Dozens of Carnival Parades fill the schedule between January 6 (Twelfth Night, also known as the Feast of the Epiphany, which marks the end of the Christmas Season) and Ash Wednesday...particularly during the two-and-a-half weeks prior to Mardi Gras. Two official celebrations mark the beginning of Carnival in New Orleans: the Bal Masque of the Twelfth Night Revelers and the ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows along St. Charles Avenue. However, the four-day Carnival weekend is when parading reaches its crescendo. Among those held during that weekend are two "super-parades," the first being the Endymion Parade on Saturday and the second being the Bacchus Parade on Sunday. Carnival Day itself (Tuesday, when the entire City of New Orleans takes the day off) is more of a family celebration with many of the local high school bands marching in the Parades. The standard and traditional route for night parades begins at Napoleon Avenue, proceeds down St. Charles Avenue to Canal Street and ends at the Ernest Morial Convention Center.
In addition to the Krewe members, marching or walking clubs feature prominently as participants in the Parades, the Jefferson City Buzzards being considered the oldest of the marching clubs, having been founded in 1890. Truck Parades are also a feature of the celebrations on Mardi Gras Day, their flatbeds decorated by families and friends. Many spectators don flamboyant costumes or bizarre make-up for the festivities and the French Quarter in New Orleans hosts one of the most elaborate gay beauty-and-costume contests in the world.
Officially, Carnival comes to an end promptly at midnight on "Fat Tuesday," when the police begin to clean the streets of the French Quarter, and officially closes with the meeting of the Courts of Rex and Comus at the Ball of the Mystick Krewe of Comus.
Krewes are the masking and parading clubs (or social organizations) for which New Orleans is both famous and infamous. Most Krewes developed from private social clubs that have restrictive membership policies. Today, in order to obtain a Parade Permit, all Orleans Parish Clubs must sign Affidavits agreeing not to discrimate in terms of membership, but many of the more established Krewes continue to allow membership by "invitation only." According to legend, the word "Krewe" came from the old English spelling for "crew" and the custom of Krewes taking their names from mythological characters dates back to at least 1857. The ranking structure of a Mardi Gras Krewe is a parody of royalty: King, Queen, Dukes, Knights and Captains...or some variation on that theme.
Descriptions of a small selection of the many Krewes are given below, although it should be noted that the following parading organizations are NOT customarily referred to as Krewes: Rex; Bacchus; Knights of Babylon; Knights of King Arthur; Corps de Napoleon; and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
Babylon: This Krewe was begun by a New Orleans dentist in 1939. It is one of the ten oldest parading Krewes in the City of New Orleans, its membership consisting chiefly of prominent business men and women from around the country, many of whom are physicians. Secrecy is of great significance to this Krewe and the identity of their King is never released to the general public. The exact title of Babylon's elaborate parade and ball theme are also undisclosed until the day of the event. Customarily, each float depicts a chapter in a continuing story...usually historical, classical or literary in theme. Babylon is one of only two organizations to follow its parade with a traditional tableau ball at the Municipal Auditorium. The "flambeaux" are a Babylon custom...burning "torches" that are really tubes filled with chemicals which produce a brilliant and sometimes colored light. These torches are traditionally carried by African Americans who march alongside the floats. The image of the torch was inspired by the slave ritual of Bois Caiman, performed on August 14, 1791, at the beginning of the Haitian War of Independence. When the war ended in 1804, Haiti emerged as the second country in the Western Hemisphere to gain independence and the first free black nation.
Bacchus: This Krewe is considered to be one of the "Super Krewes" of the Carnival due to its invitation to celebrities...a practice started by the Krewe of Zulu in 1949 (which itself no longer follows the custom). Founded in 1968 by a handful of New Orleans business leaders, the Krewe of Bacchus debuted in 1969, its aim to bring national attention to Mardi Gras with gigantic floats and a Hollywood celebrity. Its King is always a well-known personality...Danny Kaye being the first King and Bob Hope being another. Bacchus is comprised of prominent business men and women from around the State of Louisiana. Bacchus replaced the customary Carnival Ball with a supper to which tickets could be purchased by visitors and locals. A progressive, daring and bold Krewe, Bacchus has often been known to break with tradition during the Carnival in order to create excitement among the crowd.
