April 28, 2017 02:04 PM

Photo by Robin May

It looked like the Church of Zydeco lost one of its cathedrals to a mysterious fire earlier this week.

Miller's Zydeco Hall of Fame owner Dustin Miller, 29, has walked back an earlier statement to The Daily Advertiser that he would not reopen the Lawtell club, saying the magnitude of that decision has begun to weigh on him. He bought the club to continue a tradition he grew up in, one that he’d be reluctant to see die in his St. Landry Parish hometown.

“You didn’t grow up in this town without going there. I’ve been going there since I was young, even before I was supposed to be in there,” Miller laughs.

For now, he’s willing to allow that the future is uncertain, as regards the club’s possible resurrection.

A nurse practitioner and a state representative elected in 2015, Miller credits the club with his personal success, counting his time operating the club as critical to his political and personal success.

Miller renamed the club "Miller’s Zydeco Hall of Fame,” but zydeco acolytes knew the Lawtell dance hall as zydeco’s Grand Ol’ Opry. Those who drove by on Highway 190 on Tuesday and Wednesday, gawking at an ashen lump, invoked its original name in passerby mourning: Oh God, Richard’s has burned to the ground.

The charred hardwood of the 70-year-old dance hall marks a tragic blow to the waning but still-active tradition of countryside creole dance halls in Southwest Louisiana.

St. Landry Parish fire officials say the blaze began some time Tuesday evening in the 11 o’clock hour, not long after a local band finished a rehearsal around 10. Firefighters returned Wednesday to tackle a re-sparked attic fire, fueled by oxygenating headwinds.

“The building was built with good, old sturdy wood,” says dance hall researcher John Sharp, who visited the site Wednesday. “Once a little bit of it caught fire, that’s a lot of fuel. Now, it’s a gutted, big black hole.”

The building is said to be a “total loss” either from direct char or heat damage.

Richard's in its heyday; its marquee promoting Boozoo Chavis
Image courtesy of Johnnie Allan, the Center for Louisiana Studies, UL Lafayette
Opened in 1947, Richard’s was a hot landing spot for zydeco luminaries like Boozoo Chavis, Clifton Chenier and Terrance Simien. Zydeco pioneer John Delafose, who graced the stage countless times, died of a heart attack shortly after a performance there in 1994.

Richard’s also occupied a must-stop address on the famed Chitlin Circuit. Both B.B. King and John Lee Hooker played the club in years past, adding an expanded legacy to the zydeco pantheon most associated with the club.

Folks around Lawtell have lost a still-functioning community center. Miller says the club saw its fair share of birthdays, graduations and weddings.

There’s some talk of arson, sparked by the reported discovery of flammable material said to be sniffed out by a service dog. Miller maintains that he doesn’t buy that it was arson, instead suggesting that the dog’s nose may have been tripped up by booze-soaked floors.

He adds that the fire marshal is still investigating.

Perhaps only a few other clubs, according to Sharp, can claim the sacred air boasted by Richard’s — The Offshore Lounge (née the Gin Side Inn) in Lawtell, Dauphine’s in Parks, Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas and Hamilton’s in Lafayette, all of which are closed. Richard’s is/was the last of that vintage of country creole dance halls.

Venues like Richard’s provided more than a platform for zydeco, according to Sharp; they operated as de facto marketplaces for all kinds of social and commercial activity. Some included horse tracks or ice cream parlors, others sold liquor by the bottle. Richard’s continued its own community center legacy into its latter years, opening on an infrequent basis for the stray zydeco show — Keith Frank wasn’t a stranger — or community event.

Sharp says contemporary stars returned to Richard's to partake of tradition, and bask in the hallowed glory of a sweat-packed Saturday show.

“If there was one place that was the history of zydeco in a handful,” Sharp says, “it was that place.”