It’s easy to take Mardi Gras for granted, especially if you grew up here. As a kid, all I cared about were doubloons and costumes, and then the fateful day came when I discovered booze and boobs. But recently, I’ve been more curious about the grassroots of the Gras.
Carnival was perfected from a predominantly Catholic populace that knew how to enjoy life. No, not New Orleans, but Rome. Over the ages, and after the Roman conquests (both territorial and theological), Europeans have celebrated Carnival, which comes from the Latin root meaning “farewell to flesh.” Ze Germans shout “Fasching” while the French sneer “Mardi Gras.” Rio de Janeiro now has one of the most traveled Carnival festivals. Apparently, everyone needs to let loose before Lent.
But really, let’s be frank. When you’re propped up on an Uptown ladder stand, or f***** up on a Bourbon Street balcony, or locked up in an NOPD paddy wagon, are the long-lost origins really on your mind? Didn’t think so. However, I can’t help but be curious as to how our Mardi Gras came about.
For the rich, masked balls were the predominant form of celebrating Carnival, at least after 1823, when the U.S. government finally lifted the Spanish ban. Maybe the Spanish were still weary of another French Creole overthrow like in 1769? But general chaotic madness filled the streets of New Orleans until the organized krewes came along.
As opposed to what many hardcore natives may think, our modern-day Mardi Gras krewes can be traced back to Mobile, Alabama, in 1830. One New Year’s Eve, a bunch of men raided a supply store’s display of cowbells and rakes and marched through town, calling themselves the Cowbellian de Rakin Society.
In 1857, six men (two of which were Cowbellians and none of which were native New Orleanians) formed the first New Orleans krewe, The Mystic Krewe of Comus, in order to save the Mardi Gras tradition, since the church and city were ready to end the madness once and for all. The first parade consisted of two floats on loan from the Cowbellians, and their king’s identity was kept secret. This latter custom was later adopted by many of the krewes that would follow, such as Momus in 1872, the same year Rex would claim sovereignty over Carnival. In 1870, the 12th Night Revelers introduced a krewe Queen and the ever so reverent King Cake. Proteus began rolling in 1882.
Comus remained an integral part of the Mardi Gras experience until 1992 when they refused to sign a city ordinance requiring all krewes to open membership to all races and religions. If they signed, Comus would also have to abandon their code of secrecy and disclose its members’ identities. Makes you wonder; Even though Comus no longer parades, their court still meets with the Rex Court for a Mardi Gras ball on Mardi Gras night. Momus (god of Mockery and Laughter) also refused to sign it, as Proteus did before recanting in 2000. All in all, I think the city had the last laugh.
Now, instead of exploring certain krewes chronologically, I will write about them in order in which they roll, since that’s how everyone remembers them.
Krewe du Vieux (1987): One of the first krewes to parade again in the French Quarter, Krewe de Vieux presents a parody of local and national public figures and absurdities. You can imagine the material just writes itself these days. In 2006, Krewe du Vieux was the first to march post-Katrina. The Krewe’s theme that year was fittingly “C’est Levee.”
Let’s skip to Carrollton (1924): Organized by some Uptown businessmen, it originally rolled down Oak Street and Carrollton Avenue. They gained popularity in 1933 when all other day parades cancelled due to bad weather. They brag about being the first to replace horses with tractors. The Krewe of Carrollton was also instrumental in Endymion’s formation. For that one alone, I give thanks.
Alla (1932): One of the largest of the “Wank” parades, Alla introduced a vital figure into Mardi Gras history. In 1947, Dr. Henry Lorocca (Captain of Alla) gave a young, aspiring artist a chance to design his parade’s floats. The 20-year-old Blaine Kern turned out to be a success, attracting the attention of Rex Captain, Darwin Fenner (of Merril Lynch). Fenner paid for Kern’s travels to the carnivals in Europe to study float and costume design in countries like Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and Spain. Kern Studios grew rapidly upon his return. Walt Disney would offer Kern a job in Hollywood, but Fenner advised him to stay in New Orleans and “be a big fish in a small pond.” It’s good for us that he did, considering Kern Studios creates over 70% of Mardi Gras’s floats for krewes such as Bacchus, Endymion, Orpheus, Zulu, and Rex. Walt Disney and Universal Studios continue to be principal customers of Kern’s.
