NOLA Mardi Gras

Twelfth Night, the feast of Epiphany, was celebrated by Creole society from the early days of colonial Louisiana. These Bals de Roi (the King’s Ball) were given at plantations and homes for family and friends; the highlight was the cutting of the King Cake (Gateau des Rois), and the finder of the bean—la feve—in his or her cake became Le Roi or La Reine de la feve, and would reign over the next ball, which they were to host. Thus a series of balls began each season and continued until the final great ball of Mardi Gras evening. These traditions were formalized with the organization and first appearance of the Twelfth Night Revelers on January 6, 1870.

During the first six years, the ball of Twelfth Night Revelers was preceded by a pageant through the streets of New Orleans, with small floats, brass bands, torches, and a host of Revelers marching inside large papier-mâché forms. Following their last parade in 1876, Twelfth Night Revelers (T.N.R.) became the first Carnival society whose activities were limited to the staging of tableaux balls, but it was the Twelfth Night ball of 1871 that inaugurated a custom that was to become one of the enduring and most emulated traditions of the festival—the selection of a queen. An enormous Twelfth Night Cake was cut, and its slices distributed by the Revelers to unmarried young ladies; whoever found the gold bean (a bean-shaped locket) was named queen.

At their first ball in 1870, court fools and jesters had made a clumsy show of serving cake on their spears, and the finder of the gold bean chose not to acknowledge her good fortune. However, the following year, the Lord of Misrule knew which slice contained the bean, and when he saw the young lady receive it, strode to her, and before the assembled guests, crowned her with a wreath of oak leaves, proclaiming her “Queen of the Ball.” In subsequent years, ladies who found silver beans in their cake became maids of honor.

Twelfth Night Revelers survived several seasons of inactivity and reorganization during the 1880s, each time returning to open Carnival festivities on January 6. In the years of the “Belle Epoque,” several new societies were created to satisfy the New Orleans passions for masked balls and dance—The Atlanteans (1891), Elves of Oberon (1895), Krewe of Nereus (1896), and the High Priests of Mithras (1897).

The great masquerade balls of earlier years were staged in the richly decorated rooms of the city’s grand hotels, The St. Louis and the St. Charles, and public masked balls continued in theaters, ballrooms, and halls of numerous civic and social organizations. The tableaux balls of the krewes, which all came to be called “Carnival Balls,” were presented on the elegant stages of the Varieties Theater, the Grand, or New Opera houses. After the Varieties and the Grand were destroyed by fire, almost all of the Carnival balls were staged at the New Opera, which after 1880 became known as the French Opera House.

All of the Carnival balls were similar in structure and ritual. A number of tableaux were performed, with beautifully scenic decors and colorfully costumed and masked krewes illustrating each year’s theme. The last tableaux incorporated a throne setting where the monarchs and court of the evening were presented with pomp and solemnity, in a triumphant grand march, to be greeted with the wonder, adulation, and applause of the entire assembly, krewe and guests alike. Then came dancing, with the first quadrilles reserved for krewe members, followed by general dancing, which lasted until the early hours of the morning.

It was during the early dances that members dispensed the lovely little pins now known as “krewe favors” to their lucky partners. These charming favors were elegantly crafted of sterling and enamel, and like the lavish invitations of the era, they reflected the theme of the ball. The date and letters representing the krewe’s initials were often incorporated into the favor’s design.

The royal courts were the central figures of the evening, but the extravagant tableaux were also designed to delight two thousand guests. The new societies of the 1890s and early 1900s turned for inspiration to themes long favored by Comus—mythology, literature, history, and nature—and while the processions rolled with their panoply of effects, the tableaux balls drew upon a gilded age of stagecraft.

The first Atlantean ball paid tribute to their ruler, Poseidon, then reenacted “The Destruction of Atlantis.” The Elves of Oberon, the High Priests of Mithras, and the Krewe of Nereus transformed the stages of the French Opera House into a succession of fanciful kingdoms. Oberon’s first ball featured two tableaux from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Subsequent efforts revealed a taste for whimsy: “A Rhineland Fantasy” (1897), “The Rainbow” (1898), “Cupid on Vacation” (1902), “When Folly Rules” (1903), and “Satan Dethroned” (1912), with the Devil himself as the krewe favor. Nereus, in his 1897 production of “Coral Groves and Grottoes,” unleashed a huge kraken that was one hundred feet long, supported by fifteen men, and belched fire as it writhed across the floor of underwater caverns.

The first two Mithras balls turned to Persian themes—“Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Banou” (1897) and “Mithras, God of the Sun” (1898). Fire broke out in the stage decorations of the latter, and while the flames were readily extinguished, many of the guests fled in panic. But dozens of others remained and danced for hours around the pool of water the stage had become.

