Who is The Lord of Misrule? What does the word “krewe” have to do with the poetry of John Milton? Why are go-cups popular throws? And what does a spyboy mean when he hollers “Humbah!” If these questions seem puzzling, it’s time to bone-up on some Mardispeak.
The first day of Lent, a period of ritual atonement leading up to Christ’s crucifixiton and resurrection. Signaling the end of the Carnival season, which climaxes on Mardi Gras, Lent lasts for 40 days until Easter (not counting Sundays). Because the day before Ash Wednesday was traditionally one of feasting, as symbolized by the Boeuf Gras, it came to be known as Fat Tuesday or, as the French would say, Mardi Gras.
A member of an informal sisterhood who dress in frilly, sexually titillating Baby Doll outfits—typically, short skirts, bloomers, satin blouses and bonnets tied under their chins with ribbons. The Baby Dolls of yore were known for ribaldry and indeed, some of the earliest practitioners hailed from New Orleans’s rough-and-tumble uptown red light district, They sought “kicks” on Carnival Day, when male revelers came around looking for action and would stuff money into the girls’ stockings. Baby Doll masking caught on, enabling women from various walks of life to publicly partake in festive transgression—flaunting or mocking conventional expectations that required them to suppress their sexuality. Traditionally associated with the predominantly African-American Carnival celebration centered around the Tremé neighborhood, these promiscuous maskers dwindled in number and had become virtually extinct by the time Antoinette K-Doe, along with cohorts Geannie Thomas and Tee Eva, set out to revive the tradition, in 2004. An irrepressible impressario, passionate Mardi Gras afficionado and accomplished couturière, Ms. Antoinette, who fondly recalled the Baby Dolls from her childhood days in the Tremé, came to fame as the Empress wife of the Emperor of the Universe—the late Ernie K-Doe, a flamboyant showman of mythical proportions who is forever associated with the 1961 R&B hit “Mother-in-Law.” She presided over the Mother in Law Lounge, a Tremé barroom she transformed into a shrine to her husband, whose career she helped revive. After working feverishly on preperations for the gala she adored and did so much to enliven, Antoinette K-Doe died of a heart attack at the lounge, which also served as the de-facto headquarters of her K-Doe Baby Dolls revival, in the early morning hours of Mardi Gras 2009.
French and Spanish colonizers of New Orleans reveled at fancy-dress and masquerade balls in the 1700s. As the Carnival season of merriment became more established, impresarios staged public balls catering to various strata of society, while upper-crust Creoles held rounds of private balls in which kings and queens were selected and courtly rituals observed. Following a precedent set by the Mistick Krewe of Comus in 1857, elite Carnival organizations staged parades that ended at theaters and ballrooms, where masked krewemen would present a series of tableaux based on the theme of their parades. This format marked a departure from the usual Carnival masquerade balls in which everyone dressed in costume. At krewe tableau balls, which became known as Carnival balls, invited guests wore white tie and ball gowns, and after the tableaux there was general dancing. Beginning in the 1870s, the staging of multiple tableaux gave way to a new style of spectacle in which the presentation of debutante queens and maids, along with other krewe “royalty,” provided the central image. These annual revivals of monarchic rule enabled chauvinistic krewemen to project cultural power, reinforce their elite status and proclaim superiority over “lesser mortals” who had assumed positions of authority in the aftermath of the Civil War. During the so-called Golden Age of Carnival, from the 1870s through the 1920s, krewes went to extraordinary lengths to present pageants in which every last detail—as reflected in the costumes, ball décor and the design of the parade floats and ball invitations—would coalesce in a sophisticated evocation of a theme. The balls themselves were enchanted, otherworldly realms, infused with an aura of mystique and whimsical fantasy conducive to courtship and flirtation. Invitations were highly sought after; by the late 1940s, tourists were inundating the office of the mayor of New Orleans with requests for assistance in gaining admission to the exclusive affairs. As new krewes formed and opportunities for outsiders to partake in their functions increased, balls and parties assumed a variety of new guises: superkrewe extravaganzas and other revels that discarded with the scripted tableaux and rigid protocols of old-line krewes. Even so, Carnival galas usually retain at least some vestige of the traditional rituals established in the 19th century. Whatever the variation, music and dancing have remained the crucial common denominators.
Big Shot Of Africa
A flamboyant, sharp-dressing, big-spending “character” hailing from the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Paul E. Johnson, a well-heeled entertainer, dreamed up the idea when he reigned as King Zulu in 1930. The following year, he took up the Big Shot role, embodying, in Zulu mythology, the wealth of Africa. Thus, figuratively speaking, the large crystal doorknobs that the Big Shot would fashion into rings for his fingers would come from African diamond mines. Indeed, he is the original King of Bling. Like other notable Carnival characters in the colorful Zulu pantheon, the Big Shot is an elected position, for which would-be candidates campaign using their own money. Each year, the Zulu member who comes out on top then typically spends a small fortune on flashy attire and accoutrements, including signature Big Shot throws, as he’s expected to “outshine” everyone except the king. His trademarks are a large cigar and a derby hat, and he rides atop his own float in the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras.
French for “fatted calf” or ox. With antecedents dating back to ancient religious festivals, the ritual slaughter of the boeuf gras came to symbolize the last meat and feasting enjoyed by Christians prior to the Lenten season of atonement and abstinence. In Paris, butchers would compete to see who could raise the biggest and most glorious boeuf gras. The winning beast would be paraded through the streets on Mardi Gras, accompanied by butchers carrying the tools of their trade. A live bull led the very first Rex parade, in 1872. The krewe abandoned the tradition around the turn of the century, then restored it, in 1959, as a papier-mâché caricature on a float. Rex has since transformed the Carnival icon into sought-after throw items, and maskers dressed cooks can be seen every Mardi Gras riding atop the krewe’s signature Boeuf Gras float.
An invitation extended to special female guests to participate in the first round of dances at a Carnival ball. In traditional protocol, the recipients of these invitations, also known as “call-outs,” would be seated in the call-out section just off the dance floor. Masked krewe members would hand dance cards to ball committeemen, who’d then call out the names of the designated ladies and escort them to their partners. The last call-out would be followed by general dancing in which invited guests could partake. Although Proteus was the first krewe to initiate the practice, in 1893, its origins date back to the courtly splendors of France in the time of Louis XIV, when the lords and ladies of the realm embraced a new style of dramatic dancing that became known as ballet. “The high point of the evening,” relates S. Frederick Starr, in his book New Orleans Unmasqued, “would occur when the king’s chamberlain ‘called out’ prominent lady aristocrats from the audience and asked them to join the masked actors-dancers-aristocrats on the floor. Only Important People received this honor, and they vied for it.” Some “old-line” Carnival organizations still practice the traditional call-out ritual, or a close approximation of it, while others retain key elements in a less formal guise.
Kings and queens of Carnival krewes perform mainly ceremonial functions; the captain, typically appointed by a krewe’s board, is the real power behind the throne. Since he’s ultimately responsible for planning and directing krewe activities, a dynamic captain with strong leadership qualities is often key to an organization’s success. In a parade, he usually rides on a lead float or atop a handsome horse. In a ball setting, he customarily orchestrates the presentation of the royal court, perhaps using a whistle to cue choreographed movements. And although his identity has traditionally been shrouded in secrecy, especially in old-line krewes, in recent years some captains have stepped into the media spotlight—posing for photo shoots unmasked and granting interviews without any pretense of anonymity.
In its earliest usage in medieval Europe, the Latin word carnelevare, from which “carnival” is derived (literally meaning “to lift up” or relieve from “flesh” or “meat”), may have referred to the beginning of the Lenten season of atonement and abstinence rather than the festive holiday customs that preceded Lent. In any case, over time it became established as the season of merriment and make-believe that begins on the feast of the Epiphany (January 6)—also known as Kings’ Day or Twelfth Night (it’s the twelfth day of Christmas, the day the gift-bearing Magi visited the Christ child)—and ends on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). Beginning in the 15h century, Church reformers sought to suppress and discredit pre-Lenten festivities, associating the satirical theatrics, boisterous games and bodily self-indulgence of Carnival with “sinful” pagan pleasures of ancient Greek and Roman rites. But that didn’t stop Renaissance monarchs and their courtiers from celebrating Carnival in glittering style. Eventually, secular currents of thought rationalized Carnival as an expression of the occasional need for carefree folly. Mardi Gras, as the climax of Carnival, was placed on the day before Lent. That way, all the foolishness and indulgence would be done when it came time to start atoning and fasting. Although “Mardi Gras” and “Carnival” are often used interchangeably, New Orleanians are more prone to use Carnival, even sometimes referring to Mardi Gras as “Carnival Day,” while tourists generally say Mardi Gras, often conflating that term with the entirety of the weeks-long celebration.
