Stories from the flights of Carnival
For those who write regularly about Carnival, the quote to the right is both a source of beauty and frustration. The beauty comes from author Perry Young’s butterfly of winter metaphor and his skillful use of language (“tattered, scattered, fragments of rainbow wings”) all encapsuled into 41 words that capture the essence of Carnival. The frustration comes from that statement being hard (perhaps damn near impossible) to top. It is unfair to the future that the definitive paragraph of the season was already written 90 years ago. Nevertheless, Young leaves much to inspire us and to find nourishment in analyzing the season from a hearty feast of butterfly wings.
We take Young’s words seriously that the fragments are in turn the record of the day. So, we have set out to gather some of those remains in pursuit of Carnival’s finer moments. We know that there are too many memories for any collection, but in this, a year when we are denied much of the visual manifestation of Carnival, we thought we would offer a few. This is done in the hopes that come next winter the atmosphere and the spirit will again be free for Carnival to flutter at its most glorious.
Satchmo vs. A Queen
Don’t you hate when this happens? Your daughter is going to be a Queen on the same day that your idol is coming to town. That happened on Mardi Gras 1949 when Dolly Ann Souchon reigned as the Rex Queen. Her dad, Edmond “Doc” Souchon, was justifiably proud, but as an accomplished jazz musician, as well as a doctor, he was anxious to see the Zulu King, none other than Louis Armstrong. To serve both monarchs, Souchon passed up the traditional limousine ride to the reviewing stands with the Queen and family, and headed instead to the New Basin Canal, now the path of the I-10 Expressway. In those days, Zulu arrived by boat via the Canal. Souchon hurried to see Satchmo step off the boat to the appropriate applause and then scurried back to be with his family and the Rex entourage.
Doc Souchon’s morning was symbolic of a pivotal moment in the evolution of two of New Orleans’ greatest cultural contributions, the American Carnival and jazz. For many years the two traveled separate paths, having nothing to do with each other. Ultimately, they could not be kept apart.
Although the music was snubbed by Carnival in its early years, jazz gradually conquered not only the world, but its hometown Carnival too. In 1966, Rex introduced His Majesty’s Bandwagon, which featured a jazz band riding atop. By ‘68 there were three jazz groups rolling with Rex.
Even at the high society Carnival balls, where jazz was once regarded as a bastardized art form, the dance selections began including the music.
One person would carry the cause through the decades – Doc Souchon. One of the best known versions of Carnival’s anthem “If Ever I Cease to Love” was recorded with the raspy voiced Souchon doing the vocals – set to jazz time.
A 1968 book published in honor of the city’s 250th anniversary proclaimed correctly, “Only the city which produced jazz could have evolved New Orleans’ Mardi Gras of today.”
Jazz and Carnival: Doc Souchon never ceased to love either.
Keeping Bacchus Warm
When the newfound Krewe of Bacchus announced its inaugural parade to debut February 16, 1969, it heralded several innovations, one being a king who was not a typical local notable, but rather a Hollywood celebrity. Danny Kaye, multi-talented in singing, dancing and acting, accepted the royal bid. Dressed as the God of Wine, Kaye positioned himself on the newly designed towering King’s float. There was excitement throughout the city as the parade formed, but also some concern – from Kaye.
The temperature hovered around the low 40s which from the perch of a float was cold, very cold. Although Kaye had been one of the stars in the movie “White Christmas,” this chill was beyond singing about. The King-designate asked if there was something to be done to provide more warmth.
Bacchus officials scurried about. Floats, when done right, can be poetic masterpieces, but they are not known for their temperature control. As parade time approached, someone was able to rig together an electric heater strategically placed near the throne to provide royal heat. Then, from below, there were whistles and sirens and the parade began.
As the float turned from its den, Kaye dreaded a frigid reign. But then, as the float approached the street, Kaye was overwhelmed by the thousands of fans waiting to see him. Like any caring King he stood up and waved back while turning from side to side to greet the worshippers. He would not sit down again for the rest of the ride. The little heater projected its glow on an empty throne.