Barkus: This Krewe was created in November of 1992 at a meeting of the Margaret Orr Fan Club (Margaret Orr being a WDSU-TV Weather Anchor). Its membership limited to canines, the Krewe of Barkus is headquartered in the vicinity of the "Flea Market" and includes such rules as: "Cats, while welcome, will not be provided security." The first official Krewe meeting was held in January of 1993, when the members elected "Jo Jo McWood" as Queen Barkus I. "Jager Freeman" was selected as King Barkus I. This annual French Quarter event...the only Mardi Gras Parade and Krewe for and by dogs...is open to the public. A non-profit organization, it raises funds every year to benefit local animal shelters and national humane societies. It's motto is: "Humane Treatment for All of God's Creatures."
Carrollton: Founded in 1924 by an Oak Street businessman as a neighborhood parade, this Krewe was originally known as the "Seventh District Carnival Club." It is one of the oldest Krewes on the Carnival schedule of the modern era. Its Captain leads the parade on horseback and its throws include some of the longest beads to be found at the Mardi Gras celebrations...up to 48 inches.
Cleopatra: This Krewe was founded in 1972 and was the first Carnival Club for women on the West Bank of the Mississippi River. Known for its generosity with throws, the motto of the Krewe of Cleopatra is: "Her beauty is Timeless...Her Age is Now & Forever."
Comus: Founded in 1857, the Krewe of Comus (from the Greek komos, meaning "revelers"), has the distinction of having originally been the oldest parading Krewe and was initially named "The Mystick Krewe of Comus." Founded by six men (all Protestant white Americans) who had moved to New Orleans from Mobile, Alabama, they formed a secret society along with thirteen New Orleanians and mounted a tableau ball for 3,000 people at the Gaiety Theatre. Comus' first parade included two floats lighted by "flambeaux." In keeping with the early Masonic traditions of secrecy, the member of Comus never revealed the name of their King. The most discriminatory of the old-liners, it was not until relatively recent times that they would admit Catholics to their ranks. This Krewe, however, no longer participates in the Parades. In 1992, when New Orleans Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor drafted an anti-discrimination ordinance that prohibited racial discrimination among the Krewes, Comus refused to sign the ordinance and withdrew from the Parade schedule. Some members of Comus have replaced their Carnival night Parade with a procession from Antoine's Restaurant to their ball at the Municipal Auditorium. The revelers ring cowbells in honor of the group which inspired them, the Cowbellion de Rankin Society of Mobile, Alabama. The Krewe's motto is: "Sic Volo, Sic Jubeo" ("As I Will It, There Will Be Joy"). The decision to withdraw from the Parade schedule was also adopted by Momus and Proteus (the second oldest Krewe which recanted several years later and signed the ordinance).
du Vieux: The Krewe du Vieux was founded in 1987 from the Krewe of Clones, a wildly satirical Parade which first marched in 1978 and which was based out of New Orleans' Contemporary Arts Center. With the demise of the Krewe of Clones in 1986 (complete with a Clone Funeral), two Clones' Sub-Krewes emerged: the Krewe of Underwear and the Krewe of Mama Roux, to be shortly followed by two more: the Seeds of Decline and the Krewe of C.R.U.D.E. When these groups merged, the Krewe du Vieux Carre was born ("Vieux Carre" being the old French name for the Quarter). Traditional in many aspects of old Carnival celebrations, this Krewe uses decorated floats (either hand-drawn or drawn by mule) which sport satirical themes, accompanied by costumed revelers who dance in the street to the music of jazz musicians. The annual ball held after the Parade is known as the Krewe du Vieux Doo.