Krewe functionaries traditionally appointed by the captain or non-members invited to perform duites at balls. Most often associated with krewes that adhere to old-line traditions, committeemen have specific responsibilities (membership, court selection, ball invitations, etc.). They are particularly in evidence in the highly choreographed, tightly controlled realm of Carnival balls. Whereas members of the reception committee orchestrate the arrival and seating of invited guests, and the grand entrance of the court, members of the floor committee, known as “black-coats” in the old days, regulate the dance floor. When a woman, by special invitation, is “called out” to dance with a krewe member, a floor committeeman will retrieve her from the call-out section and escort her to her dance partner. Serving on committees is considered an honor, and can be a prerequisite for assuming a position of leadership and influence within a krewe.
The formal presentation or ritual anointment of royalty to krewe members and guests. A coronation ball can include the introduction of the prior year’s royalty and the bestowal of royal trappings (scepter, mantle, crown/tiara) on newly elevated royalty.
A “Cajun” Mardi Gras celebration in southeast Louisiana, in which a band of colorfully clad maskers roams the countryside gathering ingredients and financial contributions for a communal feast featuring a giant pot of gumbo, while engaging in songs, dances and improvisational jokes. A Mardi Gras, as a participant in a courir is known, may beg for a chicken or demand a san sous—a small coin for the Mardi Gras. In addition to a “capuchon”—a tall cone-shaped hat that, in medieval times, was a symbol of mockery of royalty—the revelers typically wear masks made out of a type of wire screen used to crush pecans and sift the shells, reflecting the rural origins of their tradition. To earn contributions to the gumbo, they also perform daredevil antics such as standing atop the saddle or a horse.
The pseudoroyalty of a Carnival organization. The court tradition developed after the Civil War, when members of elite krewes—seeking to evoke a world of imaginary chivalry as a balm for wounded pride amidst the upheavals of Reconstruction—began acting out aristocratic fantasies, in the words of the late New Orleans photographer and folklorist Michael P. Smith, “by carrying on in the style of the royal courts and palaces of Old Europe.” Early pageants featured an all-male cast: a king, whose identity was a closely guarded secret, along with knights and dukes who presented tableaux based on romantic themes of enchantment, royal beneficence, knightly courtship and heroism in history, legend and mythology. Beginning in the 1870s, women began to take center stage as posh Carnival balls evolved into vehicles for the formal presentation of debutante daughters to society. Customarily, a krewe’s captain and his officers anointed the queen and her maids of honor based on their fathers’ prominence within the krewe. For these chosen few, mastering the finer points of feminine regality and court protocol served to validate social status and establish credentials as prime marriage material. Elite families came to measure social rank based on how many court appearances their daughters made at prestigious Carnival balls. In the 20th century, less-formalized variations on the old rituals developed as Carnival became more democratized and new krewes appeared on the scene. Even today, however, some royals undergo training in how to handle a scepter and the minutiae of posing, curtseying, bowing and waving. Regardless of the prestige factor assigned to a krewe, serving on a court is an honor and a commitment that can involve considerable expense, especially for the king and queen. Ball gowns and costumes can easily cost thousands of dollars, and monarchs memorialize their reign—and demonstrate their munificence—by lavishing keepsakes on maids, dukes and other notables.
A word connoting mixed blood and the language and folk culture of Southern Louisiana. Most generally, in the words of folklorist Nick Spitzer, it implies a dissolving of “boundaries where cultures meet and overlap and simmer together.” In colonial New Orleans, African, Native American, Caribbean, French, Spanish, Latin and Catholic influences melded together. Back then, however, people who referred to themselves as Creoles didn’t necessarily have mixed blood, and in fact, the term didn’t imply anything about one’s race. Louisiana-born people of French ancestry originally adopted the Creole label as a way to distinguish themselves from non-native arrivistes, particularly the waves of refugees (both black and white) who came to New Orleans after the 1804 revolution in Saint-Domingue (creating the Republic of Haiti). Creoles saw themselves as a New World aristocracy, aloof from mainstream Anglo-American culture, and their folkways—they were devotees of music, dance, theatrical amusements and games of chance—did much to define New Orleans as a culturally exotic, socially permissive entrepot. Over time, “Creole” became more of a signifier of Louisiana Creoles of color and the Afro-Caribbean roots of their vernacular culture. When used in the context of modern tourism promotion, it generally implies a somewhat ambiguous, romanticized mélange of indigenous architecture, food, music and Old World customs. “Creole Mardi Gras” has a more specific meaning, however—referencing the celebration in the antebellum era, before the advent of the krewe system. The key ingredients were masquerade balls, king cake soirées and spontaneous, generally disorganized and sometimes unruly cavorting in the streets—relvelry that was, for the most part, racially unsegregated.
An ancient royal accoutrement that became a defining symbol of Carnival via the king cake tradition as well as the original New Orleans krewemen’s penchant for carrying on in the grand style of the courts of Old Europe, as a way to assert social status and cultivate an aura of refinement and cultural superiority. In Carnival krewes, the mock revival of monarchic rule recurs annually, with the crowning of a new king and queen and the selection of the maids, dukes and other notables who comprise their court. There are many variations on the tradition, and crowns can come in many varieties. When Emma Butler found a gold bean in her slice of cake at the 1871 Twelfth Night Revelers ball, thus becoming the first queen of a Carnival krewe, she was crowned with a wreath of oak leaves. More typically, the earliest Carnival courts imported rhinestone “crown jewels” from Europe, designed to exacting custom specifications and sometimes incorporating motifs reflecting a chosen theme. Debutante queens whose fathers footed the bill would get to keep the paraphernalia—bejeweled scepters and tiaras destined to become treasured family heirlooms. Nowadays, krewes typically loan the accessories, which are reused from one year to the next. As an icon of Carnival, the crown is most closely associated with the Rex Organization, whose monarch, also known as Rex or King of Carnival, wears a gold crown and rides on a throne float topped by a large papier mâché crown. In the parlance of Mardi Gras Indians, a “crown” is a headdress. Typically made with turkey feathers and a beaded headband, Mardi Gras Indian crowns used to resemble the “war bonnets” of Plains Indians. But as the so-called “suits” became more elaborate, brightly dyed ostrich plumes transformed crowns into vibrant profusions, often accentuated with detailed pictorial beadwork or three-dimensional elements featuring glass stones and beads set in intricate geometric patterns. These stunning, hand-crafted creations, which can easily measure 15 feet across, are memorialized in the Mardi Gras Indian song “Big Chief Got a Golden Crown.”
A piece of Carnival ball paphernalia once included with invitations issued to women. Dancing and courtship rituals have long been a closely observed focal point of balls, and in the old days a lady’s position in the social firmament could be devined by her desirability as a dance partner. Dance cards had a small pencil on a string for filling in the names of gentlemen partners.
A warehouse-like building (owned or leased by a krewe) that serves as a workshop and nerve center for fabricating, preparing and staging Carnival parades and balls. Floats, scenery, props and sometimes costumes are typically stored at a den, which also serves as a venue for krewe functions (e.g., a “den party”).
Coin-like objects, first introduced in Rex’s 1960 parade, that are tossed from floats by maskers. Usually made of aluminum, they typically bear a krewe’s emblemon one side and the theme of its parade on the other.
A male member of a krewe’s royal court. Usually college-age sons or grandsons of krewe members, dukes customarily are eligible bachelors who serve as escorts to court maids.
A razzle-dazzle party at a large venue, typically the Convention Center or Superdome, where thousands of attendees raise a ruckus. Unlike the decorous balls thrown by high-society krewes, these events, though requiring formal attire, feature nationally known musical acts and often draw celebrity guests. Setting the standard, The Orpheuscapade, Endymion Extravaganza and Bacchus Rendezvous are the ultimate destinations for their sponsoring organizations’ parades, which literally roll in from the street as float riders bombard the assembled guests with beads and other trinkets.