Years later Bacchus officials would recall the ride and how Kaye quickly forgot about the temperature. Nothing provides more warmth than an adoring crowd.
A phrase I use occasionally refers to something taking “a strange bounce” to describe a situation in which there was a sudden course-altering change. For attorney Staci Rosenberg, as she stood on St. Charles Avenue watching the 2000 parade of the Krewe of Ancient Druids, there was about to be a bounce of such enormity that the effects are still ascending.
Rosenberg was at the parade to see a friend and fellow lawyer ride by in the all-male krewe. Watching the maskers, she thought that being in a parade seemed like fun and then wondered how she could join a krewe. Then she thought a little more and raised the daring question: “Why not start a krewe of my own?”
Carnival history was about to take on a new character named “Weezie.” That would be Weezie Porter. Rosenberg recalled that she went home that night, called her friend Weezie, told her about her idea to start a new all-female krewe and asked her if she would join. As it happened Porter was hosting several gal friends, so she raised the question to them: Would y’all join?” Posterity was enriched at that moment because they all agreed.
In the weeks ahead Rosenberg, who says she knew nothing about creating parades, asked lots of questions.
“No one in the Mardi Gras community thought we would succeed,” Rosenberg recalled. “But this became an advantage also, since it led to the Kerns float builders charging us very little, since they thought we couldn’t afford it and we would fail. It was also hard to get bands, because it was a weeknight and they had never heard of us and thought they wouldn’t get paid.”
“While we talked to a few people,” Rosenberg continued, “I can’t say anyone outside of Muses really helped much. We were definitely the blind leading the blind, but it seemed to work out.”
Clearly the blind had the vision to make the right choices. A year later, February 22, 2001, Muses made its debut. While there had been all-female krewes before, this was the first to march on a weeknight at a time when women had become so much a part of the professional workforce.
The krewe also created opportunities for sub-groups, notably walking clubs such as the Pussy Footers, Bearded Oysters, Lady Godivas and the Camel-Toe Stompers that have become part of the language of carnival.
Muses’ coveted decorated woman’s shoe souvenir quickly achieved status equal to the Zulu coconut. The krewe’s evolution would be one of the major developments of Carnival in the 2000s. One wonders how history might have been different had Weezie not answered her phone that night.
The Surprise Rex
There was a commotion outside of the home of John Ochsner’s parents’ home on the morning of February 10, 1948. For Ochsner, the day was already going to be special because that was his 21st birthday, but the other news superseded that, especially as dad, Alton Ochsner, was escorted to a limousine. Dad, it runs out was going to be Rex, but the family had known nothing about it.
For the rest of his life John would recall that morning. Usually when someone is selected to be Rex it fully involves the family as preparations are made for the big day, but not this time.
Why few knew has remained a mystery. Rex records have no account of the selection process, which is always secret anyway. Adding to the surprise, John insisted, was that his dad did not even belong to the Rex organization. One old-timer did tell me that he had heard that the original Rex selection that year had had to drop out, but no one knows for sure.
Alton Ochsner, who was born in South Dakota, and whose family was not socially connected locally did not fit the typical profile of Carnival royalty, but he was a hot number in 1948.
In 1942, he had opened the pioneering Ochsner clinic and had already built a national reputation by linking cigarette smoking and lung cancer. He was about as honored as an honored citizen could be. Darwin Fenner, who was Captain of the Rex organization at the time, was very innovative. It would have been consistent with his style to fill the vacancy on the throne with a big name, but one with the civic credentials honored by Rex. In a sense, twenty years before Bacchus, Alton Ochsner may have been Carnival’s first celebrity king.
Whatever the circumstances, they certainly changed John Ochsner’s plans. A day in which he was supposed to be hanging with friends to celebrate his own big moment ended with his being all dressed up at the Rex ball.
