Three Times (At Least) Mardi Gras Helped Save New Orleans
This Mardi Gras marked 163 year since Comus started what would be the continuing parading tradition. The current Carnival post-season is the first time that a virus has ever been an issue. To the discussion, I submit the following:
There was little joy in New Orleans that year, just as in other Southern towns. The city was still suffering from the pains of reconstruction in which the native born establishment battled to regain the control lost to northern newcomers.
In 1872 the city was still coping with the stress created by a civil war. But then on Feb. 13 of that year something special happened. Moving along Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue was a parade. The day happened to be Mardi Gras. There had been organized parades to celebrate the Carnival season before, but they were all nighttime romps. This was different. It dominated the afternoon, a sure temptation to turn away from the toils of business and everyday life. And at the parade’s helm a new character was introduced to New Orleans life. His name was Rex.
Rex’s role that day was far more than just leading a parade. History has shown that anytime the city has faced a crisis there would be an effort to unite the community and to make the city even better. Rex’s implied message to the world was that the Civil War, and its political divisiveness, were over. New Orleans was back into the mainstream of American life. Oh, and America was invited to come to the city each year to celebrate Mardi Gras.
Other Southern cities wanted to send the same message but none, not even Mobile which added a character to its Carnival that year called King Felix, had a monarch who claimed the global title of King of Carnival so prominently. And just by coincidence, a Russian Grand Duke was in town as though to give international sanction.
Rex was influenced by the night parade of the mysterious Krewe of Comus that started in 1857. With Rex’s creation Carnival grew and so did the city as a tourist destination. The King’s message was heard, and in doing so hastened the recovery from Reconstruction.
New Orleans was on edge in 1973 and many people were arguing that Carnival should be cancelled that year. The problem started on January 7, the second day of the Carnival season. That day, a Sunday, a sniper ran loose among the top floors of the Howard Johnson Hotel on Loyola Avenue and then perched on the hotel’s roof where he began shooting at passersby, especially the police who rushed to the scene.
By the time the shooter, Mark Essex, was finally felled by the combined fire power from a military helicopter and police snipers he had killed a total of nine people, including five police officers and wounded 13 others.
This was during the time of civil unrest caused by the ongoing Vietnam War. A state official called for a federal investigation saying he had evidence that the shootings were part of a nationwide conspiracy. If one person with one .44 carbine rifle could do so much damage, imagine what an underground gang could do during Carnival. Nevertheless, the lords of the day persisted. Mardi Gras was March 6. The season, which began with such nervousness, thrived. Gradually the expected crowds returned to the streets. Essex, it was learned, had acted alone. Carnival on the other hand was a communal celebration. Mardi Gras proved to its people, and the nation, that despite tense times, the city could stand firm against those who tried to hurt it.
This may have been Carnival’s greatest moment—ever. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina had broken the levees that protect the city from the lake. New Orleans was the world’s intensive care ward to which the global media gathered in anticipation of the city gasping its last breath. Mardi Gras 2006 was Feb. 28 but there was growing concern that the season should be cancelled. How would it look for there to be parades, especially with many of the poor living near so much destruction? Even then Mayor Ray Nagin at first weighed in on the argument, conceding that perhaps the parades should be suspended. But neither the season’s pantheon of rulers, nor their subjects would buy into it. They wanted; indeed, they needed Carnival. Zulu, the prime black membership organization solidified the argument. Its people wanted Carnival. Some of the parades were cobbled together from several krewes; a few floats were covered with blue tarps like those seen on wind-blown roofs. Nevertheless, excellence reigned: Rex, who had needed to find a blacksmith to fix the wagon wheels of his flood-damaged floats, staged a flawless parade. The global headlines could have read: “New Orleans Is So Down and Out It Cannot Even Stage a Parade Anymore.” Instead the message deserved to be, “the City is Coming Back and Showing Its Spirit.”
There are other incalculable ways that Carnival has proved itself including the economic impact; the festive image that attracts visitors to the city and even the liberated feeling of being someone else, if only for a day.
On Mardi Gras 2006 the region’s people got away from the mold and debris that surrounded them and were able to frolic and to celebrate life.
Once more the city had defied another obstacle.
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 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.