Saturday, February 25, 2012

Turf Wars in New Orleans

Tuesday was Mardi Gras. Three years ago my friend D found out about a group that organizes bus tours from Baton Rouge to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. The bus leaves from our large mall and parks at Le Pavillion hotel, from which it is a two block walk to the parade route stands at Lafayette Square, across from Gallier Hall. Included in the package are tickets to the stands and a late buffet lunch at Le Pavillion. For the past two years, John and I have been going along with her. 

John grew up in New Orleans, so up until the year after Hurricane Katrina, we usually went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. While his mother lived there, we stayed at her house the night before and went to the big potluck lunch at the house of a friend who lived just a few blocks off the uptown parade routes. For two years, we paraded ourselves as members of a small crew who owned a float in one of the truck parades. After Katrina, we began going to Lafayette for Mardi Gras instead. 

Since we had always been uptown for the parades, I had never seen the Zulu parade. From our vantage point near Napoleon and St. Charles, we could see the Rex parade and the truck parades. I had actually attended two Zulu balls back when I lived in New Orleans during my first marriage, but never seen the parade. I know there was always a lot of grumbling on the part of members of our Mardi Gras crew about our parade getting off to a late start because the Zulu parade kept holding up Rex. The truck parades follow the same route as Rex immediately after. Zulu starts off at another point, but uses the same route as Rex downtown, which means Rex can’t start until Zulu is out of their way.

The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is the outgrowth of of a Benevolent Aid Society, a group of theater goers called “The Tramps”, and the Mardi Gras culture of New Orleans. They first paraded as Zulu in 1909 and first used floats in 1915. As the story goes, many of the floats were sponsored by local bars and the parade had to stop at each of these bars and mingle with the drinkers, leading to the parade having a somewhat chaotic and unpredictable route. It wasn’t until 1968 that they began parading on St. Charles and Canal Streets. 

The Krewe of Rex is an older and more privileged organization. Rex was first organized and paraded in 1872, in honor of the visit of Russia’s Grand Duke Alexis Romanov. A song written for the Duke’s amusement, “If Ever I Cease to Love”, is the Rex theme song to this day and played by His Majesty’s Calliope, the last float of the parade. The first ball was held in 1873, presided over by the first Queen of Rex.

Aside from the obvious racial and social differences between the two groups, they also embody two different sides of Mardi Gras. Zulu is raucous and inclusive. You can pay your way onto a Zulu float. This year's Zulu parade took 3 and a half hours to pass the viewing stand where we were camped, more than long enough to leave everyone feeling “enough already”. So far as I know, no one stopped at bars, but there were a lot of floats, bands, and groups of other kinds, like the Buffalo Soldiers. Zulu projects the attitudes of “Yes, we do have all day” and “Join us up here, why don’t you.” The Zulu Mardi Gras is Mardi Gras of the people, by the people, and for the people. 

King Zulu 2012

The only way you can ride with Rex is to join Rex, and the only way you can join Rex is by birth or marriage. This year’s queen of Rex, or as they put it, Queen of Carnival, is Ella Monstead Bright, the great, great, great niece of the 1879 King Rex, William Mahle. Her cousin was queen last year. King Rex is always a rich old white guy distinguished member of the business community. The queen is a debutante. 

The insularity of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras krewes led to the formation of two super krewes, Endymion and Bacchus in the late 1960’s. Endymion parades the Saturday night before Mardi Gras and Bacchus on Sunday night. They are known for their innovations in float design and for selecting celebrities for the reigning monarch. Endymion and Bacchus represent new blood and new money, as opposed to Rex’s old blood and old money or Comus’ old blood and no money. Comus used to hold the last parade on Mardi Gras night but stopped in the 1990’s.

The Rex floats, while not as expensive or expansive as those of the newer super krewes, are beautiful to look at and always tell a story. This year, it was Ancient American Lore. Fifty years ago, it would have been “Indian Legends”. The Rex parade is Mardi Gras by the right people, of the right people, and for the tourists. In the minds of not only Rex, but those tourists and the citizens of  New Orleans and the surrounding area, the Rex parade is Mardi Gras.

Rex Float

For those of us with no blood and no money, there are the truck parades. Sponsored by the Elks Krewe of Orleanians and the Krewe of Crescent City, the truck parades comprise individual truck floats decorated and staffed by small krewes or social clubs, organized under one umbrella organization which purchases insurance, sets the rules for how floats are decorated and how riders are costumed, and otherwise keep things organized. The two oldest parades in Baton Rouge, the Southdowns and Spanish Town Mardi Gras parades, are truck parades. Like Zulu, they got longer and longer until the city-parish government finally set a limit to how many units each parade could have.

John and I spent two years riding in the Elks Krewe of Orleanians parade with a krewe that unfortunately collapsed the third year when most of the elderly members either retired or died. Being in the streets on Mardi Gras is fun; riding on a float is even better. I got a phenomenal rush of power watching all those people in the streets begging for the cheap plastic beads in my hands. It also gave us something to do with all the cheap plastic beads we collected from the parades leading up to Mardi Gras. My usual parade experience consists of trying to catch everything within reach and plotting long, hard deaths for the people who catch the beads that were headed for me, and then two hours later asking myself, “What am I going to do with this crap?” Turf wars are not just for the krewes.

So it was with trepidation that my husband noticed me perusing the “Ride with Zulu” link the other day. “Why are you reading that?” he asked. “I was just trying to figure out why the parade was so long. If you don’t have to be a member to ride, that may be why.”

He seemed content with my answer, but it only took me three years to get him to accompany me to Antarctica. New Orleans is a whole lot closer. I’m biding my time.

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