IN THE KINGDOM OF QUEENS
The Royal Krewe of Yuga and the Birth of Gay Carnival
Top: Elmo Avet costumed as the Marquis de Vaudreuil, second governor of Louisiana, in front of his Flea Market Antique Store on Royal Street with a band of Carnival celebrants; one can well imagine similar costumes at the first Krewe of Yuga costume balls in the late 1950s. JoJo Landry, another early gay pioneer, lies bedraggled in the gutter. Historic New Orleans Collection, Gift of Mr. Clay Watson.
The first known gay Carnival krewe was the Krewe of Yuga, formed in the late 1950s. A mock ball was held in ’58 at the Uptown home of Douglas Jones, located at 1120 S. Carrollton Ave. Over the years, Jones had thrown parties to celebrate Carnival and view the Krewe of Carrollton parade. However, the great leap of faith that occurred at this auspicious moment was a shift from a loose-knit party to a more formalized costumed ball with a Captain, Queen, King, maids and debutantes, mimicking, and at the same time mocking, the traditional old-line krewes and their presentation of royalty. Creating their own krewe in a similar vein allowed this group to codify their grand intentions in response to the great spirit of Carnival unique to New Orleans.
The early part of the decade had seen the birth of a vibrant gay community in the French Quarter. Gay men and their friends gathered at various bars sprinkled throughout the old section of the city to gossip, drink and socialize. An important meeting place was Miss Dixie’s Bar of Music. There, everyone knew each other and recognized kindred spirits with the same sensibilities and cultural references. They enjoyed a protective environment where they could be themselves, and within this rarefied society, gay men especially thrived and were becoming more and more visible. On Mardi Gras Day the laws against costumes and masking were waved, and this served as a call to arms to leave behind all restrictions. The French Quarter came alive with the sound of these celebrations and was further colored by elaborate and surprising costumes.
Jack Robinson, who lived in the French Quarter in the early 1950s and would later go on to become an important fashion photographer in New York City, began to photograph his friends as they celebrated Mardi Gras day in the French Quarter. The future founders of gay Carnival were already something of a legend within this community, and here he captured in exciting detail the relaxed atmosphere on the sidewalks and inside Miss Dixie’s back courtyard. Looking closely, one can recognize Elmo Avet, the last Queen of Yuga, in his mermaid costume with sailor attached. Further on is Clay Shaw, costumed as Socrates with a false beard and toga, chatting with friends in the courtyard. JoJo Landry as Lady Godiva paraded around the streets with an abandon only possible during Carnival, and Douglas Jones, in fashionable Pierrot garb, sipped whiskey from a flask. This was a time when costumes were allowed and the rigid mores of society were loosened somewhat, allowing a larger space for gay expression. These incredibly candid photographs presaged the creative force and drive that would soon come together to form the first gay Carnival krewe in New Orleans.
FINDING A WAY
In the French Quarter, this close-knit society was already frequenting gay clubs along Bourbon Street such as Miss Dixie’s and Bourbon House. These clubs were allowed to exist despite the harsh laws against homosexuality because of payoffs and back-door deals. Most clubs in the Old Quarter knew the drill and learned to survive and prosper. Tennessee Williams, a frequent visitor to New Orleans, wrote about the gay scene in his recently published Notebooks. He noted his day-to-day friendships, bar hopping and liaisons with a candor that underscored the openness of the period. He mentioned several bars, such as the Starlite Lounge, Mack’s, the Rendezvous and Miss Dixie’s, and how effortlessly he moved within this group of intimate friends. Even John Rechy, in his seminal City of Night, devoted a large portion of his narrative to New Orleans’ gay Carnival, mentioning the old Bourbon House and a gay bar nearby with a side courtyard, cloaked under the guise of the Rocking Times bar.
Despite the intolerance of McCarthyism in the 1950s, especially for homosexuals depicted as a threat to national security, gay culture somehow found a way to thrive. Robinson further illustrated this openness with another series of stark photographs depicting gay couples in their apartments and artists in their studios, a strong collection of subtle portraits that revealed a decidedly gay world within the confines of the French Quarter. However, by the end of the 1950s, police harassment and entrapment had become rampant. The mayor and district attorney wanted to clean up the so-called moral corruption for the tourists, and a crackdown ensued. Hundreds of gay men were arrested, and where there had been relative security, a sense of danger reigned. Undercover cops were numerous, and even a simple gesture could result in an arrest. Bashing became a sport, and after several publicized incidents gay men were more cautious than ever. The news even spread to Los Angeles where ONE Magazine, the first national gay publication, reported the stepped-up harassment under the headline of “New Orleans Witchhunt.”