Specially commissioned krewe jewelry or souvenirs handed out at during Carnival. The Krewe of Proteus initiated the practice in the 1880s, as a sweetener for its call-out ritual. During the ball, specially designated female guests would be “called out” to the floor and paired with krewemen, each of whom would have submitted in advance a list of requested dance partners, known as “call-outs.” Being selected as a call-out was an honor, and at the end of a dance, a krewe member might present his partner with a memento. These commemorative gifts—often an enamel pin emblazoned with the krewe’s insignia or the theme of its parade and ball—became known as favors, and came to include functional items such as flasks, compacts, combs and letter openers. Larger items, such as vases and ice buckets, were delivered to the recipients’ homes. While masked krewemen at old-line balls still tote favors in satins sacks that dangle from their wrists, the custom of bestowing favors is no longer specific to call-outs or balls. Nowadays a “favor” can even be fancy, limited-edition throw. Too expensive to order in large quantities, such an item might not be thrown to random parade spectators but handed out as a keepsake to friends, family members and associates.
Fuel-burning torches used in night parades. A traditional flambeau is a pole with a gravity-flow kerosene tank at the top, plus two or four burners positioned horizontally in front of a rectangular metal plate designed to reflect the light. Newer-style flambeaux are fueled by propane. Seen in the Endymion and Bacchus parades, they’re known as “Ghostbuster” flambeaux because the propane tanks are strapped to the carriers’ bodies like the backpacks worn in the movie. In the old days, parades would include 200 to 300 flambeaux; as described by Henri Schindler in Mardi Gras Treasures: Float Designs of the Golden Age, they “were borne aloft by bands of robed and hooded Negroes—these ceremonial fires ringed every float, bathing them in clouds of intoxicating, pulsating magic.” Not everyone is enamored of the custom, however. For some, it is a patronizing remnant of a time when a rigid color line generally restricted black participation in “official” Carnival festivities to carrying flambeaux or tending the mules that used to pull the floats. But despite any perceived stigma of demeaning servitude, and the fact that electric streetlights and illumination on the floats themselves long ago eliminated the practical necessity of flambeaux, the torches (albeit in far smaller numbers than in the late 1800s) are still a noteworthy feature of some Carnival parades. The carriers—who often wear bandanas to protect their hair and faces from smoke and kerosene residue from the old-fashioned flambeaux—are now mostly deployed in between floats, as “units.” Their ranks are still comprised almost exclusively of black men, many of whom see themselves as keepers of an authentic cultural tradition that not only entertains parade-goers but also provides an opportunity for creative self-expression and financial reward. Spinning and swinging the poles, which are balanced in pouches slung around their waists, the carriers receive gratuities as they sashay and dance their way down the street, while sometimes engaging in animated repartee with bedazzled spectators. As one practitioner explained to Nick Spitizer, in an interview for the American Routes radio program: “I break bread with the crowd, and they breakin’ bread with me. And breakin’ bread is showin’ us love.”
Exposing body parts that normally remain covered up, in exchange for beads and baubles. It all started innocently enough. One theory holds that when float parades were banned from the French Quarter’s narrow streets in 1973, locals with access to Mardi Gras trinkets and French Quarter balconies invented a new form of entertainment to fill the void: the flesh-for-beads show. Back then, flashing was a spontaneous and casual affair, with beads a convenient medium of exchange that facilitated fun and conviviality. For those who like to revel in the risqué, flashing, besides being a way to “earn” beads, is said to provide a titillating, even addictive adrenal rush. But alas, as Mardi Gras immodesty became a leisure activity and a tourist attraction, it also became ripe for exploitation. As video producers and amateur paparazzi took to peddling salacious videos on late-night TV and posting vignettes on the Internet, the “show-your-tits” side of Mardi Gras revelry has, to the dismay of local cognoscenti, partly overshadowed the gala’s cultural significance, storied pageantry and traditional family orientation.
A float rider responsible for a variety of functions relating to his float. Duties can range from helping coordinate float-viewing parties and the distribution and loading of throws to keeping riders informed about krewe activities; from hounding riders for dues payments and enforcing parade rules to assigning positions on his float and recruiting riders to take unfilled positions.
In a Mardi Gras Indian tribe or “gang,” the gang flag is responsible for relaying information or “signals” to and from the big chief. Also known as the flag boy or flag, he typically carries a decorated staff or totem emblazoned with the tribe’s name or some other signifier. Specific gestures made with this “stick,” as it’s called, convey visual cues or instructions to members of the gang spread out along the line of march. If a spy boy up ahead spots another Indian gang, he will convey what he sees to the gang flag, who in turn communicates the details of the sighting to the chief. The chief’s decision about whether or not to engage the other tribe is then communicated back up the line, via the gang flag. Thus, in his role as messenger, the gang flag is in a position to know everything about what’s going on. Although normally positioned near the chief, he has plenty of ambulatory latitude, roaming wherever he deems fit to facilitate the flow of vital information.
Mardi Gras revelers take full advantage of New Orleans’s famously relaxed laws that allow drinking in public year-round. No glass containers or cans are allowed on the street, however—hence the omnipresent plastic containers known as “go-cups.” The term is derived from ordering libations to go, as in: I’ll take that Hurricane in a go-cup, please, Mr. Bartender. Indeed, go-cups are a New Orleans institution—and a mainstay throw.
A formal, circular promenade featuring krewe royalty and their retinue. Evocative of ceremonial displays of royal pomp in Old Europe, the grand march in the context of a Carnival ball is a symbolic affirmation of elevated status, conveying empowerment and refinement—a regal display worthy of the assembled guests’ admiration. The epitome of this ritual occurs at the Meeting of the Courts on Mardi Gras, when Rex and Comus, in a highly choreographed display of opulent pageantry, escort each other’s queens around the ballroom. They waive their scepters and acknowledge the approbation of their “subjects,” while the orchestra plays the grand march from the opera Aida.
Traditionally associated with New Orleans brass bands, jazz funerals and social and marching clubs, the grand marshal is akin to the drum major in a marching band: He leads the procession and regulates its tempo, specifically with regard to music and dancing. What sets him apart from the other marchers, write Shane White and Graham White in their book Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit, is his “improvisational skill, his physical dexterity, his unexpected changes of direction and dramatic juxtaposition of different marching steps or sequences.” Or as famed New Orleans jazz clarinetist and saxophonist Sidney Bechet put it, “He’d be a man that could really strut…the best strutter in the club.” Along with ceremonial attire—traditionally, a tuxedo, top hat, colorful sash and white gloves—his accoutrements may include a whistle and a staff or umbrella. In “mainstream” Mardi Gras parades, by contrast, the term implies an honorary role. In the case of the Krewe of Endymion and the Krewe of Orpheus, for instance, the grand marshal is always a celebrity who rides atop one of the lead floats.
A Mardi Gras Indian command meaning “bow down.” In the old days, before competition among Indians came to revolve around aesthetic considerations, violence could erupt if an Indian refused a demand, issued by a member of another tribe, to “Humbah!”
A term used by New Orleans’s African-American community meaning trouble, argument or physical violence. In the context of Mardi Gras Indians, it refers to a confrontation with a member or members of another tribe. A “humbugish” person is a trouble maker, ready to engage in confrontation or violence at the drop of a hat.
A networking ritual where members of different Mardi Gras Indian gangs meet in street clothes on Sundays to scope out the competition as well as teach and rehearse music, dancing and role playing. A gang will typically practice at a particular neighborhood bar or music club, where they are the “home gang.” When another gang shows up, an alleyway is formed, with members of each gang grouping together. Tension can build as a spyboy or wildman works crowd control, keeping the space open so the two chiefs can meet. When the visiting chief enters, his spy boy might holler, “Spyboy! Coochie molly!” The visiting chief then makes his way down the alley, which is like a gauntlet, while the other chief waits at the far end. When the two chiefs meet, a circle forms for competitive vocal interplay and dancing. As Michael P. Smith points out in his book Mardi Gras Indians, the improvised movements resemble the Afro-Brazilian martial art called capoeira. “In gang practices,” he writes, “individuals approach each other with their hands high, sometimes waving handkerchiefs, and face off, singing or rapping (usually rhyming) whatever comes to their minds, with some physical moves reminiscent of days when slaves danced while in chains.” All the while the sound of tambourines and drums, accompanied by call-and-response chanting, builds to a polyrhythmic frenzy of distinctly Afro-Caribbean provenance. “The dancers serve the purpose of intimidating somebody with how good you can play Indian,” Larry Bannock, chief of the Golden Star Hunters, explains in the documentary Cuttin’ Loose. “Each step means something. You always try to dance in a way that you don’t offend somebody. All it takes is the wrong signal or a flick of the wrist and trouble breaks out.”
