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Johnny Donnels


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Johnny Donnels (1924-2009) was a New Orleans icon, a painter and photographer who lived life to the fullest. After returning from Army service in WWII, Donnels, the original Starving Artist, decided he would be his own boss for the rest of his life. He opened his art gallery in the Skyscraper building of the French Quarter, and spent his days creating art up in his studio and selling paintings down in the St. Peter Street shop. Sons Denny and Alan came along. Then in 1961, he married the love of his life, Joan Tarzetti. His good friend Howard Mitcham bet it would only last about 3 months, but it lasted 48 years. Their daughter Lurana was born in 1964. In the early '70s, Johnny bartered a painting for a new Konica camera, and began a long career as a black-and-white photographer. His work has been exhibited in such places as the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City, the New Orleans Museum of Art (permanent collection), the Photokina '76 (Cologne, Germany), and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. For decades he served as the forensic artist for the New Orleans police department, as well as for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies; in 2002 the Police Association of New Orleans awarded him its "Citizenship Award." Filmmakers Anastasia and Will Lyman chronicled Johnny's philosophy, adventures, and dimpled smile in their documentary "The Pink Satin Suit." Johnny died of a heart attack on March 19, 2009, following injuries due to a fall outside his home.

A few thoughts from Johnny about mortality:
'Don't wear no black for me..unless you think you might look good in it!' ajohnnonymous

Don't sing no sad song. Don't shed no tear. They were good years with lots of great stories..and many beautiful people to share them with.

I had several "Big C" operations..and wasn't expected to pull through the last one, so friends got together and had a "Going-away" party for me. People came from all over the country and I remember writing "Don't sing no sad..." on a note-pad and taping it to my wall.
My thought was..hey..don't worry or feel bad for me. I've had a ball!
It was a great ride! If anything happens to me..I'm ready! I remember shaking hands with my surgeon, right before they administered the anesthesia, and wishing him "Good luck". That was 1984..so I guess I got my wish!

By the way..never trust a surgeon whose nickname is, 'BENEHANA' ! jd


Johnny's Story: 'The Pink Satin Suit.'

The bull-dozers from the special engineering brigade had just finished scooping out a makeshift, arena-style stadium to welcome the celebrities from a visiting U.S.O. troupe that were sent to entertain the weary and homesick G.I.s in the early 1940s New Guinea campaign.
Performing was the Kay Kyser Big Band, along with his two star vocalists, Ginny Simms and Harry Babbitt. Trumpet player, Ish Kabibble (an old Jewish saying, loosely translated..'I should worry?') was also their stand-up-front, comedian, along with Joe E. Brown and Jimmy Durante. Margaret Whiting was also featured as a solo vocalist. My good old Army buddy, First Sergeant Vito Galligano, just today, reminded me of how we were able to crash the exclusive officer's party for the cast, by pretending that we were reporters with Yank Magazine! I figure it is finally safe to confess this transgression, (over sixty years later).
The area was soon filled to overflowing with an eager and exuberant crowd. Every base camp on the island had been alerted to the event and in hardly no time..the joint was rocking with anticipation. G.I.s, officers and civilian personnel alike..jam-packed the joint.
The opening act had hardly started when the air-raid sirens suddenly blared out their ominous wail. This meant..all lights off..every one run for cover and..
NO SMOKING..not until the all-clear sounded. The Japanese twin-engine (washing-machine Betty) bombers or the Mitsubishi Zeros could spot a lit cigarette butt from ten thousand feet up.
There was a full moon, so the touring musicians decided that the show must go on! I will never forget..the first entertainer came out on stage in a
'pink satin suit'..and started singing "I'm making whoopee..." It did not matter how many gyrations he made or how loud he sang..the enemy pilots could not see or hear him from that high up..their own engines drowned him out.
The program ended a few hours later to standing and wild ovations. I thought to myself.."If ever this war gets over and peace breaks out again..and I finally get to go home..I am gonna get me a pink satin suit and march straight down Canal street so everyone in New Orleans can see me." By the time I was rehabilitated, discharged and returned home..the 'pink satin suit' idea faded from my memory and I was just glad to be back and settle down to a routine as a normal citizen.

It was only recently that I realized that my present lifestyle has been my 'pink satin suit' all along. I had made up my mind that if ever I made it safely back home (after working 24/7/365 for almost two years in a combat zone)..that I would never work for anyone again. This I have managed to do (for well over sixty years) by becoming an artist..being my own boss and running my own art and photography galleries.

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