Robinson’s circle of acquaintances included Douglas Jones, who continued to frequent Dixie’s Bar as a matter of course, along with Elmo Avet, John Dodt, Jim Schexnayder, Jerry Gilley, Tracy Hendrix, Otto Stierle, Carlos Rodriguez, Bill Woolley and JoJo Landry, among others. It was here that friendships developed and grew into the first mention of a gay krewe, possibly in jest. Not wanting to create scenes in the bars or on the streets, private homes had replaced more public places by the time the Mardi Gras parties had grown into elaborate costumed affairs. Jones and Company merely transformed their annual costume party into a Carnival ball. As the Krewe of Carrollton’s “Glittering Festival” floats passed along Carrollton Avenue during the 1958 Carnival season, the Krewe of Yuga and its costumed revelers celebrated the day and as the last strokes of midnight sounded, the new queen stepped forth in her own glittering gown of golden sequins and jewels. “All hail Queen Yuga the First, the fabulous Yuga Regina!”
Carnival in New Orleans had never pretended to be anything but excessive and extravagant. Ancient mythologies and strange histories were called upon for inspiration, and the gods of ancient Rome and old Egypt, the decadent tales of William Beckford and Gustave Flaubert and the wonders of the Hindu ages were all transformed by the krewes of Comus, Proteus, Rex and Momus into marvels that walked the streets and rode upon magical floats.
Douglas Jones had grown up in New Orleans and knew Carnival history as well as any nursery rhyme. He anticipated each year with intense excitement, and costuming was a very serious matter. In addition, his family had ties with the Krewe of Proteus that stretched back to the 19th century and the golden age of Carnival. One parade in particular had caught his interest, the amazing “Hindoo Heavens,” presented by King Proteus as the Narayana in 1889. For the first gay krewe, he and his friends chose to name themselves the Krewe of Yuga, after the Kali Yuga of Hindu mythology referenced by the Krewe of Proteus for their eighth presentation. Jokingly they referred to themselves as KY, and thus the gods of Carnival were appeased with a touch of humor and the requisite homage to a beloved pagan past.
The second Yuga Ball, held in 1959, was another huge success, so much so that over 200 costumed revelers vied for spots on the balcony overlooking Carrollton Avenue and in the cramped parlors within. Otto Stierle, one of the original members of Yuga, noted in his recollections on the beginnings of gay Carnival that “everyone arriving at the house had to be in costume and climb a large staircase in front of the house to reach the second floor entrance, a spectacle for an otherwise quiet neighborhood.” The surrounding neighbors indeed became irate, and by the time of the appearance of the Yuga Regina at midnight, it had become apparent that another location was needed for the next ball.
Mama Lou’s camp out on the Lakefront was a popular jazz club, sitting astride huge wooden beams driven into the lake itself. These were places outside of the city’s reach, moored on the lake like permanent ships. Mama Lou’s camp was a perfect location for the 1960 Yuga ball, complete with cocktails and a young Pete Fountain playing his clarinet in the popular Assunto Brothers band. The long boarded walkway that stretched from the shore to the camp, however, proved an almost insurmountable obstacle for the girls in their high heels. The next day found the camp in a complete state of dishevelment, and Mama Lou wasn’t happy.
One of the krewe members worked for a Day Care School in Metairie off Veteran’s Boulevard behind the giant Schwegmann’s grocery. It had a large dance studio called the Rambler Room, and was chosen as the site for the next Krewe of Yuga ball. At night, the hall was empty and the neighborhood, surrounded by a wooded area towards the lake, was relatively quiet. The 3800 block of Edenborn Avenue seemed a perfect hide-away for another, even more opulent ball. Personalized invitations soon appeared in the mail and the Returning Queen of Yuga and her Court promised an extravaganza never before seen. So successful was the 1961 ball that the Rambler Room once again was to host the ’62 ball. The newly formed Krewe of Petronius, made up of friends and members of the Krewe of Yuga, would also hold their first ball at the same location one week before the Krewe of Yuga’s fifth presentation. The invitation for the ’62 Yuga ball was a masterpiece of draftsmanship by Stewart Gahn Jr., a member of the krewe. Its elaborate drawing depicted a coat of arms and spoke to a type of pseudo-royalty that had been inherited from the old-line krewes, strongly resembling those by the Twelfth Night Revelers. The invitation came from the Yuga Regina herself, requesting the presence of her loyal subjects. However, the police had somehow been alerted to an out-of-control party and came out with the K-9 division and mounted policemen. What ensued became the stuff of legend.
