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Carnival, A Tricentennial Tour
A look at some of the biggest moments in the history of Carnival
This being a year of historical retrospective because of the Tricentennial celebration, here’s our list of some of the most historic years in Carnival’s evolution.
March 3, 1699—A Night on the Bayou: This day provides Carnival’s grandest coincidence. This is the date that Iberville and his exploring party spent near the mouth of the Mississippi River in what is now Plaquemines Parish. The date that year happened to be Mardi Gras, thus the stream they camped near was named Bayou Mardi Gras. There is no account of how a group of scruffy men celebrated the occasion though we assume champagne was in short supply.
May 1743—Arrival of the Marquis: New Orleans was already a scrappy 25 year old when Pierre Cavagnial de Rignand de Vaidreuil arrived in town. Known more simply as “the Grand Marquis” his ten year reign as France’s territorial governor was generally prosperous and peaceful. It was also as elegant as possible for a frontier town. He presented balls, banquets and promenades to the city as though he was Louis XIV’s extension in the new land. Vaudreuil introduced style and pageantry, which would later be incorporated into carnival balls.
1857— Comus’ Debut: This was a defining year. The Mystic Krewe of Comus which made its debut that year would set the template for all else that was to follow, including the use of the word “Krewe,” and what would become the New Orleans style Carnival parade. A form of celebration that would be much imitated throughout the continent germinated that year.
1872—Rex Claims His Kingdom: Carnival did not have a lasting day parade until 1872 when a monarch who was so royal that his name was Latin for “king” made his debut. Once Carnival had a popular daytime event it was on a fast track to being a local holiday and an attraction to badly needed visitors. The future was in motion.
1916—Incorporation of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Society: As Carnival’s first black oriented parade grew so did the season’s civic stability. Social demands called for an integrated Carnival, Zulu opened the door and in the process gave the season some of its most colorful float characters including not only Zulu himself, but the “Witch Doctor” and the “Big Shot.”
1930 – Opening of the Municipal Auditorium: This was the city’s first large multi-purpose entertainment facility and it was a tonic for Carnival. Built with two ballrooms and large corridors, the building triggered a rapid growth of new ball krewes and parading organizations. No building, until the emergence of the convention center, would have such an influence on Carnival.
1949– Satchmo Reigns: Louis Armstrong was such a popular choice to be that year’s Zulu that one local musician rushed to see him even though his daughter was King of Carnival that year. Armstrong strutting in his kingly attire provided one of Carnival’s all time great images.
1962—Kings and Queens: There had been gay Carnival celebrations before 1962, but that year saw the debut of the first that would last, Petronius. Other krewe would come and go. Among the survivors would be Amon-Ra and Armeinius, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
1968— Toast of the Wine God.: Not since Rex’s debut had there been something as dramatically new as the Krewe of Bacchus, which introduced big floats packed with riders launching barrages of throws, and headed by a celebrity king. A new phrase had to be created to describe the group and thus came the term “Super Krewe,” which would later be applied to new krewes developed along the Bacchus template– Endymion and Orpheus. From the Saturday before Carnival through Lundi Gras, the celebration of Mardi Gras has become super.
1979—Year of the police strike: There were no parades in New Orleans that year because of a strike by the city’s police department. Tempers were strained; feelings were hurt. Nevertheless, there were two good results. Civically it was a great moment as the krewes stood behind the mayor (who, it is relevant to the story, was the city’s first black mayor) in not giving in to the unions. The Carnival establishment showed that it could put care over frivolity. And secondly, by the next year there was renewed appreciation for Mardi Gras.
1987 Lundi Gras Emerges: With the creation of the Lundi Gras celebration, the riverfront became part of Carnival’s playground as Rex, and then later Zulu, staged arrivals in the early evening of the day before Mardi Gras followed by Carnival’s only fireworks show. The event has also become the stage for Zulu arriving to greet Rex, a celebration of Carnival’s brotherhood.
2018 Tricentennial With A Bang: Ever since the Phunny Phorty Phellows began staging their 12th Night Streetcar ride to announce the arrival of Carnival there have been more imitators and more public demonstration of the day. This year fireworks heralded Carnival and the Tricentennial. History and tradition are celebrated in the night sky.