Elks Orleanians: Founded in 1935, this innovative Krewe is the oldest and largest of the truck Krewes. Given the vast number of trucks, it can sometimes take as long as two-and-a-half hours for the Krewe of Elks Orleanians to pass by any one given spot along the parade route. Throws include "Elroy the Elk" mascot dolls.
Elvis: Officially known as the "Krewe of Elvis Marching Club," it was founded in the Summer of 1998 by two Internet "junkies." This marching cyber-based Krewe first paraded at Mardi Gras in 1999 with a following of 20 people. Most members wear costumes based on the 70s "Elvis look" of white polyester jumpsuits, complete with bell bottoms, cape, sunglasses, sideburns and a pompadour jet-black wig. However, any costume which is considered to be Elvis-related is acceptable...from 50s-type waitress uniforms to Marilyn Monroe lookalikes. The throws of this Krewe include beads, stickers, scarves, "Blue Hawaii" leis and the coveted "golden dougnut" medallions, decorated with sprinkles. Krewe membership is open to all who have access to the Internet and their motto is: "Everyone's the King."
Endymion: Founded in 1967 and named for the Olympian God of Fertility and Eternal Youth, this Krewe is the largest in Mardi Gras history, rising to "Super Krewe" status in 1974. Billing itself as "the largest non-military parade in the world," it annually selects celebrity Grand Marshals who also preside over the Endymion Extravaganza held in the Louisiana SuperDome immediately following the Parade. The motto of this Krew is: "Token of Youth" and its members also boast the phrase: "Throw 'Til It Hurts!"
Grela: Founded in 1947, the Krewe of Grela takes its name from the first three letters of "Gretna" (the West Bank community through which it parades) and the abbrevliation for "Louisiana" (La). Grela staged the first Mardi Gras parade ever held in Jefferson Parish in 1948.
Hermes: Founded in 1938 by a group of businessmen, the Krewe of Hermes takes its name from the Greek Messenger of the Gods and an updated golden statute of the sandaled and winged courier appears at the head of the procession. This Krewe was the first to introduce neon lighting as a means of float illumination to the Mardi Gras celebrations. With the withdrawal from the Parade Schedule of Comus, Momus and Proteus, Hermes became the oldest traditional night parade.
Iris: Founded in 1917 and named for the Goddess of the Rainbow and Messenger to the Gods, the Krewe of Iris is now New Orleans' sole parading Carnival organization exclusively for women and the largest ladies' club in Carnival history. The Iris tableau ball was the first such event to ever be televised. The Krewe prides itself on strictly following the traditional customs of full-length Carnival masks and white gloves. The Captain of the Krewe of Iris throws her own special 10-guage doubloons...unique items of chartreuse and lavender with freshly-minted 10-guage blue and silver aluminum.
Les Mysterieuses: Founded in 1897, this was the first female Mardi Gras organization. It was disbanded many years ago.
Lil Rascals: Founded in 1983, the Krewe of Lil Rascals is comprised of boys and girls aged from five to sixteen. It is named after Hollywood's famous kid group and is sponsored by the Metairie Children's Carnival Club. Patterned after adult Carnival groups, the Lil Rascals stage a Parade and also hold a ball.