A THOUSAND SPARKLERS
Elmo Avet, well-known antiquarian and aging dowager of the cuff link set, as Miss Dixie fondly called her boys, sat poised to receive his rightful crown as the fifth Yuga Regina. His dark costume as Mary, Queen of Scots, had been reworked and re-sequined until it was to be the eighth wonder of the world. Unfortunately, the Jefferson Parish Police arrived in full force and began arresting everyone for what would later be called a “lewd stag party.” Hearing the tumult and guessing the worst, Avet fled out the back, as others popped out of windows and fled into the forest. Most were apprehended by mounted policemen, while others were spotted by the K-9 division. A legend persists of the arrest of Carlos Rodriguez, the first Queen of the Krewe of Petronius crowned the week before, whose sequined bathing suit sparkled beyond words when the glaring police lights flashed. “It was like a thousand sparklers had gone off when those flashlights hit those sequins,” says Albert Carey of the Krewe of Armeinius. “Almost 100 were arrested, cuffed, fingerprinted and held for bail. This had been the most glamorous and extravagant Yuga ball the world had ever seen, and its last.”
News spread quickly of the raid, as several escapees reached safety in the French Quarter. Miss Dixie, especially incensed by the news, sent out a clarion call for help. She called her lawyer and grabbed wads of cash from the registers to help out her boys. Yvonne Frasnacht and her sister, Irma, had become pillars of strength in the gay community, and she boasted that her bar had never been raided or threatened, owing to her political savvy and connections with the police. However, she couldn’t prevent the names of all those arrested from appearing in the newspapers during the weeks that followed. Most lost their jobs.
Bill Woolley and Elmo Avet sat dishing the dirt the next morning as the usual coffee klatch gathered at the Bourbon House Restaurant and Bar across from Miss Dixie’s. Woolley had also escaped the dragnet along with Avet. “He came up to a neighboring house of an elderly half-blind lady and asked to use her phone,” says Carey. “Still in drag and covered in mud, he explained that his date had gotten fresh. What else could she do under the circumstances but help a gal in need!” Jerry Gilley, who would later become an important captain in the Krewe of Amon-Ra, sat in silence as the story unfolded between gasps and sighs. “I had not attended the ball, my lover fearing that his job would be compromised, but I was very much frightened by all the accounts. Simply terrifying,” says Gilley. “No one wanted to attend any balls for a long time.” Elmo Avet vowed vengeance while John Dodt nursed his black eye. JoJo Landry and Tracy Hendrix appeared the next day in a state, having suffered the crowded pens adjacent to the Jefferson Parish Police Station, the cells having proved inadequate for all those arrested. “I was in my Mariachi costume with my tasseled hat and tight matador pants. You couldn’t even go to the restroom,” says Hendrix. But instead of abandoning their dreams for gay Carnival, everyone pulled together and continued the tradition with the Krewe of Petronius. Fortunately, Petronius immediately changed the format of their balls with state charter in hand. Now they were a legitimate Carnival club, and their guests would have to attend in formal wear. Only the members of the krewe would appear in costume on stage with a spectacular tableau to amuse and entertain their friends.
The most tantalizing of stories that came out during that morning’s many tales concerned a female impersonator named Candy Lee, who had gotten her start at the My-Oh-My club on the Lakefront. A part-time bartender at the infamous bar Tony Bacino’s, she lived in a slave quarter on Decatur Street and knew Tennessee Williams from when he returned to his beloved New Orleans in the late 1950s for inspiration. He became caught up in her life story, which some say resulted in his ’58 short play, And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens. This play was unique in that it was unapologetically set in a gay milieu with gay characters. It was never performed during his lifetime but now enjoys a much-deserved rebirth. Set in the French Quarter, the play tells the story of Candy, abandoned by her older lover, at a turning point in her life that was to prove her undoing. The real Candy Lee had also taken on the Fates and faced similar crises. At first one of the tight-knit group of gay men who had begun the first gay krewes, she had somehow fallen from grace and had been banned from all the balls. Never one to admit her shortcomings, she instead sought to betray those whom she felt had betrayed her. Jones himself admitted that he believed the tale, and thus her fate was sealed when she had apparently called the police on the night of the fifth Yuga ball to complain about a disorderly and chaotic party. Thus the legend survives, and the story of the police raid still holds onto its air of mystery and intrigue.
Another interesting connection concerns Clay Shaw, or Madame Queen, as he had affectionately been named. Nothing happened within the French Quarter gay scene that he didn’t know about or had a hand in. He knew everyone and greeted his friends by name at Miss Dixie’s, where everyone congregated on weekends. A fixture in the revitalization of the French Quarter, Shaw was a devout follower of all things Carnival. During his trial for conspiring to assassinate President Kennedy, an attack from his archenemy District Attorney Jim Garrison, several friends testified in a deposition that he had all sorts of lavish and flamboyant costumes hidden away in his apartment closet. It would only seem natural that Shaw was indeed part of these early gay Carnival parties with a costume for every occasion and had a hand in the formation of the first gay Carnival krewe.
