While “society” Carnival balls are private affairs for krewe members and their invited, formally attired guests, some krewe fêtes — including post-parade “extravaganzas” staged by Endymion, Orpheus and Tucks — are accessible to non-members. Costuming or fancy dress, drinking and dancing, live music, frivolity and pretend royalty are all key ingredients in the common quest to let pleasure rule.
Opportunities abound to “throw down” and have a ball
at the sprawling celebration that is Mardi Gras
Revels come in many guises during the season of merriment that begins on feast of the Epiphany (Jan. 6) — the twelfth day of Christmas, the day the gift-bearing wise men visited the Christ child — and culminates on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). They range from exclusive society balls to post-parade “extravaganzas” with thousands of attendees and big-name entertainment; from barroom “throw-downs” to just about any gathering during the Carnival season where there’s some combination of: costuming/fancy dressing, pretend royalty, merry mockery, king cake, beads, music, drinking and dancing. And, of course, purple, green and gold accoutrements. (In local parlance, “throw down” is both a noun and a verb: i.e., an occasion where people throw down, that is, cut loose, frolic and make merry.)
High-society balls involve rituals and intricate codes of behavior that hark back Europe’s pre-Enlightenment, tradition-bound ancien régime. Toward the end of the 19th century, members of elite Carnival organizations — seeking to evoke a world of romance and chivalry as a tonic for the social and political upheaval of Reconstruction — began acting out aristocratic fantasies by carrying on in the style of the royal courts and palaces of Old Europe. They staged parades that ended in theaters and ballrooms, where krewe members would present a series of tableaux based on the theme of their parades. Krewe tableau balls, including those staged by non-parading organizations, came to be known as “Carnival Balls,” where debutante queens and maids, along with other krewe “royalty,” were presented. While these thematic revivals of monarchic rule still serve as affirmations of the city’s social register, at least for so-called “old-line” krewes, virtually all krewes retain some elements of the traditional rituals, although in widely varying degrees of formality.
The krewe balls chronicled in the society pages of the New Orleans Times-Picayune are typically private affairs for krewe members and their invited, formally attired guests. There is no such thing as a “ticket,” and even if you’re acquainted with a member, asking to be invited would be a faux pas.
In bygone days, invitation committees of prestigious krewes would exercise scrupulous due diligence when considering the worthiness of prospective invitees submitted by members. Now the process is more relaxed. If you’re a friend, neighbor or professional associate of a member who includes you on his guest list, the krewe will automatically send you an invitation.
If one does happen to come your way, don’t expect to join in a glittering court promenade as if it were a conga line at a wedding. At traditional krewe balls featuring the presentation of the royal court, guests tend to be merely observers. Only after the court tableau and a series of dances reserved for krewe members and their chosen partners do the festivities open up to general dancing.
For a glimpse of the pomp and pageantry of society Mardi Gras, tune into WYES-TV/Channel 12 on Mardi Gras night, at 7:30 p.m., for the Meeting of the Courts featuring the Rex Organization and the Mistick Krewe of Comus. In the evening’s finale, in a blaze of glittering rhinestones and brilliants, the krewes’ monarchs escort each other’s queens in a grand march around the ballroom. In its precise decorum and scripted formality, the spectacle is as far removed from the chaotic frenzy of the “party” on Bourbon Street as one could possibly imagine.
While visitors to Mardi Gras won’t likely have the opportunity to attend the likes of a Comus or Rex ball, some krewe fêtes are accessible to non-members. Generally speaking, the style of revelry and dress requirements reflect the heritage and ethos of the krewe itself. Some large krewes, such as Orpheus and Endymion, sell admits to their “extravaganzas” — raucous post-parade parties that take place at the Convention Center and Superdome, respectively. The parades literally roll in from the street as float riders bombard the attendees with beads and other goodies. Attire is typically black tie and floor-length dress, and entertainment can include both local and national musical acts. You can bring your own food and liquor, and table seating is available on a first-come basis. “Set-ups” are provided at the tables: soft drinks, tonic, soda, cups and ice. It’s best to purchase admits in advance, sometimes well in advance (the Endymion Extravaganza typically sells out). You can purchase admission to the Orpheuscapade at the door, although the price is $150 versus $135 for advance purchase.
And don’t forget Craig’s List and eBay, where one can sometimes find tickets for sale to some of the larger krewe galas such as the Orpheuscapade, the Endymion Extravaganza, the Bacchus Rendezvous and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club Coronation Ball. Also note that some krewes that don’t sell admission to their celebrations to the general public do offer a type of membership that entitles you to purchase admission. So-called “non-riding memberships” include benefits not directly associated with riding on a parade float. Typically, non-riding members are invited to all krewe events and pay the same charges for those events as members pay.