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City Of Characters

June 12, 2010

New Orleans’s alternative newsweekly Gambit will run a cover story tomorrow dedicated to Treme. Here’s a preview. In a series of short interviews, the article focuses on the real people who were the basis for the Treme characters, including Kermit Ruffins, Davis Rogan, Susan Spicer and Mary Howell, and their opinions of the show so far.

All encased in a familiar caveat (well, familiar to those who spend time in the comments’ section here, at least)  from Lolis Eric Elie, who was also interviewed:

“You have to be careful about the use of the word ‘based.’ The show really is contemporary historical fiction. These people become starting points for the construction of our characters.”

This is most apparent in the case of Creighton Bernette. On the one hand, he is our passionate polymath Ashley Morris manifest and, on the other, Bernette is a composite of many stories waiting to be told. In the interview with Ashley’s wife Hana, we learn that Ashley’s inimitable FYYFF rage had to be transferred on-screen whole but Creighton himself was based only “partially on Ashley and partially on a film archivist who lost all of his footage in Katrina.”

A couple of Back Of Town bloggers have real-life counterparts as well, who feature in the Gambit article. It turns out raynola is based on one Ray Shea whose superpowers include recognizing an Imma Cut A Bitch look from a mile away, while wetbankguy is none other than Mark Folse, local poet, writer and cigar aficionado (I personally believe the character also incorporates snippets of Charles Bukowski and Edward Abbey to great effect).

Looking forward to your reactions and the penultimate episode of Season 1 tomorrow night.

  1. June 12, 2010 4:01 pm

    Thanks, Maitri. I hope the Back of Townies enjoy Stephen Faure’s article.

    There is a mistake in it, however, and it’s not Mr. Faure’s, but was inserted during the editing process. Tom Piazza and Mary Howell are partners, not spouses. Apologies to them, and to Mr. Faure.

    – Kevin (from Gambit)

  2. doctorj2u permalink
    June 12, 2010 11:07 pm

    Thank you for the heads up. That was news to me about the Creighton character. I assume the other person that was an inspiration for the character was Stevenson Palfi. Here is a clip from his documentary “Pianao Players Rarely Ever Play Together”.

  3. Beth permalink
    June 12, 2010 11:34 pm

    Thank you for that clip from Stevenson, doctorj2u. What a damned shame.

  4. June 13, 2010 8:24 am

    Everything truly important I know about cigars I have to credit Creigh, uh, Ashmo.

    The absence of cigars in Creighton’s top pocket is your first clue he is a character and a composite as Lolis describes.

    Also, as you watch try to use Google cache or one of the other memory holes to find New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose “Hell and Back” column from October 2006. (Actually, Google cache takes you to the buy it for 2.95 version). A number of people here see something of Rose’s public struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder depression in Creighton’s current situation.

  5. June 13, 2010 8:38 am

    I’ve wondered if the Creighton’s marital tension is inspired by the former Gambit editor Michael Tisserand. He documented his post-K struggles in an amazing series of articles and Piazza used him as the inspiration for a character is his own novel. (Can’t remember the title at the moment.)

  6. June 13, 2010 8:44 am

    CITY OF REFUGE was Piazza’s Katrina novel.

  7. Davis Rogan permalink
    June 13, 2010 12:25 pm

    Stevenson Palfi was a film maker, not a film archivist.
    BTW Love that cover.

  8. doctorj2u permalink
    June 16, 2010 7:16 pm

    Who do you think it is then, Davis? I would love to know.

  9. June 16, 2010 7:55 pm

    Stevenson Palfi was one of the people on which Creighton was based, although I guess he could have been based on any number of other people, including (as somebody else pointed out) Barry Cowsill.

    Davis was just pointing out that Palfi was not an archivist, he was a filmmaker (Hana just misspoke in the quote above). In any case, there are always more differences than similarities; in the end Creighton is a fictional character, and his death is representative of everyone who killed themselves in the months after the storm.

    BTW, from what I understand, Davis provided the idea of having Creighton’s suicide episode built around his teaching of “The Awakening”. Which I thought was fucking brilliant.

  10. Eric Overmyer permalink
    June 17, 2010 8:37 am

    He’s NOT based on Palfi. In any way. (Nor is he “based” on Ashley Morris — “inspired by” is much more accurate. We took great pains to separate him from Ashley, even those we used some material from Ashley’s blog in some of Creighton’s rants — but not all.) Palfi’s name came up in conversation, as did Cowsill’s, as did the T-P photographer who had a confrontation with the police — anybody give me his name? By the way, I greatly admire Palfi’s “Piano Players” doc about Fess, Tuts and Toussaint, and it’s still worth checking out.

  11. June 17, 2010 10:03 am

    T-P photographer who had a confrontation with the police

    John McCusker.

    Thanks for the clarification, Eric.

  12. Eric Overmyer permalink
    June 17, 2010 10:06 am

    Ray — Thanks for that. And I didn’t mean to sound short, I just didn’t want the Palfi rumor to gain any more traction, when there was no basis for it. And what happened to John McCusker? I forget the upshot of that incident.

  13. June 17, 2010 10:18 am

    From what I know, McCusker got the help he needed; there was a “Friends of John McCusker” fund set up to raise money for medical costs, which I think is related somehow to the “Friends of the Times Picayune” fund (one fund sprung out of the other, not sure the exact timeline). He’s still working for the Times-Picayune, you can see his latest photos documenting the oil spill response at

    The whole McCusker thing was very disturbing to me. It happened blocks from my house just a few weeks after I moved to New Orleans. I saw all the police and wondered what the fuss was about, and then to find out it was McCusker; he and I went to Edna Karr at the same time, I remember him with a camera basically glued to his hand even back then. I don’t really know him as an adult, but he was a good guy back then, and obviously extremely talented.

  14. adrastosno permalink
    June 17, 2010 3:05 pm

    I remember that night very well, Ray. If I recall correctly some of us were at Oyster’s that night for an early RT meeting. You were very shaken up because of it being McCusker. Glad that one had a happy ending.

    And Eric, I think you’ve done a fine job in drawing lines between the characters and the folks who inspired them. I didn’t feel like listening to Warren Zevon the other night, which meant I don’t confuse Creigh with Ashely at all.

  15. June 17, 2010 3:20 pm

    Yeah, this is an important distinction to keep in mind. It’s always been clear to me that no character was “based on” a single person (some more than others, but still), and I’ve tried to avoid “based on” but might have let one slip by.

    Unless you’re writing a roman-a-clef, any decent character will be an amalgam of aspects of different people and their stories; basing a character on a single person telegraphs their story and makes them predictable. Thanks for reminding us, and thanks for the fascinating little insights into the process.

  16. June 17, 2010 3:22 pm

    Ashley would never have committed suicide without taking a couple of people with him.

  17. Eric Overmyer permalink
    June 17, 2010 5:23 pm

    adrastosno — I hope we have — which is why I wanted to end the confusementalism about poor Stevenson Palfi — who really deserves a story of his own. thanks. (warren zevon! I feel like going home and putting that last record on!)

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