Babylon celebrates its 70th
“It was the first night parade I saw! It changed my life!”
That’s a strong statement from Mardi Gras guru Henri Schindler, but he’s happy to pay that tribute to a longtime Carnival club, the Knights of Babylon.
As Schindler explains, “There were no parades during World War II and 1946 was my first Mardi Gras; I had turned 5 the day after Christmas. That Wednesday night I saw my first night parade, Babylon, and it’s been on my mind ever since.” Schindler watched the parade on Canal Street, between St. Charles Avenue and Camp Street.
“For me, what made it unique was that it was the one that kicked off the Carnival season – for many people the real season still begins with Babylon.”
Schindler’s deft artistic hands are now fashioning the look of the Babylon parade, through Blaine Kern Studios. Although historically it was a Wednesday parade, when the Krewe of Momus left the streets some years back, Babylon changed its schedule to parade on Thursday evening. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the organization.
Newspaper columnist Charles “Pie” Dufour once described Babylon as “one of the oldest of the ‘newer’ Carnival organizations.” According to Babylon’s Captain, krewe tradition holds that the krewe began after a member of the Krewe of Hermes had a falling out with a relative who was the Hermes Captain, and subsequently started a new krewe.
According to the krewe’s Web site, it was founded “on June 24, 1939, by a group of New Orleans professionals who wanted to stage a first-class Parade [sic] for the public and a first class Tableau Ball [sic] for their ladies.”
The parent organization is still known as the Jesters Club (besides a club pin, on special occasions members may wear a “Jester” tie, now available to them in both blue and raspberry colors.) The shield of the club sports a jester, holding masks of tragedy and comedy.
The krewe is properly called the Knights of Babylon, and the king is King Sargon of Akkad, commemorating the long-ago builder of the famed city of Babylon (once located in what is now the country of Iraq).
The current captain is in his third year in that post, but he has been a member of the krewe since 1961. Babylon has some long family traditions: a founding member’s daughter who once reigned as queen has had two daughters reign and her husband is a member. One of this year’s pages has a grandfather who is a member. One long-serving captain was the late Dr. Charles Mary, a dentist.
ITS OWN FLOATS
Babylon is a strong upholder of Mardi Gras traditions. The identity of King Sargon is not made public. The parade is followed by a ball that night, with tableaux and maskers’ dances with call-outs to dances for invited ladies (who receive favors from their dance partners), and there’s a supper dance (known in other krewes as the “queen’s supper”) afterwards.
Babylon owns its own floats, which are stored in the krewe’s own den. Of the floats, Schindler notes that while the under-carriages may not date to the 1800s, “they have the size and the feel of the old floats. They’re not double-deckers, they are just a nice old size.”
The King’s Float is actually one of the few remaining parade floats made entirely of papier mâché. “It’s a spectacular rolling antique,” says Schindler. Fourtunately for Babylon members, their den stands on high ground and the floats suffered no damage in Hurricane Katrina.
Another special Babylon float is a streetcar, a copy of a mule-drawn “bobtail” car, the type used on New Orleans streetcar tracks from 1860 until 1890, the era when electricity came into use. Babylon’s Streetcar Float has a scene of the old Southern Railway station painted on its side. Schindler, who notes that the little painting was “very lovely, delicately painted,” adds “I don’t know for a fact who did it, but I know that Deutschmann Brothers was building the parade at that time and it’s very likely that one of them did the painting.”
Schindler has been involved with Babylon for about five years, and is pleased that he has worked to have some of the krewe’s signature floats based on items from the history of Babylon, with “The Hanging Gardens” and “The Gate of Ishtar” among the topics used as inspiration.
Babylon’s Captain promises that flambeaux will accompany the floats in this year’s parade as they have in the past. One of the magical things about floats in night parades is that a glistening effect is achieved with metallic decoration. Schindler explains, “it’s the final touch, but it’s really essential.”
“Silver and gold leaf are the last things that go on the floats,” applied in small strips so that they glitter in the torchlight. “It’s amazing that something so delicate is so resilient. The little end piece that isn’t glued down flutters,” he says.
Schindler describes Babylon’s parade as “typical of old style, especially in the size of the floats, and the number of floats. Babylon is “not too long,” according to Schindler, “it leaves you wanting more.”
In spite of its respect for Mardi Gras traditions, Babylon has been innovative, adding electricity to floats and once having the king’s float operated by a driver and carriage completely enclosed, in the manner of floats in California’s Rose Bowl Parade – this wasn’t continued for practical safety reasons, according to the Captain.
One innovation by Babylon that has remained is the use of mules. Once mules pulled all parade floats and in 1968, in homage to that idea, Babylon began using them for the King’s Float (which continues to this day) and for the Streetcar Float.
RINGING THE BELL
The 1968 parade went through the French Quarter and rumor had it that the slow pace of the parade was inadvertently caused by the bell on the Streetcar Float. One of the mules, “Baby,” had supposedly left a day job pulling the Roman Candy Wagon and was stopping every time the bell rang, in anticipation of a sale.
Babylon’s Captain relates that the Streetcar Float’s bell has somehow been misplaced because of an occurrence some years back. The usual Streetcar riders are the krewe’s officers. One year, pages were permitted to ride as well, and an overenthusiastic page’s bell ringing prompted an officer to remove the noisemaker. It hasn’t returned.
Besides the officers in the Streetcar Float, the Captain will be in a carriage, pulled by a white horse. Krewe members on horseback, the Horsemen, will lead the procession. The Knights of Babylon will be following the traditional parade route along St. Charles Avenue Uptown, and they will proceed to Canal Street, where their ball will be held at the Sheraton Hotel.
According to the Captain, Babylon balls were always held at the Municipal Auditorium. When Harrah’s temporary casino occupied that space, Babylon moved to the Theater of Performing Arts next door. Since Hurricane Katrina, Babylon has been at the Sheraton Hotel.
At the ball, King Sargon will use either the gold or silver crown and scepter set belonging to the krewe; the Captain notes that this year the silver regalia will be in use. The queen’s crown and scepter are given to her as mementos. Royalty and the court of the past year will be honored, as will the dukes of the organization and the maids, in matching white gowns, will be presented. According to Babylon custom, their bouquets will include orchids. While some young boys will be pages, some young girls will be presented as ladies-in-waiting.
After the ball and supper dance, “we end our evening about 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning,” the Captain of the Knights of Babylon says.
Then he and Henri Schindler will get ready for the krewe’s 71st year.