In Innis, a historic dance hall gets an encore
BY ALEXANDRA KENNON | APRIL 23, 2021
Photo Credit: LUCIE MONK CARTER
During its heyday, weekends at the Rock House Ballroom in Innis, Louisiana meant live music from the likes of Buddy Guy and Joe Simon reverberating through the building. Mama Tucker grilled hamburgers for the sizable crowd, and ladies of Pointe Coupee like Alzetta Walker and Easter Holmes would dance, and dance, and dance. Some nights, a little girl would peek through the door, just to watch them, entranced. “My uncle was runnin’ it, and I used to love to watch the ladies dance, man,” current owner Jeanine Lemoine said, nostalgically.
Much of the Rock House’s history is less innocent than hamburgers and dancing, however. “Gosh, if those walls could talk,” Lemoine said, referring to the multiple shootings and weekend-long poker games. “I think there was maybe a couple people killed in there. There were some bullet holes, when I was renovating,” Lemoine chuckled uneasily. “I said, you know, I probably shouldn’t have filled them in with the mortar, I maybe just should have just put a glass over it.”
But before the dancing, the gunfire, and the poker games, there was a Sicilian immigrant establishing his family’s mark on rural Louisiana. Vincent Purpera Sr. and his wife Grace Sansone Purpera settled in Innis after traveling from Sicily in the early twentieth century. There, Vince Sr. first made his livelihood selling groceries he carried around town on his back, then later from a horse-drawn cart. Eventually he built a grocery store in Batchelor which he and Grace ran until the early 1940s, before building the “Old Store,” still in Innis today. Next door, he started building the Rock House Ballroom in 1944. The businesses were managed by Purpera’s four sons: Lemoine’s father Leonard and Joseph ran the store, while Tony and Vince Jr. ran the Rock House.
For a town not exactly known for its nightlife, the Rock House provided everything, and then some. Behind closed doors, the Sicilian owners and their friends would play poker games that often lasted days at a time: “I might have gone for the early part of the games, but when it was serious stuff, the doors were closed,” Lemoine said, recalling childhood memories of her Uncle Tony’s poker games at the Rock House. “Cash, I’m sure they bet other things. I’ve heard stories that there was a lot of money involved.”
Meanwhile, the larger area that included the bar—designated for African Americans in those early days of segregation—roared with live music and dancing. David Tucker helped Tony run the bar, which has come to be fondly associated with Tucker’s wife Delphine’s famous hamburgers. “I mean everybody, to this day, if you talk about the Rock House they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, Mama Tucker’s hamburgers were so good,’” Lemoine said. The dancehall even had its own baseball team, the Rock House Braves, who would garner large crowds when they played.
Of course, a highlight of the Rock House’s storied history is Buddy Guy’s gracing its stage. The blues legend was born and raised “a few miles up the road” in Lettsworth in north Pointe Coupee Parish. “Mr. Buddy caught the train right there in Lettsworth and went up to Chicago, and now he’s world renowned,” Lemoine said reverently of Guy’s ascent to music stardom. When the Purpera family still owned the “Old Store” in Innis, Lemoine recalled that Guy would visit home around Christmas and shower locals with free liquor, turkeys, and hams he’d purchase from the grocery. “Just a sweetheart. Really, really nice man,” Lemoine said. “To be world renowned like he is, and still humble.” When the eight-time Grammy Award winner addressed the crowd at a 2018 Mississippi Blues Trail marker dedication in his home town of Lettsworth in his honor, Guy said, “There are some things that make you feel like you’re on top of the world, including me playing in the White House. I thought playing in the White House was my favorite thing, but I think coming home is the best.”
Soul and R&B singer Joe Simon also performed at the Rock House, and live music continued at the venue more or less until it was closed for renovations in 2019. “Oh yeah, we had live music when I was there,” confirmed Eddie Hartford, who after Vince Purpera Sr. passed away in 1987 leased the bar from Leonard and managed it with his family from 1988 until renovations began. “Ernie K-Doe, the Neal Brothers, I had ‘em all there.”
Having managed the bar for around thirty-two years, Hartford has many memories of his time at the Rock House—like the origin of those bullet holes Lemoine mortared over. “A fellow got killed in there about six months after I started,” Hartford told me, then added, “I got robbed in there once. Shot through my clothes, but didn’t touch me.” Hartford said it was common to have a crowd of over one hundred and fifty people at the Rock House on a Friday or Saturday night. “It was real rowdy. I had to get a handle on that,” Hartford laughed. “It was the neighborhood spot, oh yeah.”
Biddy and Joann Toulouse, long-time barmaids at the Rock House.