NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - It was one of those couldn’t-happen-anywhere-else moments in New Orleans that sometimes leaves outsiders scratching their heads.
There was comedian Joan Rivers, veteran of cosmetic surgeries and snarky red carpet commentary, plying her trade on a little-known stage, cracking wise and raising money for a community center run by a voodoo priestess.
New Orleans has long been known for its eccentricities - Bourbon Street, black magic and all that jazz - and visitors might have seen Rivers’ show as just another example of the city’s offbeat vibe.
But for survivors of Hurricane Katrina, raising funds to benefit New Orleans’ Healing Center was a cause to care about.
For Rivers, the shows were a chance to help a friend, voodoo priestess Sallie Anne Glassman, who once exorcised a “demon” from Rivers’ Manhattan apartment - and that’s no joke.
Glassman, who last year married one of the city’s most prominent real estate developers, co-founded a retail and community meeting space she dubbed the Healing Center to help invigorate the Bywater neighborhood.
“She is enlightened beyond the spiritual and touched with a magic that most of us are not,” Rivers told Reuters ahead of her New Orleans appearance earlier this week.
The two first met 20 years ago, when Rivers called on Glassman to help rid her Manhattan apartment of a bothersome ghost. Rivers had not yet moved into the apartment when she noticed alarming signs that the place might be haunted.
As Glassman tells it, parapsychologists had examined the building using “demon meters,” and “the meters went through the roof.” One examiner suggested Rivers seek Glassman’s help.
Glassman flew to New York, met the comedian and went to work. “I used a form of ceremonial magic that, without getting too technical, involves a banishing sword and a lot of screaming at the top of your lungs,” Glassman said.
Her actions tamed the ghost and led to a long friendship that brought Rivers to New Orleans for Glassman’s marriage last October to developer Pres Kabacoff. The reception was held in the new Healing Center, which Glassman and Kabacoff developed.
When Rivers stepped inside the colorful building, which includes a 250-seat performance area, it dawned on her that she could help them raise money for its operation. “I told them I wanted to do a benefit show as a wedding gift,” she said.
The three-story Healing Center is becoming a hub of activity in Bywater, a neighborhood hard-hit by the Katrina flood. Glassman said the building’s vivid turquoise and coral exterior has become a beacon along St. Claude Avenue and prompted neighbors to brighten homes and businesses as well.
Inside the building are a fitness center, yoga studio, Mediterranean restaurant, book store and art gallery, among other small businesses that have taken up residency.
The building also houses Glassman’s shop, called the Island of Salvation Botanica, the walls and shelves of which are lined with talismans, voodoo dolls, candles, chicken-foot fetishes and bottles of mysterious liquids with such labels as “Dragon’s Blood Uncrossing Bubble Bath.”
After Glassman rid her apartment of its ghost, Rivers embraced it all.
On the Healing Center’s stage this week, resplendent in a silver-sequined shrug draped over black pants and silver-heeled stilettos, Rivers regaled a packed house with two shows of biting, raunchy jabs at stars from Nicole Kidman to Betty White.
She paid tribute to Glassman and Kabacoff for their efforts on behalf of New Orleans, then in characteristically irreverent fashion went on to make light of the 2005 Katrina disaster.
“Sean Penn called me right after the storm and said I should come down here because there would be lots of paparazzi and I’d get my picture in the paper, so I did, and it was great - we had our own boat,” Rivers joked.
“Some of you might have been in the water trying to get in our boat while I was stomping on your hands,” she added, pounding her heel on the floor and spurring fits of laughter.
After the shows, the 78-year-old Rivers returned to New York to prepare for a month-long tour of England and Ireland.
Glassman began planning her next big event, the annual Anba Dlo Halloween festival - described as an extravaganza of spiritual activities with an “invocation of the mermaid spirit of deep waters,” psychic readings, live musical performances and a parade of Radical Faeries. Only in New Orleans.
Reporting By Bob Tourtellotte; editing by Todd Eastham