A printed summons to attend a Carnival ball. In bygone days, invitation committees of prestigious old-line krewes would exercise scrupulous due diligence in considering the worthiness of prospective invitees proffered by members. “Each invitation was ‘strictly personal’ (meaning it could not be given away to an uninvited friend) and had a number that corresponded with the krewe’s master list,” notes dance historian Jennifer Atkins in her PhD dissertation, “Setting the Stage: Dance and Gender in Old-Line New Orleans Carnival Balls, 1870-1920.” Hand-delivered by special courier, invitations would be accompanied by “admit cards” that guests would present upon arrival at the ball. As affirmations of social status, invitations to old-line balls were highly prized among the elite and notoriously difficult to secure. In 1877, when two invitations to the Mistick Krewe of Comus ball went unaccounted for, either stolen or misplaced, a $2,000 reward was offered in the name of the krewe’s namesake monarch. As Robert Tallant recalled, in his book Mardi Gras…As it Was: “The blood of New Orleans aristocracy was curdled with wrath and indignation and chilled with horror that some outsider might get in.” (The invitations never turned up.) By the late 19th century, invitations had become as ornate as the balls themselves—intricately designed and crafted keepsakes, often die cut and folded into three-dimensional shapes. Collectors and krewe members now frame these lithographic treasures, which reflect krewe themes, for home display. While some krewes, including Rex and Comus, still produce fancy invitations, they aren’t as lavish as their belle époque predecessors. Meanwhile, as the proliferation of Carnival krewes since the World War II has spawned a much greater variety of Carnival balls—along with more opportunities for non-members and even out-of-town guests to partake of the experience—the aura of pomp and exclusivity associated with invitations has diminished. If you’re a friend, neighbor or professional associate of a krewe member who includes you on his or her guest list, the krewe will automatically send you an invitation (referring to it as a “ticket” is a faux pas). Eschewing the protocols of scripted tableau balls, some non-exclusive krewes, including Endymion, Tucks and Orpheus, sell admission to their post-parade galas—essentially, huge supper-dances with name-brand entertainment.
The ritual of choosing a mock monarch to rule over festivities dates back to ancient rites tied to the observance of the winter solstice. The tradition survived in the European celebration of Twelfth Night, in which the finder of a bean or trinket concealed inside a cake would rule over the revels. In the colonial era, New Orleans Creoles used this luck-of-the-draw method to divine royalty during a season of balls, called les bals des Rois (the balls of kings), that began on Twelfth Night and ended on Mardi Gras. The practice of having a member of a Carnival krewe assume the identity of a mythological namesake god to preside over a parade and ball began with the inaugural pageant of the Mistick Krewe of Comus, in 1857. Comus and subsequent krewe figureheads such as the Lord of Misrule, Momus, Rex and Proteus reigned over rarefied, self-ordained monarchies in the tumultuous aftermath of the Civil War. Heroic adventure, conquest and enchantment provided much of the thematic ephemera for artistically ambitious parades and balls, through which krewemen sought to underscore their elite status, regain lost honor and project patriarchal power in the “real world” of New Orleans society, of which they fancied themselves the “rightful rulers.” Except for Rex—who, in a sense, became the civic face of the old-line Carnival establishment—the identities of the mock kings were strictly secret. In the early decades of the 20th century, new krewes comprised of tradesmen and laborers (Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club), as well as business and professional men (Knights of Hermes, Knights of Babylon), appeared. A gradual democratization of Carnival had begun that was in keeping with, if not motivated by, the “Every man a king” spirit of Louisiana politician Huey Long. No longer was Carnival royalty born exclusively to the upper crust. In 1949, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong became Carnival’s first celebrity monarch, and fulfilled a boyhood dream, when he reigned as King Zulu. (“Man, this king stuff is fine,” he said. “Real fine.”) Further departures from old-line monarchical tradition occured in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the emergence of superkrewes. Bacchus, who reigns over the superkrewe parade of the same name, is always a non-member recruited from the world of showbiz. The Krewe of Endymion holds a drawing in which virtually every one of its 2200-plus members has a shot at being chosen king. And Zulu has elections, in which would-be potentates mount lavish campaigns for members’ votes. The winner gets to choose his queen. Meanwhile, Comus and his kin still adhere to what’s sometimes referred to as the “mystic” tradition. Which is to say, the identity of the mortal behind the mask is never publicly revealed.
Most commonly, a cinnamon-infused brioche roll shaped into a ring and topped with white icing and sugar or sprinkles in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold/yellow. Its connection to Carnival and New Orleans evolved from the European custom of using a celebratory cake as a vehicle for selecting mock royalty to reign over Twelfth Night festivities. Legend has it that the cakes were made in the shape of a ring and colorfully decorated to resemble a bejeweled crown. The finder of a bean or trinket concealed in the cake, duly anointed king or queen, would reign over the revels, often with a consort of his or her choosing. As a Carnival tradition in antebellum New Orleans, well-to-do Creoles practiced this “luck-of-the-draw” method at king cake parties, known as les bals de roi (the balls of kings). But the pastry’s transformation into a popular comfort food symbolic of boisterous revelry and pre-Lenten Fat Tuesday feasting is a relatively recent, marketing-driven phenomenon. After the now-defunct McKenzie’s Pastry Shoppes began advertising king cake on WDSU-TV, in the late 1950s, the tasty treat began to appear with increasing frequency in homes and offices after Twelfth Night, as a festive gastronomic prelude to Mardi Gras. By then a plastic baby was hidden in the cake, and tradition held that whoever received the slice with the baby would be obliged to buy a cake for the next party. Eventually, king cake became so commonplace, appearing at almost any get-together during the Carnival season, that the old luck-of-the-draw traditions became more the exception than the rule. The emphasis shifted to taste and appearance, as bakers introduced new variations with flavored fillings: chocolate, blueberry, cream cheese, pecan praline, even crawfish. Demand for king cake grew exponentially with the advent of the express shipping and Internet ordering, as what was once a local custom became the most popular way to share the Mardi Gras spirit with friends, relatives and corporate customers.
King Cake Baby
An endearing and venerated symbol of Mardi Gras, the king cake baby is a plastic doll with a fascinating lineage dating back to ancient times, when a tiny token would be concealed in bread or cake as a symbol of fertility and new life. Like other observances tied to the winter solstice, Saturnalia—the Roman festival held in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture and civilization—commemorated the death and rebirth of nature. The mock ruler of the festivities, the King of Saturnalia, was chosen by throwing dice, drawing a lot, or discovering a fava bean or coin in a piece of cake. In adopting this custom, Christians transformed it into a symbolic reenactment of Epiphany. In France, the bean (la feve) eventually was replaced by a bean-sized baby Jesus; its discovery memorialized the discovery of Jesus’ divinity by the Magi. Traditionally, the finder of the token would reign over festivities on Twelfth Night (January 6), which commemorates the Magi’s visit to the manger. Transplanted to colonial Louisiana, king cakes would contain a bean, almond, pecan or trinket. As early as the 1930s, some cakes had porcelain baby dolls, often called feves; in the 1950s, plastic babies began to take over. Thus, it became customary for whoever received the slice of cake containing the baby to announce, “I got the baby!” Nowadays in New Orleans, black babies and even glow-in-dark babies with angel’s wings have appeared on the scene, and versions cast from sliver and gold are featured in fancy lines of jewelry.
The generic term for a Carnival organization, dating to the founding of the Mistick Krewe of Comus in 1857. In ancient mythology, Comus is the son of necromancer Circe and reveler Bacchus. But the Comus krewemen drew their inspiration from the poetry of English Puritan John Milton. In his list of “persons” at the front of A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle, written in 1634, Milton refers to “Comus and his crew.” In adopting the whimsical variation of “crew” and archaic spelling of “mystic,” the founders of Comus, who were of of Anglo-Saxon descent, supposedly intended to give their Carnival endeavor an Old English flavor. Before Comus, Mardi Gras street processions were mostly impromptu happenings—relatively small, unorganized and sometimes unruly. By forming a social club for the purpose of planning a scripted parade and tableau ball, writes sociologist Kevin Fox Gotham in Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture and Race in the Big Easy, Comus “rationalized the production of Carnival.” In a torch-lit procession on the night of Mardi Gras, with two floats, brass bands and costumed maskers, the Comus krewemen presented “The Demon Actors in Milton’s Paradise Lost,” a theme carried through in the tableaux staged at their exclusive ball. By adopting a mythological namesake and presenting a thematic, meticulously organized street spectacle, followed by a tableau ball that was more a cultural performance (staged before formally attired guests) than a typical Carnival masquerade dance, Comus established a paradigm that would be widely imitated. In effect, the resulting “krewe system” clearly delineated the most recognizable elements of the Carnival celebration into public and private spheres. The former consisted of parades in which the general populace was relegated to the role of spectators, while masked krewemen, as self-appointed arbiters of culture, towered above them on fanciful floats. Krewe balls, which became known as Carnival balls, were private, invitation-only affairs, in which krewe members and their “royal” courts assumed roles and enacted rituals that reinforced their lofty status. Over time, a variety of new Carnival organizations came on the scene that adopted the “krewe” appellation but didn’t necessarily follow the old protocols—thus loosening the word’s association with the specific innovations established by Comus. Nowadays, “krewe” can refer to any group, no matter how loosely organized, that rallies around a particular idea, theme or plan involving Carnival merrymaking.
