There is so much to see at the Saturn Bar. Paintings of bullfighters, bayou scenes, saints, and sinners cover the dusty wooden walls. The Saturn Bar is dark, and everyone likes it that way. Even the neon signs on the wall can’t overcome the dimness. If you just came here to drink, then you’ll probably stay in the front room, chatting with the bartender or locals. If you came for a show, head to the back and go upstairs to what Lee calls “the boxing ring.” Here a balcony encircles the “stage” (read: ground floor) and you can peer down on acts below. It feels like you should be betting on an illegal fighting match of some kind, but instead you get to witness local music acts, movie nights, mod dance parties, or some combination thereof.
The Saturn Bar has been a favorite local hangout since 1961, when O’Neil Broyard took it over. Back then, the Ninth Ward was a working-class neighborhood, and the bar catered to locals. One of those locals was Mike Frolich, whom Broyard had known from childhood. Frolich volunteered to paint the ceiling, and Broyard acquiesced. As Broyard said in an interview before his death, “We built a scaffold and Mike went to pick up some paint and rollers. You know, it was just like out of Michelangelo.” When Frolich finished, he offered to continue his decorating. Broyard bought him paint and brushes, and over the next few years Frolich created a series of murals. As Broyard observed, “One day I add up all the slips and it turns out I’d spent $1,800 on all that stuff.”
The murals are amazing, and if there’s enough light, you should grab your drink and take a tour around this unusual gallery. There’s one painting honoring the discovery of the New World, complete with the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. Another explores the cosmos, with the earth, the sun, and a rocket ship heading to the moon. The painting of St. Bernadette giving a rose to Fatima was made for Broyard’s mother. If you can tear your eyes away from the fantastic scenes above, you might notice a giant turtle hanging on the wall, bearing the word “Candy” on his shell. You know how some bars are dog friendly? The Saturn Bar was turtle friendly. Broyard acquired the live turtle from a seafood truck, and it lived in the bar for some time as a kind of mascot. When the turtle died, Broyard had him stuffed and mounted. Why “Candy?” It was a nod to Broyard’s motto in his former life, when he was a blogie. When gamblers would lose, he would tell them, “It’s like taking candy from a baby.” Broyard died in December 2005, but his family took up the mantle of running the bar. Of course, some things changed. If you can believe it, they actually removed a great deal of the clutter and left behind just enough tchotchkes, trinkets, and memorabilia to keep it feeling familiar. They now welcome a robust lineup of bands who perform most evenings, and the crowd has expanded beyond the old-timers who had been drinking here since Broyard opened up. But the Saturn Bar still feels like a place that has been around for a long time, and its cheap drinks and local vibe remain.