Professor Carl Nivale, Your Professor Emeritus of all things Mardi Gras
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The History of Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Page 11


Mardi Gras 1991 followed in the wake of Operation Desert Storm, once again tinting the proceedings with the colours of Old Glory in time to bid farewell to the Krewe of Hercules and greet the debut of the Krewe of Silenus, started by Carnival historian and curator of the Mardi Gras Museum in Rivertown, Charlie Cox, Jr.  The unity displayed during this time would be long forgotten the following year.  In 1992, one of the definitive events of modern Carnival transpired, ripping Mardi Gras from its roots.
Dorothy Mae Taylor, called the Grinch of Mardi Gras in 1992Reacting to complaints from factions inside the community, then Councilwoman-at-Large Dorothy Mae Taylor first introduced an ordinance at City Council in 1988 designed to end discrimination amongst luncheon clubs.  Essentially, because these organizations were doing business in a small closed group, they had to be open to everyone.  Soon, all Carnival krewes fell under this definition-essentially, if a krewe wanted to march, they had to let anyone in who applied.  For the newer krewes of the 20th century this was not really a problem.  But for the old-line organizations, such restrictions violated the essence of the krewes as secret, select, self-governing societies.  In fact, the selective nature of the krewe was argued as being one of the main factors responsible for the growth of the celebrations: in the past, the exclusivity of krewes promoted the creation of new krewes to meet the demand.  Several weeks of public debate ensued, with definitive battle lines drawn between the krewes, the public, and Mrs. Taylor.  She adamantly defended the ordinance as public opinion began to be divided along racial lines.  And then, just before the parade season was to begin, the full effect of the new legislation was realized.  In an unprecedented act of protest, the Mistick Krewe of Comus and the Knights of Momus, the original krewes of New Orleans Carnival, refused to compromise their traditions and retired from parading!  Proteus, the third oldest krewe, follows this by announcing that '92 will be the last parade for them as well, also refusing to sign the ordinance.  The shock to the residents and fans worldwide at this unthinkable development was made worse by the added loss of the krewes of Minerva, Selena, and Venus, which qualifies 1992 as the year with the most krewe losses ever.  The one bright spot was the addition of Zulu to the Lundi Gras festivities at the river.  Despite this happy addition,  Mardi Gras that year was a little less festive, and a little lost.  Without the anchors of Comus, Momus, and Proteus to lead as they had always done, the celebrations entered a strained period of increasing violence in the streets and a decrease in the number of masquing participants.
This disturbing situation was compounded in 1993 when the Municipal Auditorium, the home to dozens of krewe balls through most of the 20th century, was appropriated by the city for use as a temporary casino.  Carnival Balls that had used the Municipal for decades now had to find new quarters for their fetes.  Again, a major support for Mardi Gras was taken away, and revelers were once again set adrift without an anchor.  Adding insult to injury, the creation of the casino cut severly into the revenues of krewes hosting bingo games for fundraising.  The krewes of Amor and Venus paraded their last, and Babylon took over the "Momus Thursday" slot in the schedule.  Their old slot is filled by the Krewe of Saturn, a Kenner krewe.  Jefferson Parish, by contrast, had record-setting crowds for Fat Tuesday, topping 800,000.
Famed musician and native son Harry Connick, Jr. returned home in 1994 to create the Krewe of Orpheus, the first superkrewe to have male and female riders.  The addition of Orpheus in the Lundi Gras slot previously held by Proteus was one of the media's hotspots that year.  The opening of the Mardi Gras Museum in Kenner (under the curatorship of Carnival historian and multi-krewe captain Charlie Cox, Jr.) established the historical signifigance of Carnival.  Unfortunately, after Cox's departure as curator a few years later, the collection was slowly decimated by unscrupulous employees and is now a mere shadow of its former glory.
It was the last year for the krewes Pandora, Marc Anthony, and Frerets which ended a 42-year run.
The rare Zulu Moola, a prized collectible1995 would prove to be an interesting year on the business side of Carnival when Jefferson Parish allowed limited sponsorship of parades.  For years, there had been a literal and figurative ban on corporate sponsorship for fear of Carnival turning into one large advertisement.  Jefferson Parish's decision to allow the practice placed new emphasis on allowing it in Orleans Parish as well.  Fortunately, Carnival '95 would prove to be one of the most financially successful in recent years.  The increased interest reignited a passion for a return to a more traditional celebration, best embodied in the new Krewe of Ashanti being granted permission to parade with carriages instead of floats (the krewe would parade once more before disbanding).  Also that year, Nefertari left the parade route, and one-hit wonder krewe Thebes formed and disbanded.  1997 introduced the Knights of Camelot, and some home-grown 'scandal' when Jefferson Parish Sherrif Harry Lee sued the Krewe of Neptune for the cost of policing the parade.  Louisiana politics at its best and worst, just the way Carnival likes it.  1997 also saw the return to television of the meeting of Rex and Comus and the close of Carnival, a tradition that continues to this day on WYES.
After a five year hiatus, the Municipal Auditorium reopened to 17 krewe balls in 1998, and a sense of familiarity returned to the streets.  Le Krewe d'Etat and the Krewe of America began parading, and amazingly no krewes disbanded or retired from marching. 
And, in 2000, the Krewe of Proteus sealed its place in Mardi Gras for the new millenium when it made the decision to sign the anti-discrimination ordinance,  and returned to the streets for the first time in 7 years.
Though Mardi Gras has returned to many of her lost traditions in the 90's, there is still a tangible quality that the natives are still reaching for.  And that is a greater connection with the celebrations of the past while continuing to promote more revenue.
Up next, the new millenium and what is now in store


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