Parade-goers paying close attention to “The Lunar Realm” theme of the 2007 Rex parade as it rolled by might have been more than a little perplexed by float No. 22. Entitled “Independent Order of the Moon,” the float depicted a bizarre French Quarter street scene with dogs and cats dancing on hind legs against a backdrop of vintage Vieux Carré architecture. An arched-back feline stood ready to pounce while a smiling, round-faced moon looked down on the revelry from above.
Turns out, the surrealistic images came from an antique Carnival ball invitation for a late 19th century organization called the Independent Order of the Moon, which paraded for a few brief years. Rex members had discovered the framed heirloom while salvaging krewe memorabilia from their flooded den in the weeks after Katrina. Though no one knew where the invitation had come from or even what it actually was, a little research revealed it to be a unique remnant of Mardi Gras history.
As if by the mirthful whimsy of some demigod, the invitation just happened to dovetail with the lunar theme that was already slated as the subject of the following year’s parade and members of the organization decided it would make a perfect addition to the lineup of floats. Sketches were drawn and thus, an obscure piece of Carnival past was reborn as a larger-than-life part of Carnival present.
Not every float in every Rex parade has such a unique story behind it but there are more than one might think. Float titles and parade themes are serious matters for the city’s signature Carnival organization and history and tradition figure prominently in the process of choosing suitable subjects. True, all Carnival krewes have their own special customs and traditions. But what sets Rex apart is the profound sense of noblesse oblige that influences the themes the organization chooses for its parades each year. Rex takes its Latin motto pro bono publico, or “for the public good,” seriously and the organization strives to throw not only a beautiful parade for its followers but one that will educate them, entertain them and perpetuate the rich, deep traditions of Carnival.
Last year’s “Lunar Realm” theme was a quintessential example. This year’s theme is also magnificently appropriate, celebrating the “Royal Rivers” of the world. Like the themes that have preceded it, “Royal Rivers” was selected after years of forethought and encompasses elements of history, geography and mythology.
Perhaps surprisingly, while Rex and its themes are steeped in history and tradition, the organization is more public than ever in the way it promotes its parade and their themes. For the past several years, it has engaged in a public outreach and educational program via the Internet called Rex in the Classroom that contains stories and pictures about the organization specifically and Mardi Gras in general. It also includes information and teaching materials about the parade’s theme for the year, presenting students and their teachers with an invaluable opportunity to learn about history, geography, mythology and how it ties in to New Orleans’ unique Carnival culture.
“When you look at a theme like ‘Royal Rivers,’ you can see how much potential it has a learning tool,” says Dr. Stephen Hales, a local pediatrician and Rex official who came up with the Web site idea several years ago. “It’s just tremendous.”
Rich in Tradition
Selecting parade themes that seek to educate has been part of Rex’s mission since long before there was a Web site or an Internet. When the organization was established in 1872, one of its founding members, George Soule, noted that the charter called for Rex to “advance art, entertain, amuse, and instruct the people, and do other things which will redound to the good of the society …” Over the years, it has remained true to that mission with such highbrow themes as “Atlantis: The Anti Diluvian World,” “Audubon’s Winged Splendour” and “Beaux Arts and Letters.”
Admittedly, these are subjects that can stretch the public’s capacity for understanding, especially in an age when the general populace is more familiar with TV characters than the heroes of ancient mythology. But then, that’s what makes the Rex parade so special.
“What these themes have in common is an assumption that there’s something to be gained by the kind of depth and richness that they offer,” Hales explains. “Rex’s tradition dips into these wonderful worlds of mythology, history, culture, music and art, and the assumption is that you can not only put on a beautiful parade with these themes but that the depth they add makes it even more beautiful than it would otherwise be.”
Consider the theme of the 1989 parade, “Lafacadio Hearn’s Fantastics,” which celebrated the writings of the 19th century journalist. Rex chose to honor Hearn because he played such an important role in early New Orleans journalism with stories that vividly described the politics and society of the day. The subjects of his articles lent themselves well to interpretation as individual floats and the parade was a grand success that helped rekindle local interest in the talented writer. In fact, when developers sought permission to demolish his former home a few years ago, preservationists succeeded in saving it, thanks in part to the awareness about him generated by the Rex parade.
“People knew of him and there was quite an outcry against tearing down his house,” says Mardi Gras historian Henri Schindler.
Schindler is one of several members of an informal committee that helps develop the Rex theme each year. The group also includes several members of the Rex organization and a representative from float builder Blaine Kern Artists. The group plans themes at least two years in advance, as the float-building process takes nearly a full year. Once Mardi Gras is over it’s time to start stripping and rebuilding the wagon-wheel chassis that are used year after year, so the theme and float designs must be ready to go once Lent begins.
Selecting a theme is not the ritualistic, secretive event one might suspect, though careful and considerable thought goes into the process. Members of the working group meet informally every year to discuss potential themes and only those that have history and depth, as well as elements of art, literature, geography or mythology are considered. Once a theme is selected, 20 or more float titles must be suggested. Each of those is then analyzed to determine if it would make a nice visual presentation that would make sense on its own and also within the context of the whole parade.
“You can’t really do any of it in isolation,” says Hales. “You have to think of the whole parade and how it fits together with the theme.”
Once the ideas and titles are settled, the artistic design work begins, first with thumbnail sketches then with more elaborate and detailed designs that are turned into floats by the beginning of the summer.