French for “Fat Monday.” Carnival Historian Errol Laborde elevated the term from obscurity in the late 1980s, after seeing a musical production, Staggerlee, written and directed by New Orleanian Vernel Bagneris with a score by composer Allen Toussaint. Set in an Afro-Creole bar the night before Mardi Gras, one of the characters refers to the evening as “Lundi Gras.” Subsequently, Laborde became involved with a group planning a presentation of festivities, centered around the recently redeveloped downtown riverfront, on the Monday before Mardi Gras. Initiated in 1987, the Lundi Gras celebration, as it was called, incuded the ceremonial Mississippi River arrival of Rex, king of Carnival, by boat—reviving an annual tradition that began in 1874 and ended in 1917. (In those days, however, the term “Lundi Gras” wasn’t used in reference to Rex’s royal disembarkation.) In 1993, the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club joined with the Audubon Institute in bringing a new enhancement to the riverfront gala: the Zulu Lundi Gras Frestival. The event, staged in Woldenberg Park, has grown to include an entire day of entertainment, with live music, second line parades and the arrival by boat of the Zulu King and Queen and the Zulu Carnival characters. Rex and King Zulu publicly exchanged greetings for the first time in 1999, as part of the Lundi Gras festivities, and have continued to do so every year since.
A female member of a krewe court (in medieval parlance, “a lady in waiting”) whose ostensible role is to attend to the queen. Usually selected based on her father’s or grandfather’s prominence within a krewe, she is, traditionally, a debutante who is “presented” to society through court spectacles. Serving as a maid is both an honor and a rite of passage into adulthood. Aglow in white gowns, maids are featured adornments at Carnival balls—idealized and exalted. At the same time, they’re bound by tradition to submit to codified rituals involving scripted body language. According to dance historian Jennifer Atkins, the role of female court members evolved from romanticized visions of demure, acquiescent femininity as defined by paternalistic krewemen. “Refinement and subservience—illustrated by the perfect bow or curtsey—were fundamental characteristics emphasized during female participation in krewe courts,” she observes in her PhD dissertation, “Setting the Stage: Dance and Gender in Old-Line New Orleans Carnival Balls, 1870-1920.”
Big parades with glitzy floats and high-school marching bands may be most prominent visual manifestation of Carnival, but for many aficionados, freewheeling marching or walking groups personify the boisterous spirit of the season. Exuding an energy all their own, these ensembles often inspire spectators to follow in their wake—mimicking, drinking, dancing. Their penchant for uproarious burlesque and strutting revelry is, in many cases, suggested by their wacky and whimsical names—e.g., the Ducks of Dixieland, Box of Wine, the Krewe of Kosmic Debris, the Mondo Kayo Social and Marching Club, Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast Walking Club and the Jefferson City Buzzards, which was founded in 1890. A handful of marching groups have permits to parade on the main route on Carnival Day. Most all of them make their way to the French Quarter, where they sometimes cross paths and wind up spontaneously jamming together and raising a rumpus. The krewes of Zulu (with its Soulful Warriors and Tramps units) and Tucks (which includes the Ducks of Dixieland in its lineup) have long recognized the zing and funkiness factor that marching groups can add to a mainstream parade. Newer float-parade krewes that prominently feature marching groups include Le Krewe d’Etat, which has rolled with the Skeleton Krewe and the cross-dressing Dancin’ Dawlins, and the Krewe of Muses, which has carrved out spots for the likes of the Bearded Oysters and the Pussyfooters.
French for “Fat Tuesday.” Occurring on any Tuesday from February 3 through March 9, Mardi Gras is tied to Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the full moon following the Spring Equinox. Although Church fathers established Easter as a movable holiday in 325, it wasn’t until 1582, under Pope Gregory XIII, that Mardi Gras became a holiday on the Christian calendar—a feast day marking the climactic end of Carnival indulgence and the beginning of Lenten season of atonement and abstinence. Mardi Gras is always scheduled 47 days preceding Easter (the 40 days of Lent plus seven Sundays). A citywide extravaganza that can be experienced on many different levels, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is not so much an “event” as a cultural phenomenon that is expressed through a range of art forms and a dizzying amalgamation of happenings and habits. While “Mardi Gras” generally refers to the festivities themselves, it’s also a moniker sometimes applied to a reveler. So, for example, a New Orleanian might greet a masker by saying: “Hey, where y’at, you Mardi Gras?”
Mardi Gras Indians
Synthesizing African, Caribbean and American folkways, Mardi Gras Indians are representative of a broader phenomenon found areas where the cultures of African and Native peoples merged under colonialism. Oral tradition places their beginnings in New Orleans as far back as the 1830s (the first documented account was in 1900). As racial repression intensified in the post-Reconstruction era, hardening the color line governing participation in “mainstream” Mardi Gras festivities, organized groups of black and mixed-race celebrants masking as Indians took to neighborhood backstreets on Fat Tuesday. These Mardi Gras Indians, as they came to be known, identified with Native Americans, in part because they shared a common experience of subjugation under colonialism and in part because tribes indigenous to Louisiana provided refuge to runaway slaves. At one time, rivalries among Mardi Gras Indian tribes or “gangs” (usually defined by neighborhoods) often turned violent. But these days, the competitive aspects of their revelry revolve around singing, dancing and costuming. The process of making a Mardi Gras Indian “suit,” which can take up to a year and cost thousands of dollars, brings families and communities together in a collaborative artistic endeavor. The results can be stunning: the vibrant colors of dyed ostrich, coque and marabou feathers, which recall the ceremonial attire of Plains Indians, are complimented by intricate, pictorial beadwork—the stylistic origins of which can be traced back to West Africa and the Caribbean—or sculptural (raised-relief) designs set off with dazzling arrays of beads and crystals. On Mardi Gras, after spending the early part of the day roaming the streets of their respective neighborhoods, various tribes, each led by a Big Chief, meet up and engage in ritualized confrontations. Also animating other festive occasions such as Super Sunday—the Sunday before St. Joseph’s Day—their music and traditions have become emblazoned on the aesthetic and cultural consciousness of New Orleans.
Mardi Gras Madness
A catch-all phrase referencing the fact that Mardi Gras is a time to indulge obsessions and partake in collective manias. The colors of madness are purple, green and gold, a combination that’s woven deeply into New Orleans’s renown culture of revelry. Originally introduced by the Rex organization upon its Mardi Gras debut in 1872, purple, green and gold captured the public’s imagination and have become a way for citizens of the realm to revel in decorative frenzies. Throws are another expression of Mardi Gras Madness. The thrill and challenge of acquiring beads and other coveted gewgaws is a competitive sport—and an entertaining spectacle. Madness is, to be sure, also evident in the infamous flesh-for-Mardi-Gras beads barter economy on Bourbon Street. For many New Orleanians, however, costuming is the ultimate expression of Mardi Gras Madness—the apotheosis of a self-dramatizing indigenous culture, in which creative expression through theatricality and masquerade is a consuming passion and a way of life.
Mardi Gras Spirit
An enduring human capacity for merriment and make-believe, for mirthful mockery and the creative indulgence of whimsy, as expressed in the customs and traditions associated with Mardi Gras. The Mardi Gras spirit is what compels one to summon the lost innocence of youth and seek ritual transformation through masking and parading. More fundamentally, it is associated with optimism and positive thinking, as was demonstrated by the heroic determination of New Orleanians, in spite of the devastation of wrought by Hurricane Katrina, to successfully stage Mardi Gras in 2006—which helped the city believe in itself agian. It is this aspect of the spirit that novelist and journalist Robert Tallant had in mind when he observed, in his 1947 book Mardi Gras…As It Was, that Mardi Gras “will live through whatever catastrophes occur,” because it is, in essence, “a symbol of the art of being human, and wherever people are still human, wherever they still enjoy living, it will exist in some form.”
