During the 1980s, I was working at Gambit newspaper where one of my duties consisted of writing a weekly column during the Carnival season under the nom de plume, Rex Duke. Rex was a rarity, a Carnival parade critic. No one else at the time was commenting on the quality of float designs or chiding riders for not wearing masks. Duke praised the krewes that were loyal to tradition and trashed those parades that used cheap secondhand floats.
There was strong reaction to the column, especially from krewe captains who were either pleased or chagrined that somebody was paying attention to their work.
One early question in developing the column was how to distinguish some of the parade types, for not all were alike. At the time there were two terms generally used to classify parades, “old-line” and “commercial.” The former were those krewes that were founded in the 19thcentury, i.e., Rex, Comus, Momus and Proteus. “Commercial” referred to krewes that were formed mostly by the 1930s, quite often among neighborhood groups such as the Krewes of Carrollton, Mid-City and Freret. (Inexplicably, they really had nothing to do with being commercial.)
Rex Duke reviewed the old-lines as a group (Hermes and Babylon were old-line in style and were included even though they were not as old as the others.) The rest were lumped together as their own group. Most troubling, though, was what to do with the modern krewes of Bacchus (debut: 1969), as well as Endymion which shifted from being a small neighborhood parade to a “super krewe” in 1975 and then eventually Orpheus (1994). They were large in the number of riders, but what really distinguished them was floats. Bacchus had set the pattern with towering multi-level floats and then some multi-part (tandem) floats.
Super krewes had parade themes that appealed more to pop culture than literary sojourns as preferred by the older krewes. (Bacchus’ first theme was “The Best Things in Life.”) Endymion would do everything bigger; carrying more riders and lots of sparkle.
Originally Rex was included in the “Super Pantheon.” It was eventually removed from the list not as a put-down, but as a compliment. The word that best describes the King of Carnival’s parade is “classic.” It does not aspire or have the most riders, or the biggest floats, but it does want its floats to be original and well designed, and for the parade to be well timed and efficient. It is in a category of its own.
Orpheus, on the other hand, qualified as a super krewe in terms of the size of its krewe and its floats. Of the three supers, it is the most artistic, including much of the old-line concepts such as featuring lots of sequined paper flowers swaying to the waddle of the floats.
(“Super” the, word, became fashionable because of a 1960s pop culture revival bringing to TV, and eventually movie screens, characters such as Bat Man and Superman, who previously could be found only on comic pages. The term, which was associated with action and bigness, became so popular that in 1967 when the NFL established its championship game featuring the winners in what was then two leagues, the Commissioner’s office gave in to the press which insisted on calling the game a “super bowl.”)
Ok, here we go: At this point, I need to mention that, as the original Rex Duke, I created the phrase “Super Krewe” and in effect established the boundaries of what defines them. I say that not to be bragging (although I am proud to have had a part on the making of what is now a standard carnival phrase) but to establish some credibility in explaining what the term was originally intended to mean.
This has become an issue because in recent years, there have been some references to the term being applied to other groups. Two years ago, the Krewe of Nyx even sent out a press release declaring itself (after a ridership growth spurt) to be a super krewe. If you google the phrase, you will that name sometimes even applied to Zulu. If the term was based on just the number of riders, it could also be attached to Thoth, Iris and even the truck parades.
Since there is no legal definition, or ruling judges, I at least offer a practical description, based on intent, of what defines a super krewe:
1. Yes, the number of riders matters, but it is not the sole criterion. A super krewe, as the name implies, should be big but it should also have originality too.
2. Floats should be visually impressive. Here’s where the bling and bells and whistles (as mastered by Endymion) comes. Each float should be a sensory experience.
3. Most of the floats should be owned by the krewe. This is a way of avoiding rethreads.
4. Super krewes tend to be awash with celebrities. Some stars, as in Bacchus’ case, serve as king, others are just riding along, mostly to perform at the ticketed blow-out party that follows. (By contrast, the other krewes more often have traditional invitational balls.)
5. There should be distinguished signature elements:
Bacchus has its house dinosaur, Bacchasaurus, and whale, Bacchawhoppa; Endymion has the multiple-part Pontchartrain Beach tandem; Orpheus has its Smoky Mary train and the serpentine Leviathan which also has optic lighting.
It could be argued that super krewes properly belong to the night when there is more dazzle from the lighting.
There could also be something to the reasoning given by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a 1964 case about pornography. Conceding that the term was hard to define he added however that, “I know it when I see it.”
Being judged to be super is, I guess super, but it is not all that Carnival is about. While Endymion, Bacchus and Orpheus no doubt do much to attract extra visitors to the city during the last weekend of Carnival; they also push the city’s burden of police, sanitation and security. Bless them all, but three super krewes are enough,
New Orleans has a deeply rooted Carnival culture, as well as a population that is youthful, if not always in age, certainly in spirit. There are also elements of music heritage, ethnic mix, generally friendly winter climate, and civic support. It is a fertile ground for guarding and expanding carnival traditions.
Nothing could be more opposite to the super krewes than the shoebox sized floats of the “‘tit Rx” krewe. (Yes, that’s a schwa, an upside down “e,” between the R and the X. It is there as a lawyers’ compromise.)
Here the emphasis is on micro rather than macro, with each float having its own design that reflects the artistic spirit of the Marigny neighborhood. (Don’t expect to catch a pair of those bloated beads now being thrown from some parades. They would be bigger than the floats.)
What defines a great parade? It doesn’t have to be super, but it should be creative in its own way.
We will know it when we see it.
KREWES OF ALL TYPES
There can be other superlatives to describe a parade: Proteus, Orpheus and Hermes are all beautiful. Le Krewe d’Etat, Chaos, and Tucks are satirical. Sparta is the first traditional-style night parade to roll each year. Rex is classic, the ultimate role model. Zulu is big and diverse. Mid-City sparkles with its use of colored foils to decorate floats. Muses, an all-female krewe, is popular and innovative. Nyx is following in its tradition. Carrollton, Okeanos, Pontchartrain and King Arthur hearken back to early weekend day parades. Druids is a parade for parade organizers to have their own ride.
They do not have to be super; nor do they have to be Uptown. Some of carnival’s best masking is provided by the throngs who walk with the Society of St. Anne, whose Mardi Gras morning procession moves from Marigny through the Quarter toward Canal Street.
Krewe du Vieux, a loose gathering of groups, uses smaller but feistily decorated floats, and spreads its irreverence through the Quarter. In the Marigny, Chewbacchus presents an off-beat confederacy of groups that reflect the spirit of the neighborhood.
In the distance, the beat continues.