“It’s a wonderful process but it’s really a challenge to come up with a visual equivalent that is a representation for the subject,” says Schindler.
Honoring Community Leaders
More than a year after the process began, the floats stand ready to roll in the Rex den. Each year is unique and special – each noteworthy and beautiful in its own way. This year’s “Royal Rivers” theme is particularly meaningful to the organization and those closely involved in the theme selection process. That’s because the theme was the brainchild of the late Temple Brown, a beloved member of both the Rex organization and the New Orleans community.
The long-time CEO of Brown’s Velvet Dairy, Temple Brown (who reigned as Rex in 1992) was a committed business and civic leader who, in the true spirit of the Rex organization, gave amply of his time, talents and resources. He served on the boards of numerous business and civic organizations and believed in the good that an organization like Rex could do for the city.
He proposed the “Royal Rivers” theme several years ago and it was originally scheduled as the theme for Mardi Gras 2006. But that was the first Carnival post Katrina and somehow it didn’t seem appropriate to devote the city’s signature parade to bodies of water. “Beaux Arts and Letters” was chosen for that year instead, which turned out to be an intuitively brilliant move, as the parade paid homage to all the great artists, writers and musicians who have come from New Orleans.
“It was such a moving theme to so many New Orleanians,” recalls Schindler. “ I actually had people telling me they had tears in their eyes watching those floats. It reaffirmed everything that is special about this city.”
“Royal Rivers” remained high on the list of themes, however and by last winter design on the floats was under way. The timing was fortuitous, as Brown was in failing health. Last spring, the theme selection committee met at his Northshore home one last time and brought him the preliminary sketches of the “Royal Rivers” floats.
“This is really Temple’s parade,” says Hales, explaining the parade will be dedicated to the late Rex. “He was thrilled with it.”
Fat Tuesday revelers will likely be thrilled with the theme as well. The floats are delicate, ornate, lavish and colorful, depicting the rivers that have made the world’s great civilizations possible. The lineup includes familiar rivers including the Seine, Thames, Mississippi and the Rio Grande. There are rivers from history as well – the ancient Tigris and Euphrates, in whose valleys civilization began – and Rome’s Tiber, which is flanked on the float by the mythological Romulus and Remus.
There are also exotic rivers – the Amazon with its oversized, tropical flowers; the Nile with its trademark pyramids; the Yellow and Yangste, noteworthy by their Sino symbols; and Peru’s Ura Bamba.
The parade will also feature two rivers from mythology — the Styx, which flows through Hades and is depicted on the float with the ghostly face of death – and the Hebris, which was the ancient river of Thrace into which the jealous Meanides tossed Orpheus’ head and lyre.
“It’s a truly gorgeous parade,” Schindler says.
The “Royal Rivers” theme also lends itself well to Rex’s increasingly popular Web site, Rex in the Classroom, which Hales built several years ago with the help of his technically savvy sons, Matt and Tim. The site is colorful and easy to navigate, with pages dedicated to Rex’s history, tradition, parade and ball. It also discusses the general history of Carnival, and how back in the 1870s Rex helped bring order and organization to the unruly Latin festival.
The primary purpose of the Web site, however, is to serve as an educational resource for teachers and students. A “teacher’s corner” suggests ways educators can use Rex parade themes as teaching tools. It also has a gallery where students can post artwork they have created and an archive where their essays and digitally designed creations are on display.
So far, the site has been well received. Though it took a while to catch on, it has grown considerably since Katrina and now receives more than 10,000 hits a month. Though most of the schools that visit the site are local, Hales has gotten e-mails from teachers in Arkansas, Texas and California.
He finds it gratifying that students throughout the country are learning about the grand traditions of Mardi Gras. He also enjoys the ways in which some local schools have taken advantage of it. Louise S. McGehee School was the first to pilot the Web site in 2003. Since then, McGehee teachers have had their students do Power Point presentations on Rex-related themes, create graphically designed pamphlets on mythological topics, and draw sketches of how they would design a Mardi Gras float.
Hales is particularly excited about the potential Royal Rivers holds as a teaching tool.
“It’s got everything – geography, history, mythology,” he says. “The possibilities are endless.”
While its primary purpose is education, the Web site also serves a sort of public relations function. It shows the rest of the world that Mardi Gras is about more than girls going wild on Bourbon Street and baring all for beads. Instead, it presents a side of Carnival outsiders rarely see and hardly comprehend, explaining to them the deeply held and beloved traditions that have endeared Mardi Gras to locals and, indeed, enabled it to endure.
“If you ask most people out there about Mardi Gras they think about Bourbon Street and shirts going up, and that’s not the Mardi Gras we [locals] know,” Hales says. “The Mardi Gras we know is this really uplifting, lovely time that families and friends share together. It’s a traditional thing and the Web site is really aimed at showing that.”
Which goes back to the guiding principals by which Rex, as an organization, tries to live by – to be the King of Carnival in the truest sense of the word. That means entertaining, uplifting and educating the public, as well as perpetuating the traditions of the city’s history and its world-famous celebration.
“One of the things that’s unique about New Orleans is its deep history and its deep roots and how we put out parades together is respectful of that,” says Hales. “It’s not just something that appeals to a few idiosyncratic Carnival people. There’s an appreciation for what this represents – a connection back to the past.”