Melanie Uzee plays various characters for American Queen tourists
Once a week during “the season,” Melanie Uzee dons pearls, gloves and chapeau, grabs her monogrammed hankie and lace fan, and transforms herself into “Martha Claire Montgomery,” Southern belle tour guide extraordinaire to a group of unsuspecting passengers from the American Queen riverboat.
“All my dear friends call me Lady Martha, so you all please feel free to call me Mizz Montgomery,” she said in her drippiest Southern accent as she introduced herself to a bus full of tourists June 14.
As the bus pulled out of the parking lot of LSU’s Rural Life Museum, which is where Martha Claire joins the tour, she went on to explain that in no way are the Baton Rouge Montgomerys related to Monroe Montgomerys, “especially Sissy, who was involved in an unfortunate incident with a high-ranking political official in a seedy motel in Shreveport last year.” That story caused the first wave of laughter throughout the bus as it headed toward the LSU campus.
En route, Martha Claire interspersed facts about Baton Rouge and LSU with entertaining stories of her family: mother, Big Martha; husband, Duke (Sinclair Beauregard Montgomery IV); son, Little Duke; sister, May June, and her husband, Jimmy Johnson (“not the race car driver, even though they live in Hoover, Ala., and not the one with the bad hair and Super Bowl ring you see on ESPN”); and best friend, Sarah Beth, and her husband, Bobby Don.
“Every story has a bit of truth to it,” said Uzee. “Jimmy Johnson really is my brother-in-law’s name, and he and my sister do live in Birmingham. My dad was one of 13 children and his two sisters, the last ones born, were named May and June because those were the months they were born.”
She’s not above taking the stories of others and incorporating them into her routine, either. From Rural Life docent Cynthia Campbell comes the story of the industrial floral refrigerator found in the Montgomery garage. It allows Martha Claire to have fresh flowers throughout her home on a daily basis. She just picks up the arrangements and puts them back in the fridge every evening before bed, saving Duke a nice chunk of change.
“It’s so Southern to have a floral refrigerator in the garage … really?” said Uzee.
Uzee won’t confess where the story of Big Martha’s Washington, D.C., Mardi Gras experience comes from, but as Martha Claire was relating that the myth of Southern women and big hair can be explained by humidity, she did confess that every true Southern belle fears having her ’do “pancake.” That is the fate that befell Big Martha at the ball. Frantically, she grabbed her purse and made her way to the ladies room to remedy the situation with “the flip.”
“But when she flipped her head over, her forehead hit the marble counter top and she was knocked unconscious,” Martha Claire related.
“It would have been the biggest scandal evah except for the fact that she had her teasing comb in one hand and a death grip on a can of Aqua Net in the other. Why, the next morning, she had to cut herself some bangs to hide that hideous goose egg, and it took her hairdresser/magician, Mizz Tootsie, six months to fix ’em.”
An impending attack of the vapors forced Martha Claire to sit down as the tour continued downtown to the State Capitol. There the tourgoers met up with trumpet player John Gray for a quick informational talk on jazz, particularly the jazz funeral.
After showing everyone the steps, he led the group to the statue and grave of former Gov. Huey P. Long, where a rather strange woman wielding a bottle of Fantastik was crying inconsolably.
Enter Minerva Thibodaux, of Rayville, (a nod to good friends Janet Boles Crawford and Diane Kirtland), the long lost love of Huey Long. She spends her days cleaning the pigeon poop off of Long’s statue, which has gotten harder to do since she retired from working in the gift shop atop the State Capitol.
“I didn’t know that was her!” exclaimed one of the tourgoers as Uzee shed her Minerva costume once everyone was back on the bus.
“The original script was written by Paige Gagliano; Laurie Laville, who used to portray Martha Claire, wrote some of the funnier parts,” Uzee said, who began working the tourist circuit 10 years ago.
“Claire Bateman originally owned the tour company, and she was looking for an actress. She called Whitney Vann to see if she knew of anybody, and Whitney recommended me,” Uzee recalled. “They just called me out of the blue.
“I have a background in theater and have been involved in the theater since high school,” she said. “But doing theater is so time consuming, and I was doing all musicals. This is a lot less demanding.”
Indeed, when she first started out, the American Queen docked in Baton Rouge every Thursday and Sunday; the Delta Queen intermittently. Then Hurricane Katrina hit and shut it all down.
Three years ago, the American Queen returned and Uzee went to work for tour operator Debra White. When White got out of the business, the steamboat company contracted with a group called Short Excursions of America, which got in touch with Baton Rouge Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Its staff hooked them up with Uzee, Gray and Connie Donideau to recreate their characters as part of the tour experience.
“I really enjoy showing off Baton Rouge,” said Uzee with a mischievous grin. “I tell them at the end of the tour, ‘I love a captive audience, and none is more captive than one on a bus.’ ”