The practice of wearing a mask during Carnival dates back to the early Carnival celebrations in Europe. In New Orleans, the word “mask” is used as both a noun and a verb. To mask is to step outside one’s everyday life and assume another identity, if only for a day. The act of costuming is known as “masking,” regardless of whether an actual mask is worn. By simultaneously concealing a person while creating a new persona, masking makes possible an escape into a world of fantasy. It is this ability to transcend the prosaic, through a ritual transformation of one’s identity, that bestows the exhilaration and magic inherent in the words “Mardi Gras.”
Someone who masks or wears a costume-—as in the lyric from The Wild Tchoupitoulas song “Meet the Boys on the Battlefront”: “Maskers runnin’ up and down the avenue/Here come the Injuns, let ’em through.”
Also known as the “royal maskers’ dance” or “royal dance,” it is the first dance in a traditional old-line Carnival ball and is reserved for masked krewemen and ladies in the royal court.
Meeting of the Courts
A tradition that began in 1882 when the court of Rex paid a visit to the court of Mistick Krewe of Comus at the French Opera House, also known as the Carnival Palace. In 1953, the ornate spectacle, a highlight of Carnival for the social elite, was televised for the first time, on WDSU-TV. The proceedings, known to many as “the grand finale of Mardi Gras,” culminate in a blaze of glittering scepters and other fancy finery, as Rex and Comus escort each other’s queens in a grand march around the ballroom. For many New Orleanians, watching the Meeting of the Courts—now televised on WYES-TV—is a traditional way to put a wrap on Mardi Gras festivities.
The grassy mediian dividing New Orleans’s wide boulevards. During Mardi Gras parades, the neutral ground is party central, where parade-goers stake claims and set up encampments with chairs, tables, barbecues, viewing ladders, etc. It’s a festive, family-friendly atmosphere that buzzes with exceitment and anticipation when parades roll and throws fly—lending credence to the statement, “There ain’t no party like a neutral ground party.” Long ago, when Creoles lived downriver from Canal Street and their cultural rivals—Anglo-Americans—lived upriver, the wide strip in the middle was a literal neutral ground. Nowadays, a member of parading krewe, in giving the heads-up to a friend looking to snag some extra throws, would identify the number of his float in the parade lineup and specifiy his position either on the “neutral ground side” or the “sidewalk side” of the float.
“Old line” generally refers to the oldest, most elite Carnival organizations and the customs associated with them, such as exclusive tableau balls adhering to strict protocol and meticulously organized parades depicting erudite themes. Formed between 1857 and 1882, these organizations, also known as “mystic” krewes, are largely responsible for the formation of Mardi Gras as it is known today. The original old-line krewemen were mostly Anglo-Protestants, including transplanted Northerners, who had economic interests in the plantation system and fought for the Confederacy. Their wounds from the Civil War ran deep, and their sense of indignation and alienation only increased during the social, political and racial upheaval of Reconstruction. Carnival became a realm where they could assert social dominance and reclaim a sense of honor. Forming secretive social clubs for the purpose of organizing parades and balls, they effectively usurped the Latin-Catholic tradition of Mardi Gras masking and appended it to the monarchic and courtly rituals of Old Europe. In cultivating pomp and elevating themselves as chivalrous knights and beneficent kings—heroic defenders of an idealized, Romantic world symbolic of the genteel Old South—the krewemen were capable of remarkable feats of artistic grandeur. But their cultural performances sometimes had a strong ideological undercurrent; indeed, the Mistick Krewe of Comus and the Knights of Momus presented the rhetoric of white supremacy in the guise of satire. Members of the old-line Carnival aristocracy, as J. Mark Souther notes in his book New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City, “not only planned lavish social events but also exercised overwhelming influence on the city’s economic direction and its politics.” Their parades remained the core of the public Carnival celebration through the 1960s. Protective of their hegemony, they tried, unsuccessfully, to quash the Krewe of Bacchus, whose inaugural parade and “extravaganza” party in 1969 marked an unequivocal break from old-line tradition. At no time was the loosening of the old elite’s grip more apparent than in 1991, when the City Council moved to require all krewes parading on public streets to drop discriminatory membership practices. When the dust settled, the bastions of old-line tradition—Comus, Momus and the Krewe of Proteus—had stopped parading (although they went on with their invitation-only Carnival balls). In 2000, after submitting to the city’s anti-discrimination stipulations, Proteus returned to the streets.
A dutiful young fellow who attends to Carnival royalty. Following behind the king and queen during grand entrances and promenades at krewe balls, the pages—usually one assigned to his majesty, another to her highness—occasionally bend down to help maneuver the heavy trains that are attached to the royals’ extravagant attire and trail behind them across the floor. Pages also accept and relay messages on behalf of kings and queens, ride on parade floats conveying royalty and, as members of the court, typically occupy a place of prominence on stage near the throne at krewe balls.
French for “chewed paper,” papier mâché is a sculpture technique that uses a malleable material made from paper, flour and water, or paper and adhesive. Typically, the material is applied to an armature or sub-sculpture made from wood, chicken wire or cardboard. In the early years of Carnival krewe pageants, design illustrations were sent to Paris. Using papier mâché, artisans would create walking figures used in parades and props and decorative elements for floats, as well as scenic and décor pieces for balls—all of which were exported to New Orleans. The first Carnival parade fabricated in New Orleans was the Mistick Krewe of Comus’ 1873 production, “The Missing Links to Darwin’s Origin of Species.” According to Mardi Gras Treasures: Float Designs of the Golden Age, by Henri Schindler, the krewemen were all on foot, “inside 100 wondrous papier-mâché animals, fish, flowers, insects and sea creatures, some of them twelve feet high….” Subsequently, papier mâché developed into a local industry synonymous with Carnival and, more specifically, a traditional sculptural style of float design favored by Comus and other old-line krewes. But alas, it has been supplanted by more cost-effective and expedient techniques. So while floats today may have flowers or other elements made from papier mâché, the structure that sits atop the chassis is seldom sculpted from stem to stern. Instead, cloth is usually stretched over structural plywood, and props are made of fiberglass and other materials. The throne float that conveys Rex, king of Carnival, is one of the few surviving floats sculpted from papier mâché.
Carnival royalty is not born, as the saying goes; it is made. Hence the protocol specialist, who drills members of Carnival courts on how to maintain the illusion of royal refinement despite having been raised nowhere near the courts and palaces of real monarchies. The grand marches and court presentations at Carnival balls are highly choreographed, involving intricate codes of behavior and polished gestures that require practice to master. Dressed in an elaborate gown with a heavy mantle, the queen is nevertheless supposed to walk with poised elegance and wave a scepter gracefully—all the while smiling and exuding radiance, as if she’s having the time of her life. A flawless presentation requires maintaining a regal posture, knowing how to pose and remembering to scepter before sitting down and after standing up. In the Mardi Gras documentary Cuttin’ Loose, a protocol specialist tells the queen of Nereus, in reference to using her scepter to acknowledge subjects: “You don’t want to look like a windshield wiper.” And with regard to walking posture: “Don’t lower your head. You gotta stop that—you’re the queen.”
Queen of Carnival
Chosen by the inner sanctum of the Rex Organization, she is usually a junior in college at the time of her reign—20 or 21 years old. Invariably, besides being the daughter of a prominent member who has devoted years of service to the krewe, she has strong family connections to past Rex royalty. Amidst a whirl of Carnival-related events and obligations in the weeks and months leading up to her day in the limelight—tea parties, debut parties, social calls, dress fittings and lessons in the finer points of royal protocol and etiquette—she’s supposed to keep the honor a secret. Her identity is revealed to the general public on the eve of Mardi Gras, and on Fat Tuesday her picture appears alongside that of her consort, Rex, above the fold on the front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Always unmasked, she watches the Rex parade from a reviewing stand at the Hotel Inter-Continental, on St. Charles Avenue, where she receives a toast and a bouquet—in the traditional Mardi Gras (and Rex) colors of purple, green and gold/yellow—from His Majesty. That night, in a glittering display of precise decorum and scripted formality, she holds forth at the Rex Ball, then accompanies Rex to the ball of the Mistick Krewe of Comus for the traditional Meeting of the Courts. The Rex Ball and the Meeting of the Courts are televised locally, on WYES-TV/Channel 12, which includes in its broadcast a pre-produced, up-close-and-personal segment on the queen. Her elevated public profile during the festivities makes her the public face of the Carnival aristocracy’s debutante daughters.