The Golden Age of Carnival marched into the twentieth century with the creation of three new societies, all of them in the established manner: The Olympians (1904), the Krewe of Athenians (1912), and the Krewe of Osiris (1916). At the Twelfth Night ball of 1904, the Revelers made gifts of one of their loveliest favors, an enameled pin of Harlequin. Nereus presented “A Christmas Party” in 1912 and Santa Claus called the call-outs to the stage, giving each lady an envelope containing the number of her masker for the first dance.

To comprehend the magnitude of the New Orleans devotion to the pleasures of Carnival and the tableaux balls of the “Golden Age,” one must survey the large number of societies that blossomed, flourished, and then vanished. A few of these krewes—Disciples of Thespis, Phunny Phorty Phellows, Independent Order of the Moon, and Mistick Merrie Bellions—presented humorous and satirical parades that were as beloved as the lofty artistic processions of Comus, Rex, Momus, and Proteus. But a larger number of these lost societies limited their activities to balls at the French Opera House, Odd Fellows Hall, Werlein Hall, St. Charles Theater, Grunewald Hall, and the Athenaeum. Among these deceased orders we find: The Growlers, Harmony Club, Les Mysterieuses, Consus, Young Men’s Hebrew Association, The Falstaffians, The Mystic Maids, The Mittens, Amphictyons, Krewe of Yami, Krewe of Nippon, The Follies, and Carnival Revelers.

None was more brilliant than Consus, who brought the first of his spectacular productions to the French Opera House in 1897, launching a brief, ten-year reign of displays never surpassed in lavishness, invention, or detail. In 1898, Consus presented “The Meeting of King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France on the Field of the Cloth of Gold.” The Picayune described the incredible scene:

It is probable that glass had never before been used on so lavish a scale for the purpose of the decorator. The pattern on either side was of blue, amber, and opal glass, set alternately, the top and bases handsomely inlaid after a lotus leaf pattern. The semi-circle was composed of beveled plate glass . . . frosted, set in a diamond pattern, the intersections marked by imported cut-glass jewels. The front of each of the lower galleries, all the way to the horseshoe, was draped in cloth of gold. High in the center of the theater’s dome was a golden spider web, from which long filaments reached the galleries. The paradis was decorated in sky-blue silks, studded with silver fleurs-de-lys, supported by silver headed spears.

In 1900, Consus presented “The House Boat on the Styx.” The cast entered to the dirge of Chopin’s Funeral March, and proceeded to a banquet hall with jewel-encrusted walls. At his final ball in 1906, Consus transported his guests to “The Land of Frontinback and Upindown,” where his ingenious design populated the stage with reversals of nature. Forests and fields grew downward behind the proscenium arch, while clouds and sky were underfoot. The men and women of Frontinback were also reversed in their movements, walking and dancing backward. To achieve these effects, Consus used double masks for his cast—the face on the mask covered the back of the wearer’s head, while the back of the mask’s head concealed the face of the krewe member. Costumes lent the same illusion, with buttoned-over false fronts and generous padding to mimic anatomical curves.

As the tableaux were performed, the effects were stunningly original, but his cleverness had overlooked one thing—the appearance his krewe would present to their partners when they danced. Ladies found themselves embracing their partners’ backs, a discourtesy that was all illusion. But this illusion was so well crafted that many of the ladies were deeply offended, and a flood of resignations quickly reduced the famous society to a memory.

With the entry of the United States into World War I, all Carnival balls and parades were canceled. In the year 1919, none of the society krewes appeared with balls or parades, but a number of masquerades were held and numerous maskers appeared on the streets forMardi Gras. Throughout 1919, preparations for Mardi Gras of 1920 were underway when, only weeks before Twelfth Night and the opening of the Carnival season, the French Opera House was destroyed by fire. At about 3:00 a.m. on the morning of December 4 the fire broke out, most likely in the Café de l’Opera, and within hours the Palace of Carnival was reduced to rubble. The French ambassador to the United States wired his condolence to the French consul general in New Orleans, deploring this loss of the symbol of Creole culture. On the following day, Lyle Saxon wrote in the Times-Picayune:

Gone, all gone. The curtain has fallen for the last time upon “Les Huguenots,” long a favorite of the New Orleans public. The opera house has gone in a blaze of horror and glory. There is a pall over the city; eyes are filled with tears and hearts are heavy. Old memories, tucked away in the dusty cobwebs of forgotten years, have come out like ghosts to dance in the last, ghastly Walpurgis ballet of flame . . . the heart of the old French Quarter has stopped beating.

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