And then there’s the legend of the designer gowns from the haute couture section of Gus Mayer. Several regulars at the Bourbon House worked for the Canal Street department store; one was even head window dresser. Jerry Gilley relived that fateful morning after the police raid, “Bill Woolley and fellow window dressers had access to all gowns, jewelry and furs for their windows. They simply borrowed what they needed for the Yuga ball. Although many attendees wore costumes, there was a contingent that wanted to arrive in drop-dead drag, drenched with jewels and sables and high-fashion originals. It took a long time to pay all that back.” And with that, the Krewe of Yuga, having shown brightly like a flaming North Star, simply faded from the pages of history, and the legacy of the ill-fated krewe had become obscured after its untimely demise in 1962.
THE WILL TO CONTINUE
Although the krewe had managed only five presentations, the last two balls had become more elaborate and definitely should be seen as legitimately crafted spectacles. Invitations were produced and a royal court presided over the costumed revelers, mixing liberally with their subjects. The creative lightning bolt unleashed by the first gay krewe couldn’t be contained, even in the face of sudden disaster. Already the Krewe of Petronius, made up of some of the members of Yuga, pulled together with determination and artistry to continue this tradition despite the odds. Carlos Rodriguez, the first queen of Petronius, and Otto Stierle, sixth queen of the krewe, both had been arrested yet continued on to triumph in many dazzling spectacles. JoJo Landry, a minor legend herself, made her mark within the resilient Krewe of Petronius. Bill Woolley, who also narrowly escaped capture, went on to great acclaim within Petronius and later founded his own krewe, the fantastic Mystic Krewe of Celestial Knights. Jim Schexnayder, also arrested, regrouped and helped form the third gay Carnival club, the Krewe of Amon-Ra. Tracy Hendrix would help to found the Krewe of Armeinius several years later. “My name was printed in all the newspapers along with the rest. It was a terrifying experience I’ll never forget. It was all over before we had a chance to really get going,” he recalls over 50 years later. Elmo Avet, enigmatic provocateur who had worked with Cedric Gibbons at MGM and one of the original forces behind gay Carnival, looked forward to being crowned Queen Petronius after his triumph in “The Glorification of the American Girl” ball of 1969. The next year was to be his greatest moment, but fate ruled otherwise. He died only weeks before his coronation, but his contribution remained undeniable and permeated all that came after.
By the mid-1980s there were over a dozen gay krewes dotting the Carnival landscape, mostly holding their balls at the old Saint Bernard Civic Auditorium in Chalmette. Each year these krewes sought to out-perform their sister krewes with even more dazzling and sensational tableaus, costumes, sets, music and special effects. These were the years that audiences remember best, when the krewes were at their finest and never disappointed. Balls were free but tickets were hard to come by, which only made them more glamorous and sought-after. Even Uptown matrons fought among themselves for tickets from their hairdressers.
But the legacy of the first krewe, the fantastic Krewe of Yuga, would not only be the creative excellence seen on stages around town but also in the sheer will to continue in the face of doom, the dreaded years to come when the ranks of the krewes were decimated by AIDS. This steadfast resolve, not to let the great work of gay Carnival fall into the darkness of the past, has continued on until today, where we see the Krewes of Petronius, Amon-Ra, Armeinius and the Lords of Leather still holding balls each year and inspiring members of the new gay krewes, such as Satyricon and Queenateenas. The fantastic and daring Krewe of Yuga rightfully takes its place within the history of Carnival in the great city of New Orleans.
Howard Philips Smith is a writer and photographer living in Los Angeles. He has published numerous articles on the history of gay Carnival and is finishing work on his first novel, The Cult of the Mask, which recreates the Golden Age of gay Carnival in the mid-1980s before the onslaught of the AIDS pandemic.
JoJo Landry as Lady Godiva astride her steed with Clay Shaw looking on.
Dixie’s Bar of Music, 701 Bourbon St., early 1950s.
Thomas Lanier Williams, who called himself Tennessee, author of And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens. Photo by Vandamm Studio/© The New York Public Library. Top right, middle right and bottom left photographs by Jack Robinson, The Jack Robinson Archive, LLC; RobinsonArchive.com. Special thanks to Sarah Wilkerson Freeman for her important research on the New Orleans period photographs of Robinson.