Monday, March 31, 2008

Goodbye to Al

The most over-the-top funeral this area has seen in years took place today. It was the final ride for Al Copeland, the 64-year-old former fried chicken king and restauranteur. Parked outside the mausoleum were several of Copeland's racing cars and motorcycles, like giant sentinels calling for their former master The powerboat that he had raced to championships was there too. The funeral procession was led by his own white Bentley and white Rolls-Royce with a fleet of white limos filing right behind. Copeland died March 23 in Germany while undergoing treatment for a rare form of cancer. He lived fast and he died fast, a modern-day captain of industry, whose vision to make money and to transform his environment were never-ending. He first took a small donut shop and turned that into a huge money-maker, spinning the proceeds for the sale into what looked like an ill-fated effort, a chicken stand in St. Bernard Parish. Yet, with determination and his unstoppable persona, he carried on, ultimately figuring that spicy chicken would find favor in the land of the Cajuns and Creoles. Years later, Copeland recalled a man who purchased one of his early dinners only to return to the eatery for the pleasure of heaving the sack of the remaining chicken at him. But as that legendary sack of chicken sailed through the air, so was the legend of Al Copeland and Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken born. With the help of a jingle penned by local musician, record store manager and artist and repertoire man Tommy Morel, Copeland took his campaign to TV and radio with the inimitable Dr. John singing vocals. Everyone knew that ditty back and forth and loved its distinctly New uh...flavor. Even the cartoon figure of Popeye wasn't planned. It had been Copeland's original intention to honor the hero of "The French Connection" to relate to the speed at which the chicken would arrive once ordered. Anyone who has seen the famous chase scene underneath the elevated train tracks in New York could make uh...connection. It was only later that he was able to secure the permission of King Features to use the likeness of the famous cartoon sailor. While Copeland amassed a personal fortune in the tens of millions, he began spending money on adult toys like speedboats, fast cars, and even faster women. He married four times and divorced four times, producing nine children with women who were striking in their looks. The last two of his weddings were notable for their sheer size and scope. The third wedding took place at the New Orleans Museum of Art with rose petals being tossed by a helicopter as the happy couple emerged from the ceremony. Following that divorce was his final eye-raising nuptials to the blonde bombshell for whom he had left his third wife. That last ceremony was especially interesting to locals who inquired, how after three previous trips down the aisle, he could have gotten married in St. Louis Cathedral. The Church quickly snapped back an answer: his first wife had died and, because it was the only previous wedding that had taken place n a church, the powers that be saw no reason to stop Copeland from going down the aisle at the official church residence of the Archbishop of New Orleans. A dashing figure, nattily attired in tight-fitting clothes, Copeland worked out tirelessly and availed himself of tanning salons, a fact that didn't escape notice when the first details of his disease were made public. Like a cyclonic disturbance, Copeland left wakes in his path. His neighbors were outraged when he took the opportunity at Christmas time to festoon his house with hundreds of thousands of Chrismas lights, creating a public nuisance and a traffic nightmare for all that lived in his sleepy Metairie area. Eventually, he was forced to take the light show to his own building and later tried to tone it down a bit after he had moved to the North shore. Even there he was a neighbor no one was anxious to have. But Copeland, a big kid himself, knew that he had captured the hearts of the young and he would be forever remembered by those who had the spirit of the season. When it came to using his money in far less worthy endeavors, Copeland didn't stop there either. When several of his top aides were investigated for possible cocaine usage, it was alleged that they were shielding their boss, but no one was able to prove those charges. On the other hand, the government was able to prove money being passed to a judge by Copeland for a satisfactory divorce settlement from his third wife. That judge, part of a wide-spread investigation codenamed "Wrinkled Robe," went to federal prison. But Copeland was never prosecuted. He seemingly was made of teflon. The only time he seemed to have lost out was when he brokered a deal to take over Church's Chicken, backed by junk bonds just prior to the collapse of that market. When Church's turned the tables and swallowed up Copeland's empire, he demanded that his spice company remain the official source for the chicken seasoning. That deal turned out be his lifesaver. His contract with Popeyes, estimated in the tens of millions of dollars, fueled his penchant to create new restaurants like Copeland's, Straya, Copeland's Cheesecake, and Sweet Fire and Ice. He may have been a hero with feet of clay and lots of small imperfections, but he was our hero. He even went out with The Chairman of the Board, Ol' Blue Eyes himself, crooning that Paul Anka classic in the background, "My Way." There never was another quite like Al Copeland and I'm positive there won't be another one exactly like him. God rest his soul, at least for a short while, because if anything is sure, Copeland will be frying up chicken with a heavenly choir behind him singing of its joys.

No comments: