From 1933 until ’70, New Orleans had an official city decorator. Betty Finnan was a clerk in the city’s delinquent tax office when Mayor Robert S. Maestri, as part of his ongoing support of the arts, appointed her.
Canal Street Christmas decorations, an idea that originated with Finnan, changed every year over the 37 years she was responsible for them. Santa was present some years, other years had a fairy tale theme and still others featured silver swans and neon stars. One year, over 300 Vermont fir trees lined the streets, illuminated with giant candlesticks.
During Mardi Gras, clowns as tall as lampposts and large grinning masks greeted Canal Street merrymakers. There was a break in Carnival decorations for five years because of World War II, but otherwise, the city could depend on Finnan to provide lavish ornamentation as a colorful backdrop to the festivities. She also designed the annual children’s Carnival parade.
While her two big events were Christmas and Mardi Gras, she also was responsible for changing the decor at City Hall throughout the year, as well as decorating for other special events, such as French President Charles DeGaulle’s visit to New Orleans in 1960.
Betty Finnan held the position of city decorator until 1970, when the New Orleans City Council dropped funding for the post and the position was eliminated. However, her legacy lives on as New Orleans continues the tradition she established of decorating Canal Street for our important holidays.