The king of this krewe is also known as Rex, Latin for “king.” He first appeared riding on horseback in the inaugural Rex parade, on Mardi Gras 1872. The business and civic leaders who conceived the parade wanted to bring order to daytime Mardi Gras festivities and boost tourism to New Orleans, which was struggling to regain its mojo in the wake of the Civil War. In their view, as Errol Laborde observes in his book Marched the Day God: A History of the Rex Organization, the celebration “needed a persona, a public figure, a benevolent monarch.” As a civic-minded endeavor, with a motto of Pro Bono Publico (for the public good), the krewe bestowed the kingship honor on a member who had distinguished himself professionally and through civic leadership or philanthropy. Rex and his queen—a debutante chosen by krewe leaders largely on the basis of her father’s prominence and her familial connections to past Rex royalty—came to be recognized as monarchs of the entire Carnival celebration. Their identities are kept secret until the evening of Lundi Gras, when they’re revealed on local TV news. In addition to an elaborate costume accented in gold, Rex usually wears a wig and false facial hair. Riding on an iconic throne float topped with a crown, he is a totemic figurehead for New Orleans and its most important cultural institution.
Second lining grew out of traditional African-American parades—specifically, jazz funerals. Strictly speaking, the “second line” refers to the secondary mass of people—uninvited guests whom everyone expects to show up—who join the procession and follow behind the hearse, mourners and brass band. More generally, the term denotes a parade involving a brass band, Mardi Gras Indians tribe or second-line club. It’s also the name for a style of dancing inspired by the distinctive syncopated rhythm that propels the strutting, up-tempo music associated with New Orleans-style processions. Thus, second line can be used as a noun (Meet me at the second line), an adjective (Dig that second-line beat) or a verb (Oh what fun it is to second line to the sounds of a New Orleans brass band).
While krewes design their parades anew each year in accordance with a chosen theme, signature floats aren’t subject to makeovers. They are, in fact, instantly recognizable trademarks of particular parades, sometimes featuring totems and mascots associated with a krewe’s identity (crown for Rex, pump shoe for Krewe of Muses, toilet for Krewe of Tucks). By the standards of the Rex (king) float, His Majesty’s Bandwagon and the Boeuf Gras—venerable, longstanding signatures of the Rex parade—Papa Joe’s S.S. Endymion marked a turning point. Unveiled by the Krewe of Endymion in 1976, for its 10th anniversary, the 56-floot replica of a Mississippi River steamboat, linked together in two sections, carried a then-unheard-of 60 riders and—ablaze in flashing lights, with churning paddle wheels and twin stacks billowing steam—generated considerable excitement. By showing that razzamatazz was an effective branding strategy, the first-ever tandem float set a precedent that would be emulated by other “superkrewes” intent on making a splash with signature “superfloats.”
A specially designed bead, stuffed mascot or other throw that is emblematic of a particular krewe. The original signature throw is the Zulu coconut, also known as the Golden Nugget. Members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, unable to afford beads or trinkets, first began distributing coconuts in their natural hairy state in 1910. Shaving, painting and decorating evolved as techniques in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, the highly prized souvenirs, which come in a variety of decorative styles, are still made by hand, with each Zulu member expected to produce several hundred. The all-female Krewe of Muses, whose signature totem is a pump shoe, took its cue from Zulu in introducing decorated shoes as a signature throw. Krewe members collect women’s shoes throughout the year and transform them into pieces of Carnival folk art. Parade-goers clamor for them. Indeed, as fans have become more discerning in their preferences, favoring totemic items that are collectible over generic fare, signature throws have become an exercise in krewe branding. The trend can be seen in the development of signature throws as compliments to signature floats. Thus, riders in the Rex parade might stock up on plush or vinyl Boeuf Gras throws—the Boeuf Gras float is a signature feature of the Rex parade—while Le Krewe d’Etat has become known for necklaces with light-up jester skulls (a huge jester skull with glowing eyes is the signature feature of the krewe’s title float). In 2002, Bacchus became the first krewe to introduce a series of medallion beads based on the subjects or titles of individual floats in its parade lineup. That is, riders on each float had their own signature throw with a design based on artistic and thematic elements of their float.
Skull and Bones Gang
A mysterious African-American folk tradition in which maskers, in the guise of skeletons, bring the spirits of the dead to the streets on Mardi Gras. Their costumes have a homemade, do-it-yourself quality, consisting of black garb decorated with skeletal patterns and white aprons emblazoned with skull-and-crossbones imagery and scrawled, portentous messages (e.g., “You Next”). Their oversized skull heads are, typically, primitive constructions sculpted from bale wire and cheesecloth, using papier-mâché techniques. Traditionally, they roam the Tremé neighborhood early on Mardi Gras morning, raising a frightful ruckus. (In bygone days, they’d brandish huge, bloody animal bones, adding to the intimidation factor.) Serving a cautionary role, they warn children of scary comeuppances if they succumb to gangsta temptations or don’t apply themselves diligently in school. Amidst the frivolity of Carnival, these “bone gangs” or “skeletons,” as they’re sometimes called, are macabre, “in-your-face” signifiers of transience and mortality. They’re also particularly apropos of New Orleans, a precarious place where the living fervently memorialize and celebrate ancestral spirits through ritual and performance. Haunted by a history of yellow fever, cholera epidemics and vengeful hurricanes, the citizenry’s relish of the moment, its devil-may-care attitude and carnivalesque abandon, is borne of fear. Fear that what’s enjoyed today may be gone tomorrow, so live life to its fullest. Or as they’re wont to remind you in New Orleans, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may all die!”
An expression used by flambeau carriers meaning to ham it up, show off or provide amusement for parade spectators with dancing, jokes and repartee. Skylarking is usually done with the expectation of receiving gratuities from spectators.
In a Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the spyboy functions as the eyes of the big chief. Usually stationed several blocks ahead of the chief, his job is to scout out or “spy” other Mardi Gras Indian tribes in the vicinity, then signal the flagboy or gang flag, who in turn relays the information to the chief. The chief then decides whether to meet the espied tribe or proceed in another direction, to search for other Indians. Most of the fun of being a Mardi Gras Indian comes from showing off one’s “suit” to Indians from other tribes, in ritualized confrontations known as “challenges,” so a savvy spyboy has to possess a sort of sixth sense when it comes to knowing where to locate other Indians. If someone masking Indian has a pair of binoculars around his neck, he’s probably a spyboy. An Indian assuming this position or role is, in the parlance of the street, said to be “runnin’ spy.”
A large, tricked-out float designed to carry lots or riders and enthrall crowds. Milestones in the genre include the Krewe of Endymion’s 56-floot replica of a Mississippi River paddlewheeler, Papa Joe’s S.S. Endymion, introduced for the krewe’s 10th anniversary in 1976, and the Bacchagator, unveiled by the Krewe of Bacchus a decade later. Measuring 105 feet from head to tail, this alligator float had to be constructed in three sections, in order for it to navigate around corners. The trend toward extravagant superfloats accelerated in the 1990s. For its inaugural parade in 1994, the Krewe of Orpheus introduced the Smokey Mary, a 120-foot choo-choo train in three sections. (Named after a passenger train that featured jazz musicians and used to run from the edge of the French Quarter to a resort area on Lake Pontchartrain known as Milneburg, it was upgraded to five sections for Mardi Gras 2001.) Orpheus stunned crowds in 1998 with the Leviathan, a 140-foot, high-tech wonder that rides on a bed of smoke and is covered with some 54,000 points of multicolored, end-point fiber-optic light, which sparkle like beads of water dripping from the biblical sea dragon’s scales. The reigning colossus is the Krewe of Endymion’s 240-foot riverboat, Capt. Eddie’s S.S. Endymion, introduced in 1999. Linked together in five sections, it features a picturesque water nymph in front; three middle sections forming a riverboat with pilot house, calliope and billowing smoke stacks; and a paddlewheel rear section with a dramatic depiction of ‘Ol Man River. The superfloat’s fiber-optic lighting alone reportedly cost more than $150,000.