John Ochsner would become a distinguished physician himself specializing in transplants, including the lung but most of all, the heart. Ochsner hospital became one of the leading transplant centers in the country.
In 1990 a limousine would again arrive at an Ochsner household, this time to pick up John, who would reign as Rex that day. (With the full knowledge of the family.)
Although he would only wear one crown, John Ochsner would serve two kingdoms; Carnival and the hospital where staff referred to his as “The King of Hearts.”
Carnival’s Bible At 90
Perry Swearingen Young was a journalist in New Orleans during the 1920s and ‘30s. He was a gifted writer who produced a local classic, “The Mistick Krewe: Chronicles of Comus and His Kin,” probably the most important book ever written about the origins of the early Carnival. This year marks the 90th anniversary of that book receiving its copyright, 1931. All research about the season properly begins with a reading of the book. It is from its preface that the “Butterfly of Winter” paragraph that opened this feature is taken.
Young was born in Abilene, Texas. As an adult, he moved to New Orleans where he inaugurated a magazine called “Gulf Ports.” He would also open his own business, Carnival Press, the name under which he wrote, edited and published Carnival programs. Both “World Port” and Carnival Press were operated out of the same office at 520 Whitney Bank Building, a spot which became the informal cradle of Carnival history.
There are many gaps to Young’s story, but it might be supposed that in writing about ports, and in being named public relations agent for the Dock Board, his circle included many of the city’s prominent citizens, some of whom were part of the social side of Carnival. Young had contacts in the Comus organization to the extent that he wrote the krewe’s programs. His best offer came when he was asked by the Captain of Comus, Sylvester P. Walmsley, to do a history of the Mistick Krewe – the group that founded and maintained the New Orleans parading tradition. The book was to be prepared as a krewe gift to celebrate the group’s 75th anniversary in 1932.
But then Young’s career took a turn. Walmsley had died and the Interim Comus captain had decided against the book. These were also hard times in the real world, as the glitter of Carnival was paled by the Depression. “World Port” magazine was moved to California, leaving its editor behind. Young maintained Carnival Press and also began publishing two other magazines, “Shore” and “Beach and Garden.” But the income was not steady.
His daughter, Zuma Young Salaun, once recalled that there was financial uneasiness during that time, but that her father was too proud to discuss his problems at home. “My mother wanted him to find a job like a streetcar driver,” she remembered, “but he wasn’t very mechanical, he would have wrecked the streetcar.”
Instead, the writer in him tried to prevail, churning out house organs and writing Carnival publications. Young was learned in the classics, mythology and foreign languages, making him the right reporter to break through the lore from which Carnival grew. He wrote with a scholar’s familiarity of the poet Ovid’s description of the early pagan rites of spring. He collected engravings of early parades and listed those long-forgotten who wore the crowns. His was a journal of New Orleans society written and presented in a style to embellish the grandest of reading room coffee tables.
Young died in 1939 at the age of 51. Only about 1,000 copies of his book had been distributed. In a warehouse, his daughter located approximately 9,000 unbound copies, from which she was able to distribute some of the engravings. Eventually, the remaining stock was sold for wastepaper. Young was one of those writers who never fully knew his success. “The Mistick Krewe” remains timeless, although he died without reaping any profit from the book, nor likely realizing its importance.
In 1969, Zuma Young Salaun allowed the book to be reprinted. She had become a Carnival historian on her own, giving lectures, writing pamphlets, and remembering her father.
After his death, Perry Young was eulogized not so much as an historian, but as a conservationist. Of his writings in “Shore and Beach,” for example, it was said that, “the cause of shore protection lost a valiant and gallant advocate…who did not strive for wealth.”
But Perry Young’s memory has been preserved by Mardi Gras, and he will forever be remembered each winter for his book that is so enriched by its opening lines.
Many seasons have passed since Perry Young completed The Mistick Krewe. Now there is a new generation of writers covering Carnival, any one of whom would be fortunate to one day look at the spectacle and see a butterfly.
Errol Laborde: Mardi Gras, Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival