Dear Julia,

We have been hearing all this commotion lately about Mayor LaToya Cantrell wanting to convert the Municipal Auditorium building into a City Hall. The resistance has been fierce, so it does not look like that will happen. Do you think the auditorium will ever go back to its previous use as a home for Carnival balls?  – Lewis Hancock (New Orleans)

 

Lewis, I posed your question to Poydras and he wrote back the following: “The short answer is, ‘No.’”  I asked him for the long answer and he replied, “No, m’am.” At least he was polite.

I agree with Poydras’ answer, both versions, but I wish it were different. There is no building anywhere better suited for New Orleans-style Carnival balls than the auditorium. There are many stories behind the building, which the city opened in 1930 as a modern multi-purpose entertainment facility. There were two stages – the St. Ann Street side and the St. Peter Street entrance – so it was possible to have a pair of events simultaneously. That happened most often during Carnival when krewes held their soirees there – the most notable being Rex and Comus, which each occupied its own space and then formally met on the Comus side at night’s end. At one time, Carnival parades took their last leg through the French Quarter and then turned at Orleans Avenue toward Rampart. From there they crossed into the back area of the auditorium. The riders on board would climb from the floats and head for the spacious dressing rooms to prepare for the ball. As they did, many partook of the offerings from the bar and, most of all, guzzled a cup of hot turtle soup. The soup played an important role during Carnival, not only was it hot and nourishing, but it helped stabilize the riders who may have had too many bolts from a bottle during the parade.

As a visual setting, the building was very impressive. Both internal theaters had wide ball floors that were perfect for kings, queens and maids to drag costumes with extravagant mantles behind them. There was upstairs seating which provided better sight lines for the guests.

However, there would be problems. Activities were prohibited in 1995 when the auditorium was used as a temporary setting for a casino while the land-based Harrah’s’ Casino was being built. Hurricane Katrina hit hard; repair funding has been slow and political reaction is intense. As can be seen with the City Hall proposal, since the building is in the area of the former Congo Square where slave dances were once held, the area takes on a near sacred political importance, but another real issue is economic. There are now several theaters and event places around town, including the arena and the dome, that can absorb the multi-purposes that the auditorium once took on. There is still no place better for carnival balls, but the balls themselves, which are seasonal, cannot pay the year-round bills that were once subsidized by the other activities.

Besides, though a hotel ball room is nowhere near as grand as the auditorium’s space was, some ball-goes are getting used to bars, restaurants, parking and guest rooms under the same roof. For the sake of aesthetics and history, we wish the auditorium could be returned as a ball site. Since the building is being denied as a city hall and has no demand as a theater than what can it be used for? I asked Poydras and he gave me his long answer, “Don’t know. Beats me.”


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Poydras is looking for something to do. Send your questions to julia@myneworleans.com and be sure to include your name and information. For the subject line use: Julia and Poydras Question.