Krewe de E’tat (1996): With a reigning dictator, instead of king, not much can be said about this satirical and mysterious parade as the theme and dictator’s identity are kept secret until parade day.
Iris (1917): Ironically, an all-women organization paraded even before they could vote. Priorities, priorities.
Tucks (1969): One day a group of Loyola students and Friar Tuck’s regulars set out in pick-up trucks to parade through the streets of New Orleans. However, today it’s quite a spectacle, considering the king’s “throne” is fittingly the royal john and his scepter, a toilet brush.
Endymion (1967): Ed Muniz hit big at the Fair Grounds one day on a horse named Endymion, which solidified the name of his new krewe. Unfortunately, disaster struck when a fire relocated their first meeting, and their first parade’s starting point was misreported. However, it has now grown to “Super Krewe” status. After Katrina displaced Endymion Uptown it joined with Bacchus in 2005, making Mardi Gras history. Endymion made its grand return to Mid-City in 2008 after much relentlessness from the public.
Thoth (1947): Their unorthodox Uptown route once rolled past 14 institutions that cared for persons with illness and disability, which gave it the nickname “Krewe of Shut-Ins.” However, they were forced to retire the tradition when drunken krewe members began causing a ruckus in the institutions.
Bacchus (1969): The big boy. Another “Super Krewe” that added a little more pizzazz in the Carnival spirit. The Brainchild of Owen Brennan, Bacchus broke tradition by offering king titles to celebrities, whose portraits now decorate the Wine Room at Brennan’s Restaurant.
Proteus (1882): Named after the shape-shifting Shepherd of Oceans, this krewe feuded with Comus in 1890 when their routes overlapped, nearly resorting to fisticuffs in the streets. They went on a six-year hiatus until shifting their stance on the city ordinance in 2000.
Zulu (1909): The organization was founded by certain benevolent societies (which provided services for blacks otherwise not provided for) and a group of men that were inspired by a musical comedy based on a Zulu tribe. Their first big parade rolled in 1915 and was essentially a parody of Rex. On Lundi Gras, Rex would glamorously arrive by steamboat to the foot of Canal Street. In turn, the Zulu King arrived on an oyster boat wearing a lard can for a crown and a banana stalk for a scepter. Their float was made from canned good boxes and decorated with moss and palmetto leaves. Louis Armstrong reigned as Zulu’s King in 1949. Black Awareness in the ‘60s frowned upon parading around town in grass skirts, and membership drastically dropped off to a dismal 16. But by 1968, Zulu would no longer be forced to parade in the back street, and was granted a respectable route after the segregation laws went down the gutter. The coconut and the “golden nugget” are the prized throws of Zulu. Coconuts were not thrown in in 1987 for fear of a lawsuit, until the State Government passed a law excluding coconut-related injury from liability the following year. Either Edwin Edwards really hates to see the common man get a pay off or, he must dutifully respect the Zulu tradition.
Rex (1872): It’s hard to believe a Russian started the hype. When Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff visited New Orleans, the Rex Organization (or “School of Design”) formed to create a more docile and pleasant day parade experience for the city and the visiting Duke. Rex is Latin for “King,” and claims sovereignty over Carnival every Monday before Mardi Gras (Lundi Gras) by arriving by boat at Woldenberg Park. The mayor then surrenders the keys of the city to Rex, but only until Tuesday night. Too bad he can’t hand them over indefinitely. This tradition lasted from 1874 to 1917 and was revitalized in 1987. Rex established the official Mardi Gras colors: purple (justice), green (faith), and gold (power). It seems these days we need a little more purple and green and a lot less gold. Living up to their motto, Pro Bono Publico (“For the Public Good”), the Rex Organization is also involved in many charities benefiting the police force, clean-up effort, and schools. After the Rex parade, the courts of Comus and Rex meet for a ball and when Rex waves his scepter, Carnival is officially over. Of course, only the king and krewe members see this custom. The rest of us are either getting chased off the French Quarter streets by NOPD horsemen after midnight, or burning precious gasoline in gridlock traffic. It’s good to be king.