Mardi Gras Indians: Linked to the Mardi Gras celebrations since the 1880s (and perhaps even earlier), the Black Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans are a secretive, unique subculture of a highly diverse and complex local population group. Although the group has paraded for well over a century, its parade is perhaps the least recognized Mardi Gras tradition. In earlier times, the Indians were violent, their sole purpose of meeting on Mardi Gras being to settle scores. Today, when two Mardi Gras Indian tribes pass each other, they compete in a more friendly manner...comparing one another's art and craftmanship...with the Big Chiefs often greeting one another with a song, chant, ceremonial dance and threatening challenge to "Humba" (a demand from one Big Chief that the other bow and pay respect). The retort to this demand is usually: "Me no Humba, YOU Humba!" Eventually, however, each Big Chief will stand back and, with a theatrical display of self-confidence, acknowldge the artistry and craftmanship of his rival's Parade, often accompanied by the private comment of, "Looking good Baby, looking good!" The ceremonial processions are loose and the are Parades rarely (if ever) scheduled for particular times or routes...those decisions being left to the discretion of the Big Chiefs. Historically developed in the black neighborhoods of New Orleans, the Krewes are named for imaginary Indian Tribes according to the streets of their ward or gang. The custom of "masking Indian" may result from the need for celebration and self-expression among a disenfranchised people...the often very poor and mostly socially deprived black population living in urban New Orleans. The phrase means to individually design and create a new costume every year. Traditionally, the Downtown Indians use sequins and feathers, while the Uptown Indians use beads, rhinestones and feathers. In 1987, the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council was formed to help preserve and enrich the Indian Culture. In August of 1992, the Big Chiefs of each major tribe gathered for a historic celebration of unity...an event which was given the name "Glad Yu Kum."
Mid-City: The Carnival's fifth oldest parading organization founded in 1933, the Krewe of Mid-City is named for the neighborhood where its procession began in 1947. This Krewe was the first to introduce animated floats to the Mardi Gras celebrations (achieved by using Boy Scouts beneath the floats who pedalled stationary bicycles hooked to cables and gears). Due to its use of youthful themes (including Toyland, Fairies, Magic, Candy and Animals), this imaginative group of parading noblemen is a favorite among the children. The floats are colored in tin foil, which gives them a unique appearance and among the throws are the Krewe's signature interlocking hearts and pearlized drinking cups. The Honorary King and Queen (one boy and one girl selected each year from the Ronald McDonald House) throw their own special doubloons. The Motto of Mid-City is: "Pour La Joie De Vivre" ("For The Joy Of Life").
Momus: Chartered soon after Rex in 1872 and one of the oldest Krewes on the Carnival schedule, the Krewe of Momus was named for the God of Mockery. It first participated in the Carnival in 1877. Members come from the ranks of the all-white Louisiana Club and their motto is: "Dum Vivimus, Vivamus" ("While we live, let us live"). This Krewe withdrew from the Parade schedule at the same time as Comus and for the same reasons.
Okeanos: This Krewe, founded in 1949, is named for the Greek God of Oceans and Fertile Valleys. It was organized by civic-minded business leaders of the Ninth Ward who wished to bring the Carnival to St. Claude Avenue, the Carnival's original Parade route. The Krewe presented its first ball and parade in 1950. Two floats of the Krewe of Okeanos feature female riders who are mainly former members of the Krewe of Venus. This Krewe selects its Queen by giving each Court Lady a foil-covered box containing a bouquet of roses. The lady who gets the yellow rose is Queen. Okeanos throws include colored plastic drink containers known as "yard dogs."
Original Illinois Club: This Krewe is one of three old-line black Krewes which presents debutantes. It was the first black Mardi Gras organization, being formed by several "Creole-of-color" community leaders in 1894. The "Chicago Glide" is a dance unique to this Krewe and although its membership is small, it mounts an elaborate ball for several hundred guests.
Orpheus: Founded in 1993, the Krewe of Orpheus and native son, Harry Connick, Jr., made history in 1994 when they first rolled in a parade with over 700 members. Due to the musical heritage of the founders of the club, the group chose Orpheus as its namesake. Son of the Greek Muse, Calliope, Orpheus was a musician and poet who could tame wild beasts. The throws include three different types of doubloons and also features "flambeaux," stilt-walkers and several marching bands.
Pegasus: Founded in 1956, the Krewe of Pegasus is named for the white-winged horse of the mythological Grecian Gods who was born of the blood of Medusa. Its motto ("Neither rain, nor cold, strike, nor hurricane's might") bears particular significance to the Krewe of Pegasus. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy wiped out the Krewe's costumes...its first parade in 1966 rolled during a deluge...and one of its first balls was held in 15 degree weather. It later became the first to skirt the 1979 New Orleans Police strike by rescheduling its parade in nearby suburban Kenner.
