were delivered. When the patrons realized it was Gambit, they all let out a surprising loud cheer! There was so much joy in the cafe that morning. I guess it was that unexpected sense of normalcy, a sign of the beginning of a recovery and a welcomed return of an old friend.
I have witnessed the successes of Gambit as well as the challenges. 2020 has been more of the latter. But much like the people of this city, Gambit is a survivor, because of the company who supports it, a staff who believes in it and a community who continues to love it.
JRNOLA students and their mentors: Top row, from left:Chief Operations OfficerAllison McCarroll, Editor in Chief Liam Pierce, Lana Lawson and Mark Joseph. Bottom row, from left: Taylor Pittman, Jacklyn Leo, Hannah Darcey and Phillip Petty
When I think of the word alt, aside from old keyboard strokes, I cant help but be transported back to my angsty high school days. Alt-rock radio stations, scouring my local (Oakland) alt-weekly for shows, prefixes for obscure music genres. That escape from the bullshit mainstream even if Clearchannel owned that alt-rock station just helped my misfit self carve out an imaginary space where I could just be.
So I find it only fitting that now my students at JRNOLA a journalism nonprofit geared toward young women and people of color in high school are lucky enough to partner with Gambit to give them their own outlet. Within the pages of Gambit, our young journalists have written about the struggles of being a student athlete during COVID, the struggles of just being a student during COVID, teenage witches, among other things.
With the negligent underfunding of New Orleans public schools, the school paper has gone the way of the dodo. And its exactly in times like these when young peoples institutions are failing them that they need to question authority and hold people in positions of power accountable. And questioning authority just so happens to be Gen Zs area of expertise. I should know. Im their teacher.
The 40th anniversary of New Orleans alt-weekly should be wistful about the past. But I want to toast to its future. Because Gambit gets that this next generation has a lot to be critical of. And is wise to incorporate this vocal, revolutionary generation. Thankfully, theyre the alternative to us.
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