Carnival’s Forgotten Palace

An original ©Mike Luckovich Cartoon for New Orleans Magazine

When the city’s Municipal Auditorium opened in 1930, an unspoken truth about the building was that it, in addition to being intended as a multi-purpose facility, was also designed to provide a better place for carnival balls. From January through Mardi Gras of each year, balls were a big business and the auditorium was the best place to have them. The facility even had two separate theaters: the St. Peter Street side and the smaller St. Ann Street side. Thus, it was possible to have events, especially balls, simultaneously. The auditorium’s tiers of balconies allowed for uninterrupted sight lines to the floor where queens and maids had extra space as they royally walked the carpet. There was also room backstage at the balls, where the krewe guys could nourish themselves with turtle soup to counteract the impact of the whiskey served at the bar, while a jazz band played away,

On Mardi Gras evening, Rex and Comus, who prior to the building had their events at separate downtown theaters, only had to walk down a back corridor for the meeting of the courts.

If the krewes had a parade it could end at the auditorium after marching from Canal Street, then thorough the French Quarter along Royal Street, before heading down Orleans Street to the building where their ladies and guests waited.

Out of season, the building hosted staged concerts and floor events. Hank Williams once married there during a Saturday evening concert. The ceremony was so popular that he got married again (thankfully to the same woman) on Sunday. Each Thanksgiving weekend the Shrine Circus made the auditorium its big top. Karl Wallenda walked on the high wire and balanced on a chair, scaring the bejeebies out of the audience. It would be one of his last American performances. (The building even served as a temporary casino while a new Harrah’s facility was being developed. Win or lose, Harrah’s was appreciated for having improved the auditorium’s bathrooms.)

Graduations were held there. Many New Orleanians received their diplomas while sitting on the stage with the building’s spotlight on them for a fleeting moment. In other ways however, time has moved slowly.

This carnival will mark the 14th consecutive year that the building has stood empty. It has never returned from the devastation of Katrina’s high waters.

At first, the carnival balls moved to what some viewed as temporary housing. Among the society soirees, hotels, most notably the Sheraton and the Ritz Carlton, have become the new setting, as well as the country clubs, the Orpheum theater and Kenner’s Pontchartrain Center. The Convention Center has a theater facility that can house a traditional ball, as well as the space for the big party events such as Bacchus, Orpheus and Zulu. Endymion is so big that it needs the  Superdome to contain it.

Rex and Comus are no longer in the same building, but across the street from each other, thus creating one of carnival’s newest traditions when Rex’s entourage walks the red carpet across Canal Street from the Sheraton to join Comus for the meeting of the courts at the Marriott hotel.

At first, the feeling was that one day the auditorium would again be ball-ready and krewes would return. Now we do not think that will happen. It is a question of priorities. When the building first opened, it was the premiere presentation space; now there is a glut of places to have a show. And while balls provide revenue, they only do so during two months a year. There needs to be something else to pay the bills. Meanwhile, some krewes have become cozy with their new surroundings. While no place offers the visual advantages of the auditorium, ball-goers have begun to appreciate the bars, restaurant and accommodations at the hotels. The auditorium offered no such luxuries.

For nostalgia’s sake, we wish the auditorium a speedy return as a full functioning public space.

At a recent forum, mayor LaToya Cantrell mentioned the possibility of making the building the city’s new City Hall. That would provide new energy for the Treme/Armstrong Park area, plus give the city lucrative real estate at the present City Hall’s current location. The idea, however, is still in its early analytical stages.

Whatever happens is going to take great minds with access to deep pockets coming up with big ideas. That could be as tough as balancing from a chair on a high wire. It would be the building’s greatest performance ever.


 

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