There are some old traditions in Carnival. There are also some traditions thought to be ancient, but really are not. One of the latter is “Lundi Gras.” While the practice of Rex arriving by boat on the day before Carnival is an old, but interrupted, custom; the popular use of the term “Lundi Gras” dates back only to 1987. Rex’s original tradition of arriving by river was discontinued in 1917 when World War I took the fun, and attention, away from Carnival. Except for 1971 when Rex staged a river arrival in honor of its Centennial, the custom was dormant.
That changed in 1987 when Rex returned to the river. His arrival was to be the centerpiece of a package of riverfront events collectively known by what in 1987 was a strange, seldom heard of phrase, “Lundi Gras.” The arrival became so popular that the phrase itself became quickly absorbed in the language of Carnival, as though it had been popular forever. In fact, it had not been.
In 1986 a musical called “Staggerlee” was staged at the Toulouse Theater in the French Quarter. The show, written by New Orleanian Vernel Bagneris, was set in a Black Creole bar in New Orleans on the night before Mardi Gras. Using French patois the dialogue had one of the characters refer to the evening as “Lundi Gras,” the Monday equivalent of Fat Tuesday. Other than an early use of that term in a history of the city by Alcee Fortier, it was totally obscure.
In the interest of full disclosure, here the story-telling becomes awkward because, well, I started the Lundi Gras celebration while serving as member of the city’s Mardi Gras Coordinating Committee. I had seen “Stagerlee,” was struck by the phrase and brought it to the table at a subcommittee meeting of the group. I was concerned that there needed to be a new downtown attraction on the evening before Mardi Gras. The river, the source of the city’s life, was at the time playing no role in the city’s major cultural celebration. With the emergence of a reshaped downtown riverfront designed for leisure rather than heavy commerce there seemed to be new possibilities. A highly visual early evening event on the day before Mardi Gras could help draw attention to the riverfront and to the urban carnival. A secondary reason was to help Proteus. In 1986, during a steady rain, the krewe had paraded before a thin crowd. The emergence of Super Krewe activities on the Saturday and Sunday nights before Mardi Gras was making locals weary by that Monday night. If Proteus would agree to alter its route to include a loop up Poydras to the river that could open the way to create something new.
Riverwalk, a “festive shopping center” then operated by the Rouse company, (not the supermarket but a Maryland based development company) had recently opened along the riverfront. I knew of Rouse’s interest in urban downtowns and in local traditions. The idea then was to see if Rex would agree to again arrive by boat, and if Riverwalk would agree to stage the event at Spanish Plaza, an adjacent public space within the shadow of the World Trade Center. Riverwalk would also provide entertainment and fireworks. The city would provide security as needed. And then, I added, thinking back to “Staggerlee,” “we’ll call it ‘Lundi Gras!’” “Call it what?” came the surprised response. “Lundi Gras,” the phrase was repeated.
Carol Lentz, a Rouse marketing executive, agreed to the idea and would become the key person in shaping the staging of the event. The Rex Captain was interested but initially expressed some concern. The night belonged to Proteus, he said. Rex would not participate unless Proteus agreed. Proteus not only supported the idea but agreed to the Poydras loop as well. Planning began.
Another concern of the Rex Captain was the type of boat on which the King of Carnival would arrive. It would be inappropriate for Rex to favor any commercial carrier. Instead, the Captain secured a neutral ship, a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter, thus making the Coast Guard Rex’s Navy.
On the evening of Lundi Gras, 1987, Rex, backed by the Captain, his lieutenants and his personal entourage, and escorted by a Coast Guard color guard, arrived by cutter at Spanish Plaza. A huge, good-natured crowd greeted the King. Rex was welcomed on stage by Mayor Sidney Barthelemy. His Honor and His Royalty exchanged proclamations. Rex had pulled a bit of a surprise for the occasion, arriving in a period costume and wearing a mask. It was a replica of the King’s wardrobe for the 1917 arrival.
Once the proclamations were delivered, Rex and the Mayor pushed down a plunger that symbolically detonated fireworks over the river marking the arrival of the King and Mardi Gras.
After Rex and company left there was music on the stage until the signal came that Proteus, for the first time turning toward the river, was arriving. A huge second-line moved from the Plaza to Poydras, delivering a bounty of revelers to Proteus.
Rex would continue to arrive on Lundi Gras. In future years, the city’s diplomatic corps would be in attendance to greet and to be greeted. Amazingly, the fireworks display triggered by Rex and the Mayor remains as the only public pyrotechnics in all of Carnival.
After a few years, Zulu started staging an arrival too, and hour earlier at 5 p.m. downriver from the Rex arrival at the Aquarium of the Americas. Over the years Zulu would also develop a day long riverfront music festival. Eventually, the reigning Zulu king and his entourage began visiting Rex after his arrival—a ritual of staggering symbolic importance.
For the last few years Riverwalk has been operated by the Dallas-based Howard Hughes Corporation (Yes, named after that Howard Hughes) which specializes in real estate development. Fortunately, the parent company has maintained Riverwalk’s support of the Lundi Gras activities.
By the time Proteus returned to the parade route in 2000 after a hiatus triggered by the 1992 ordinance controversy, Orpheus also marched along the path and the riverfront loop was no longer feasible, still the crowds at the Riverfront waiting to see Rex remained huge.
With each passing year the term “Lundi Gras” would become more common. The true story behind the origin would be frequently obfuscated, nevertheless, activity along the river on the day before Mardi Gras was expanding, and the phrase “Lundi Gras” would belong to the ages.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.
Listen to Mardi Gras Beyond the Beads, a seasonal podcast covering the ins and outs of the Carnival season: MyNewOrleans.com/beyondthebeads