The krewe with a difference
Virgilians 1935 queen was Marguerite Piazza Luft (who went on to fame as opera singer Marguerite Piazza). She portrayed Francesca da Rimini, “Flame of Hades.” The King, at her left, is Joseph C. Menendez.
Photographs COURTESY American Italian Cultural Center
Though the Krewe of Virgilians presented its last ball in 1964, vivid memories live on. “People used to arrive at the Municipal Auditorium before noon and wait at the front door so they could get the best seats,” recalls Charles Cabibi Jr., whose father presided as captain that year. From its first Mardi Gras celebration in ’35, this predominantly Italian-American organization was known for its elaborate extravaganzas.
Even the Virgilians’ ball invitation was out of the ordinary. Virgilians invited guests to a “Costume and Scenic Spectacular,” a “Spectacular Ball Production” or a “Spectacular Grand Ball Production.” This was no ordinary tableaux-and-call-outs evening.
Virgilians’ name came from the Roman poet Virgil. At a time when some Carnival organizations didn’t include Italian-Americans in their memberships, Virgilians offered a way for its members to present their daughters to society and have them reign as Carnival royalty.
According to a 1978 Times-Picayune article, Dr. Emile A. Bertucci spearheaded the founding of the krewe, researching and writing its productions for the first years of its existence – Cabibi Sr. continued after Bertucci. The Virgilians first ball in ’35 honored their heritage by commemorating Dante’s Inferno, the classic Italian poetic work.
Appropriately, that first Virgilians program began with a poem, the lines of which each began with a letter spelling out the night’s theme: “Dante’s Inferno.” The first verse read:
Down within the depths of Hell
And where arch sinners lustly dwell,
Nothing can partly relieve their pain,
Together do they cry in vain
Endless tortures are their lot
Sorrow, misery their souls to rot.
Sounds a little somber for a Carnival ball? Well, not exactly. The queen that year was Marguerite Piazza Luft (who went on to fame as opera singer Marguerite Piazza). She portrayed Francesca da Rimini, “Flame of Hades,” and her ball gown is displayed today in the American Italian Museum at 537 S. Peters St.
The Virgilians’ annual themes were always expanded into grand productions with numerous scene changes, slide shows, ballets and, always, music. Russ Papalia and his orchestra played for the early years, but by 1953 Rene Louapre was providing the music.
Grandeur was the watchword. Virgilians had a silver curtain made for the auditorium. White canvas always covered the dance floor. Whatever the theme required, Virgilians supplied. There was an actual chariot, with horses, for Ben Hur. Moses parted the Red Sea on stage – via slide projection. And, when Moses received the tablets on Mt. Sinai, the sonorous voice of Robert Zibilich read the 10 Commandments aloud. There was a backdrop illustrating a human brain for the theme “Inner Sanctum of the Mental Realm.”
For the Rossini opera William Tell, besides a dozen or more scene changes, there was a 60-piece symphony orchestra and a 50-voice chorus. Charles Cabibi Jr. played the part of William Tell’s son.
As Cabibi explains, “William Tell had to shoot the apple off my head, and it was a gold papier-mâché apple. He had an antique crossbow, with an arrow, and somebody had a string on the apple on my head so it looked like he shot it off. Many years later,” he continues, “I was presented with the apple by the man who did the lights at the auditorium. He had picked it up. I still have it.”
Gasper Schiro, whose father was an early member, recalled that he was sneaked in to his first event when he was only 16. “You really wanted to go; people wanted those invitations.”
The invitations to the ball were so coveted that, according to Cabibi, it’s possible that one year they were counterfeited. In 1947, when the theme concerned Noah’s Ark, the rainstorm on stage was nothing compared to the tempest outside the auditorium.
In a description of the evening in Robert Tallant’s book, Mardi Gras … As It Was, the author recounted that the 4,700 seats on the large side of the auditorium were already filled, but there was still a crowd waiting to get in the door. “Extra police had to be summoned to prevent many from forcing their way, and then they remained at the doors, clamoring and arguing and pleading. … Ladies, dressed to the eyebrows, swished about furiously in their velvet and silk and taffeta, demanding of the male escorts that they ‘do something.’”
There was another reason besides the performance to crave a Virgilians invitation: They had spectacular call-out favors. Cabibi notes that his father and Dr. Bertucci went to New York to find costume jewelry for the favors; the 1953 program lists Frederick A. Wettstein as jewelers. “They did a dragon pin that was exquisite. One year they would give the necklace, the next year they would give the bracelet that matched,” Cabibi says. Not only the ladies appreciated this. “My dad had dragon cuff-links made for himself and for me.”
Gasper Schiro’s wife, Mel, had been lent a Virgilians pin by her mother-in-law. The pin was so attractive that a fellow attendee at the Washington Mardi Gras Ball tried to rent it from her. “I said no, it belongs to my mother-in-law,” Mel Schiro recounts. However, when she told the story at home, “My mother-in-law said. “I’m giving you that piece of jewelry, it looks like you can have more fun with it than I have.’”
Mel Schiro would receive her own special favor: A gold bracelet given when she served as the last maid in Virgilians. The krewe’s final year, 1964, had as a theme “Highlights of Enchantment” and each maid and scene represented a prior ball. The last maid, Mel Schiro, represented the first ball, “Dante’s Inferno.”
Maids in Virgilians could expect spectacular costumes and headpieces. The late Larry Youngblood, longtime head of costumes for the New Orleans Recreation Department’s theater program, had been designing for Virgilians since 1959.
As Mel Schiro describes it, “I was the ‘Sin of Greed’ and my dress was gold satin and covered in strings of jewels, all the way down to the floor. On my mantle were jewels and more jewels. My headpiece was a cap and out of the cap were big arms, one on each side, and then from the hand of one of those arms to the other were hanging necklaces of more jewels.
“Why did Virgilians end? Probably there was no single reason,” she continues. “The ball was intricate and expensive to produce, and required much commitment from members, who by that time were able to belong to other Carnival organizations. And, perhaps there were so many other forms of entertainment available by the 1960s that ball-goers lacked the patience to sit through two hours of tableaux.”
But, “Virgilians still shines in memory,” she says.