Mike Lala, 1931-2005
Even with an Emmy Award on his résumé, there were signs that Mike Lala might not be satisfied to spend his entire adult life carrying around a TV camera.
For one thing, there was the snowball stand he opened on Chef Menteur Highway back in the '60s, an odd side job for a WDSU-TV news photographer who chased Hurricanes Camille and Betsy, went undercover to film the Ku Klux Klan and captured the last New Orleans footage of Lee Harvey Oswald on Aug. 21, 1963.
And then there were those tasty live remotes he shot for the 6 o'clock news.
"We would leave the station around 4 each afternoon, and Mike would always have a feast prepared in the production truck," said Bob Jones, who worked as a reporter at WDSU-TV in the mid-1970s. "Gumbo, shrimp po-boys, mufalettas and -- I guess it's OK to admit this now -- plenty of cold beer."
So in 1985, this "very gutty camera guy," as former WDSU co-worker Jerry Romig recalled him, walked away from the TV news business and reinvented himself as a French Quarter restaurateur.
The fare at Lala's Olde Nawlins Cookery in the 700 block of Conti Street was, for lack of a better term, local standard: red beans and rice for lunch; jambalaya, etouffee, shrimp creole and catfish meuniere for dinner; bread pudding and king cake for dessert. But the daily special was Lala himself, a gregarious character and legendary ladies' man.
"I never walked into the restaurant when Mike wasn't in the dining room talking to people," Jones said. "If he had all the money he didn't make giving meals away, he'd have been a multimillionaire."
While Lala worked the room, Connie Tenhaaf ran the business. Their partnership eventually became more than that; though they never married, Lala and Tenhaaf were together for 20 years, bound by a shared love of New Orleans and animals.
They had 20 pets with them when they took shelter inside the restaurant Aug. 28. Tenhaaf, Lala and the animals stayed relatively comfortable, dividing their time between the courtyard and the second-floor private dining rooms. There was food in a third-floor cooler; she cooked him fried chicken on his 74th birthday, Sept. 2, and he cooked for National Guardsmen and first responders every chance he got.
Lala weathered the storm, but he couldn't weather the wait. An avid carpenter, he was nearly finished renovating a boathouse and worried constantly about its condition. He was distraught over news of Lakeview's submersion and what it might mean for his plan to develop the old Masson's site in West End as an upscale restaurant, Lala's of Lakeview. He had things to do, places to be, people to talk to -- and he couldn't leave the Quarter.
"Mike's not the type of guy to be caged up," Tenhaaf said.
He collapsed on Sept. 11 and lay dead in the restaurant for two days before she was able to get word to Dr. Brobson Lutz, who came to take care for the body. Lutz told Tenhaaf that Lala likely had a heart attack brought on by the stress of the storm.
"Mike was full of life, a free spirit," former WDSU news director Ed Planer said. "He shouldn't have died."
Published in The Times-Picayune