A relatively new breed of Carnival organization that parades with gigantic, glitzy floats; features a celebrity in the role of king or grand marshal; is conspicuously generous with throws; and eschews certain traditions associated with old-line krewes—specifically, social exclusivity, secrecy, recondite parade themes and balls characterized by pomp and formality. The superkrewe era—and, for that matter, modern Mardi Gras—dates from the first Krewe of Bacchus parade in 1969, which featured Danny Kaye, a Jewish actor from Beverly Hills, as its monarch. A flashy—and hugely popular—extravaganza from the git-go, Bacchus signaled a cultural shift away from the longstanding dominance of blueblood krewes and toward the production of spectacles associated with mass entertainment. Bacchus and krewes that followed its example, most notably Endymion and Orpheus, broadened the avenues of participation in Carnival and significantly enhanced the celebration’s stature as a tourist attraction.
Representations of scenes or episodes from a chosen theme. Derived from European Renaissance pageantry and court spectacles, so-called tableaux vivants, or “living pictures,” became a popular form of theatrical amusement in 19th century America. In a parlor or party setting, they could take the form of costumed guests striking poses while someone read dramatic verse. More elaborate staged productions combined theatrical scenery with a series of choreographed poses by a cast of costumed players. In incorporating tableaux into New Orleans Carnival, krewes capitalized on the city’s love of opera and theater: set designers and other talented artisans contributed enormously to the feats of artistic splendor that graced the streets and ballrooms during Carnival’s Golden Age, from the 1870s through the 1920s. Back then, floats were not like the oversized shoeboxes adorned with thematic props seen in today’s parades. More like theatrical architecture, with designs sculpted entirely from papier mâché, they were known as as tableaux roulet (rolling tableaux) or tableaux cars. The processions ended at a theater or ballroom, where krewe members would change into costume for the presentation of tableaux vivants based on the same theme depicted in the parade. Since these staged scenes weren’t accompanied by narration, ball guests received programs that provided explanatory context. The Carnival tableau tradition began in 1857, when the Mistick Krewe of Comus presented an eye-opening parade and tableau ball based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In the 20th century, “tableau ball” generally came to mean a ball featuring a krewe’s presentation of its royal court.
The Lord of Misrule
The title bestowed upon the potentate of the Twelfth Night Revelers at their debut in 1870. In olden times, as James Gill explains in his book Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans, the name was given to “the humorous fellow who organized revels from Christmas to Twelfth Night in the great houses of Europe.” These seasonal extravaganzas featured conjurers, acrobats, jugglers, harlequins and other carnivalesque characters such as Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In New Orleans, the Revelers-—one of the most elite non-parading Carnival organizations—have been known to issue invitations to their opulent Twelfth Night ball in the name of The Lord of Misrule.
In New Orleans parlance, a “throwdown” is an occasion to cut loose, frolic and make merry. Also used as a verb: e.g., Mardi Gras is a time to throw down and shake your funky feathers loose.
Beaded necklaces and other paraphernalia tossed to Mardi Gras revelers from parade floats and balconies. Antecedents in European Carnivals date to 15th and 16th centuries when, according to the Louisiana State Museum, ashes, dirt and excrement were thrown as pranks. Later, maskers in Paris and elsewhere dispensed candy—a practice adopted at New Orleans Carnival in the 1830s. The Twelfth Night Revelers introduced krewe parade throws in 1871 when one masker, got up as Santa Claus, threw baubles to spectators. Around 1921, Rex initiated the custom of having all float riders toss beads and trinkets. Other krewes followed suit, yet the sum total of the offerings was so meager that catching a single strand of beads was considered a blessed event. By the 1950s, the phrase “Throw me something, mister!” had become a familiar mantra. The era of abundance began in the mid-1970s, when cheap plastic strands from the Orient began to replace glass beads imported from Czechoslovakia. In the 1990s, branding came to the fore as krewes increasingly emphasized “collectible” items featuring recognizable mascots, totems and insignias—a trend that helped stoke the infamous Mardi Gras barter economy on Bourbon Street, where necklaces with fancy krewe-logoed ornamentation are highly prized. Whereas years ago parade-goers would gleefully scramble for even the most modest trinket, now the embarrassment of riches is such that Mardi Gras beggars have become choosers. They’ll seek out, and even ask for, specific specialty items and let the cheap stuff fall to the ground. Indeed, the thrill and challenge of acquiring prized gewgaws has become a spectacle unto itself, summoning both animal urges and creative strategizing in the form of clever signs, targets, nets, playful verbal come-on’s—anything to draw a float rider’s attention. For both thrower and spectator, throws are ritual talismans that make possible an emotionally powerful experience—the fleeting sense of ecstasy and fulfillment that comes with establishing a mutually rewarding, one-on-one connection with a total stranger. The average rider in a parade spends $600 to $800 just on throws, with some high rollers spending $2,500 or more. For a mega-parade like Endymion, with some 2,400 riders, that means upwards of $2 million of goodies tossed in a matter of hours.
Carrying a torch (i.e., a flambeau). Thus, a flambeau carrier might say, in response to someone who asks what’s he’s doing that night: “Totin’ with some fire, baby.”
January 6. Also known as Feast of the Epiphany, King’s Day and the twelfth day of Christmas, it commemorates the revelation of Christ’s divinity and the coming of the Magi—the “three wise men from the east” who visited baby Jesus in Bethlehem on the twelfth day following his birth. Over time, as the story of the Epiphany was romanticized and embellished, the gift-bearing wise men became “kings,” and the occasion evolved into a major holiday imbued with royal associations and celebrated with gift giving and revels featuring elaborate entertainments and humorous characters. It became a custom to choose a mock king to rule over the festivities. In the most widespread convention, a cake would be divided, and the person who found a bean, or perhaps a coin, in his piece would be crowned. Transplanted to colonial Louisiana, Twelfth Night became an occasion for celebrants to ring in the start of the Carnival season, with the first in a series of les bals de roi (the balls of kings). Whoever’s cake slice contained the bean, almond, pecan or trinket would get to select a royal consort. A merry-go-round of balls would follow, ending on Fat Tuesday. Each week a new king and queen were crowned. Typically, the reigning queen would host the next gala at her home and the king would foot the bill. Nowadays in New Orleans, as the kick-off to Carnival, Twelfth Night is celebrated with king cake and revelry, including the ball of the Twelfth Night Revelers, an elite Carnival krewe, and the streetcar ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows.
A position in a Mardi Gras Indian tribe with specific duties relating to crowd control and protecting the big chief. Often seen moving from side to side across the line of march, or barreling ahead with abandon, his job is to clear the way or block Indians from others tribes from approaching his chief unless they’ve received the proper blessing to do so. An accomplished wildman is, above all else, a master of intimidation. With a rack of horns on his headdress, he’ll sometimes charge through a crowd, bellowing in a loud voice and swinging a fearsome stick. If a humbug erupts, he’s often the one to step in and play the role of peacekeeper. He’s given wide latitude, free to move from the front to the back to ensure the tribe or “gang” stays together as a cohesive unit. But mostly he’s focused on keeping the crowd from encroaching on the space around the chief. With the wildman keeping the lines of sight open, onlookers can better appreciate the beauty of the chief’s regalia.
The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is a predominately black krewe that has evolved from humble beginnings in the early 1900s into a popular and iconic mainstay of Carnival. Beginning as a small, informal marching group called the Tramps, a raggedy lot who affected the manner of hobos, the group took up an African theme after seeing a musical comedy performance that included a skit about the legendary king of the African Zulus, Shaka. The performers were African-Americans in blackface, a standard convention of “vaudevillized minstrelsy” that would become a defining, and at times controversial, characteristic of Zulu costuming. The braggadocio inherent in the title of the Zulu skit, “There Never Was and Never Will Be Another King Like Me,” set the tone for the whole Zulu Carnival enterprise, and to this day flamboyance, swagger and outlandish bravado are the very essence of the club’s style, at least as far as its Carnival activities are concerned. In 1949, the triumphant reign of Louis Armstrong as King Zulu—Carnival’s first celebrity monarch—focused international attention on the club. But its parade remained mostly a neighborhood phenomenon, confined to back streets in part by Jim Crow racial restrictions. The Zulus finally became part of the city’s “official” Mardi Gras festivities in 1969, when they received a permit to roll on the main parade thoroughfare, Canal Street. Today, Zulu has the largest African-American membership of any krewe, and is famous for its raucous parades, coconut throws and colorful assemblage of characters—among them a walking contingent known as the Tramps, formed as an homage to the club’s original maskers and presided over by the Minister of Fun.