Phunny Phorty Phellows: This Krewe of costumed men and women, founded in 1981, celebrates the official opening of the Carnival season by riding a decorated streetcar along St. Charles Avenue. Known as the Heralds of Mardi Gras, the group munches on King Cakes and sips champagne while tossing throws to the spectators, who are also serenaded by a jazz band called the Storyville Stompers. Associated with the Krewe of Clones and later, the Krewe de Vieux, the origin of Phunny Phorty Phellows' name came from a Nineteenth Century Krewe which first appeared in 1878 and were known for their hijinks and mockery.
Poseidon: Founded in 1957 and named for the Greek God of the Sea, this Krewe presented its first ball and parade in 1958. Poseidon claims one of Mardi Gras' most collectible doubloon sets...the Sailing Ship Series (1967-1983). Created by H. Alvin Sharpe, the Father of the Doubloon, the collection included the annual issue of a coin which depicted a sea vessel of historic significance.
Proteus: Founded in 1882 and making its debut with a Parade theme based on Egyptian mythology, the Krewe of Proteus is thus the second oldest Krewe in Carnival history. Proteus withdrew from the Parade schedule in 1992, at the same time as Comus and Momus and for the same reasons. It later recanted, signed the ordinance and rejoined the Parade schedule in 2000. Taking its name from the Ocean Shepherd of Poseidon's Seals, Proteus was once known as the most miserly of the Krewes in the area of throws. However, their trinkets now include 60-inch red-and-white pearl bead necklaces, plastic tridents and polystone medallions.
Rex: Founded in 1872, "Rex...King of Carnival" has been the international symbol of New Orleans Mardi Gras since the Krewe first appeared. Rex was the first Krewe to hold an organized daytime Parade and remains the main event Parade of Mardi Gras Day. It is responsible for the majority of the concepts which accompany modern day parades...the official Mardi Gras flag and colors...the anthem of the Carnival...and one of the most popular throws, the doubloon. Sponsored by the School of Design (the same group that presented the first daytime Parade in the City of New Orleans in 1872), its motto is: "Pro Bono Publico" ("For The Public Good"). The King of Rex is almost always an outstanding civil and business leader and generally a member of the old-line Boston Club (an old conservative and Christian club). Unlike Comus, Momus and Proteus, Rex did not retire from the parade season when the City Council passed its anti-discrimination ordinance, but instead chose to admit African Americans into its membership. Today, the Krewe probably has the most liberal admittance policy of any old-line group, being more interested in professional stature than in pedigree. A feature of the the Rex Parade is the boeuf gras (fattened beef, bull or ox) which symbolizes the last meat eaten before the beginning of Lent. The Queen of the Rex Carnival (almost invariably a debutante) and the Maids of the Rex Court are known as the "Carnival Court." No other organization is entitled to use this designation. One of the high points of Rex is the arrival of the Rex King on a riverboat.
Twelfth Night Revelers: This Krewe has held the traditional "kick-off" to the Carnival Season since 1870. Theirs is not the customary tableau-style ball held by other Krewes. The members don masks, but the centerpiece of the celebration is the selection of the Ladies of the Court. A giant King Cake is rolled out onto the floor of the ballroom and the Court Maids gather round. Each is given a piece of the Cake...those pieces containing one gold and several silver beans. The lady who receives the gold bean is named Queen and the others become Maids of the Court. Originally a traditional King Cake, the version used today however, is a wooden replica akin to a classic wedding cake which contains small drawers in the bottom layer to hold the beans. The Twelfth Night Revelers ball is a private, invitation-only affair.
Thor: Founded in 1974, the Krewe of Thor was named for the Norse God of Thunder and Rain (and for whom the day "Thursday" is named). At the time of formation, its roster of both male and female members was unique and the Krewe made history in 1986 by becoming the first parading club not to throw doubloons to the crowd.
