When several graduates of the former Loreauville Elementary School attended a grand opening at the site of their alma mater in January, a few tears were shed. Tears of happiness. The abandoned building had been purchased and its history preserved. Fittingly named “At the Old School” as a nod to its roots, the place was bought by Loreauville native and former student John Anthony who plans to bring harmony to the new multi-use events venue - but also to the community.
From the outside, it still looks like a school, but when you enter, classrooms gave way to a large banquet area with white linen covered tables and chairs. Down a hall, we spoke in a small recording studio, which lead the discussion of how his journey with music brought him to sitting in a school which he now owns.
Buying Loreauville Elementary was the furthest thing from Anthony’s mind back in 1989 when he and his two brothers started the band LeJit, with Anthony singing and playing the keyboard. The group played in Atlanta clubs and in casinos from Bay St. Louis to Biloxi and all along the Mississippi Coast.
In 2000, right about the time that he was ready for a break from his band, Anthony got a call from a group in Vegas asking him to play for a few weeks. He and his girlfriend, now wife, moved and ended up liking the Vegas scene - and the drier climate - so much that they stayed.He began performing solo in restaurants and bars of hotels off the Vegas strip: The Orleans, The Fiesta, Rancho and The Cosmopolitan.
During regular visits to see his mother and relatives, Anthony was saddened to see the failing condition of Loreauville Elementary, as it remained vacant for a year. He hit upon the idea of buying a school when the boom busted in Vegas and he got into the real estate market. When a friend bought a school in Denver and turned it into a multicultural center, Anthony began looking around at facilities to purchase in Vegas, even Memphis, and as far as Connecticut, but found nothing.
One Christmas, his mother’s church group was looking for a venue in which to hold an event in Loreauville. His thoughts immediately went to purchasing the school.The arduous bidding process, through the school board, took a year and a half. When the deal was complete, Anthony would return to Loreauville every five days to oversee the two-year renovation.
The 40,000 square-foot facility is now divided into four adjoining areas: the banquet hall (capable of accommodating 200 wedding or party guests), the courtyard (great for family reunion outdoor activities), the living room (perfect for a Saints or Super Bowl get-together), and the Johnny Lounge (a great meeting place) that pays homage to Anthony’s second-grade teacher, Barbara Johnny.
He smiles as he recalls Ms. Johnny, “The kids called her classroom the ‘Johnny Lounge’ because they often stayed after class. That women did not play around. But she taught me that you can go against the elements as long as you’re responsible for your actions. She was the epitome of respect.”
Once a month, from 7-10 p.m., the venue also offers dinner and performances by Anthony. “This is a passion for me,” Anthony says “of bringing a different feel to the community. I’m bringing Vegas to Loreauville.”
Anthony got his first taste of the music world singing in high school plays. “That got me interested in Broadway,” he says. “By the time I got to Vegas, I took what I learned about music and put a twist to Ragtime and Frank Sinatra tunes.” He pangs out an amazing Sinatra tune on his keyboard with a jazzy Motown twist. He describes the style as a mix of “Frank Sinatra and Smokey Robinson”- his favorite artists.
Anthony’s music would become a catalyst for a profound footprint in the community.
“I get tired of people talking about a ‘black thing’ or a ‘white thing.’ We all bleed the same and we have the same God,” he says. Anthony, whose children are biracial, has long noticed that the greatest separation of race can often be found at churches. “It’s an unconscious teaching of separation,” he says.
That gave him the idea of bringing people (of all colors) together through music, with the making of a Christmas CD. Currently in production, The Christmas Village is a project combining choir members from the village’s (Yes, Loreauville is a village) Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church - originally erected for African-Americans during segregation- and St. Joseph Catholic Church. “We all celebrate Christmas, and this is one project that I know can bring people together,” Anthony says.
Still in the works in his Loreauville studio, the CD will be a compilation of 12 Christmas favorites sung by him and parishioners ages 11 and older. Anthony gives me a preview with an amazing rendition of “Chestnuts,” followed by acoustics that I don’t recognize until he begins to sing the words to “Silent Night.” This will be a CD worth adding to your Christmas collection, with the sale proceeds going to those less fortunate in Loreauville.
Though Anthony may live in Las Vegas, he calls Loreauville “the last of a piece of heaven.”
“I’ve lived all over the country and people elsewhere are not as friendly as people in Acadiana. In my neighborhood in Vegas, they call me “the mayor,” because I talk to everyone,” he smiles.
The Christmas CD project and work at the venue have Anthony traveling to Loreauville from Las Vegas every other week. For now, he’s retired from singing in Vegas and from what he calls “the nonsense.” When he’s not homeschooling his son and daughter, he revels in kicking back in the bathtub and binge watching his favorite westerns: “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke.”
Still, the man who says he likes “to see people grow” can't help but look towards the horizon. “I would like an afterschool program for the kids to learn music. That’s something I didn’t have the opportunity to learn as a youngster.” Next year, he plans to bring two productions to At the Old School: “Got to Give It Up” by Zeola Gaye and Sherry Gordy’s “Growing Up Motown.”
Since the opening of At the Old School, the response from the community has been encouraging for Anthony, particularly comments from Loreauville’s seniors who attended the elementary school. “My dad and his friends tell me they’re glad that I saved the building because this was the first ‘colored’ school in Loreauville. They remember when the school became desegregated around 1969, the word ‘colored’ was taken off the bronze plaque that hung in the school.” The plaque still hangs in the venue today, with faint evidence of the word “colored,” a ghostly remembrance of a time that Anthony is doing his part in trying to change.
“I’d like to see true communities, in the sense that there’s no separation of race,” Anthony says. He hopes the transformation of the school will carry that wish for Loreauville.