Thoth: Founded in 1947, the Krewe of Thoth is named for the Egyptian Patron of Wisdom and the Inventor of Science, Art and Letters. Traditionally represented with the body of a man and the head of an ibis, Thoth's mythological counterparts and the Greek God Hermes and the Roman God Mercury. Because this Krewe designs its parade route to pass in front of fourteen institutions that care for persons with disabilities and illnesses, it is also known as the "Krewe of the Shut-Ins." Among Thoth's throws are 3-D die-cut metallic necklaces, 6" stuffed polar bears and many varieties of specialized doubloons.
Tucks: Founded in 1969, the Krewe of Tucks is an irreverent band which began as a rag-tag group of Loyola University students. The name is taken from "Friar Tuck," a defunct uptown pub where the students decided to create their own Carnival Krewe. From a small nighttime parade of pick-up trucks, the Krewe of Tucks has since grown in size and stature to become a procession of major proportions. Tucks, however, has never lost its sense of humor, maintains an "Animal House" reputation and boasts a "no sponsorship requirement" to become a member. The parade ends near the Marriott Hotel, site of the Tucks Extravaganza which is open to the public by paid admission.
Venus: In 1941, the Krewe of Venus became the first parade to feature all-female riders. To express their displeasure at such an event, the watching crowds hurled refuse at the maskers aboard the float.
Zeus: Founded in 1958 and named for the loftiest deity on Mount Olympus and the Ruler of All Gods in Ancient Greece, the Krewe of Zeus presented the first night time parade ever held in a suburb of New Orleans. Zeus is known to be the Krewe that began the Metairie Parade tradition. It was also the first to provide reviewing stands for special children. Zeus calls its doubloons "drachmas" and always employs a Greek motify for its parades and balls.
Zulu: Founded in 1909, first parading in 1914 and incorporated in 1916, the Krewe of Zulu consists of prominent African Americans and other minorities, as well as Caucasian members of the community at large. Its name is said to have originated when a group of laborers who had organized a club named "The Tramps" went to the Pythian Theater early in 1909 to see a musical comedy performed by the "Smart Set." The comedy included a skit entitled "There Never Was and Never Will Be a King like Me." This skit was apparently about the Zulu Tribe. Donned in raggedy pants and heralded by a Jubilee-singing quartet, the Krewe was originally led by a King wearing a "lard can" crown and carrying a "banana stalk" scepter. In 1915, Zulu employed its first float, constructed on a spring wagon by using dry goods boxes. This float was decorated with palmetto leaves and moss and carried four Dukes along with the King. The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club is the second oldest of the Black Krewes and the oldest Black Krewe on the Carnival Parade Schedule. Its membership is composed of men from all walks of life...from laborers to City Mayor to City Councilmen to State Legislators to United States Congressmen. In 1949, Zulu hosted its first celebrity monarch when Louis Armstrong became its King. Zulu hosts a variety of other activities during the year that the public can attend (for example, the annual Marconi Park Picnic, the concert at Bally's Casino and the ball held at the Ernest Morial Convention Center) and also has a program for community involvement, including a special program of scholarships to deserving students. In the 1960s, during the height of black awareness, it was unpopular to be a Zulu. Dressing in a grass skirt and donning black face was perceived as being demeaning. Large numbers of black organizations protested against the Zulu organization and its membership drastically dwindled. Slowly, however, its popularity returned. Zulu is the only Krewe in which the King gets to choose his own Queen and of all the throws available during Mardi Gras, the Zulu Coconut or "Golden Nugget" is among the most sought after items. The earliest reference to the coconut appears to be around 1910 when the coconuts were handed out from the floats in their natural "hairy" state. Some years later, it was recorded that Lloyd Lucus, "the sign painter," began to scrape and paint the coconuts for distribution to the crowd. During Parade time, any friend of a member can pay a fee and obtain a ride on one of the floats. A decidedly unique Krewe which can "poke fun" at itself as well as others, Zulu has style, grace, light-hearted humor and the unfortunate reputation of constantly running late during the Parade.