Third, it may be Mardi Gras, but this was not a masked ball; masking is for parades like the Rex parade, which has been the highlight of Mardi Gras day since the organization held its inaugural procession in 1872.
Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times/MCT
Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times/MCT
In an era so casual some people consider hoodies and sneakers appropriate for any occasion, it was refreshing to attend an event with a strict dress code that contributed to a glamorous evening fit for king.
Of course, that was the whole idea because Rex is the king of Carnival. Every year, the Rex Organization honors a prominent community member with the title based on his civic involvement. I was privileged to get a behind-the-scenes peek at the glittering pageantry of the king and queen of Carnival and their court.
A highlight was the presentation of the season’s debutantes. Traditionally, debutante balls were meant to introduce young ladies into society with the goal of landing a wealthy husband, but these modern, white-gowned debs were college seniors who were recognized for their academic achievements and volunteer service.
Afterwards, the fashionable crowd swirled around the floor of the Sheraton Hotel in a kaleidoscope of color and a cloud of old money, wringing out the last bit of Carnival revelry before midnight when the fairy tale ended.
This elegant evening was not what my Midwestern friends pictured when they learned I was traveling to the Crescent City for Mardi Gras. Isn’t that the party with all the drunken debauchery on Bourbon Street? I conceded there will always be frat boy types drinking until they throw up on the French Quarter’s cobblestones, but the city’s historically French Catholic population respects the celebration’s religious roots.
When I recounted the magic of my last Mardi Gras experience, throwing around terms like “Orpheuscapade” (a dance party), I got the same look one gives a toddler when she is talking gibberish.
It made me realize one of America’s biggest celebrations is one of the most misunderstood. The city holds the key to unlocking many of the mysteries, but you have to know where to look.
Start with a crash course in New Orleans history at one of the city’s newest cultural attractions, Vue Orleans.
Located at the top the 34-story Four Seasons Hotel, it not only provides a panoramic view of the city and the Mississippi River, but it also utilizes immersive, state-of-the-art technology to bring to life the rhythms and flavors that contribute to New Orleans’ famous joie de vivre.
At the interactive Confluence of Culture wall, a touch screen illustrates how the city became the birthplace of jazz and a culinary destination serving Creole delicacies that go way beyond gumbo.
Of course, the ultimate cultural marker for New Orleans is Mardi Gras. Join the party virtually by creating your own Mardi Gras costume and marching in a parade to the beat of a jubilant brass band.
Artifacts include an elaborate Rex ball invitation, a miniature work of art much like I received.
Next, head to The Presbytere. This museum in Jackson Square takes a deep dive into Mardi Gras traditions with the permanent exhibit, “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana.”
Some visitors mistakenly believe Mardi Gras is a one-day celebration, but it actually marks the close of the weeks-long Carnival season that kicks off on Jan. 6, a Christian holiday known as Twelfth Night or Epiphany, which commemorates the moment the Three Kings brought gifts to baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
As a display reveals, this is where the tradition of serving king cake during Carnival season originated. The ring-shaped dessert sprinkled with colored sugar in purple, green and gold — the official colors of Mardi Gras — has a small plastic baby Jesus baked inside. The person who finds it brings the next king cake.
Credit: Wesley K.H. Teo
Credit: Wesley K.H. Teo
Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the last day of overindulgence that proceeds Ash Wednesday, which ushers in Lent, a period of penance before Easter.
The exhibit partially lifts the veil of secrecy surrounding krewes, the organizations that stage parades and balls. There are more than 70 in New Orleans and each has its own history and theme, often derived from Greek and Roman mythology.
They are all quite different. There are all-female krewes, gay krewes, even one dedicated to Star Wars. What they have in common is the desire to outdo each other with their flamboyant costumes.
The museum’s extensive collection includes a gown of flames worn to a 1960s Hades-themed ball and a fantastical ensemble of black feathers and orange fringe designed for a past king of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the krewe that stages the city’s oldest African American Carnival parade.
The Zulu coconut, often painted with a whimsical face, is among the most treasured “throws” — the trinkets thrown to the crowd from a float. Mine has pride of place on a shelf in my home office.
To learn more about African American Mardi Gras traditions, peruse the collections at the small but informative Backstreet Cultural Museum in the Treme neighborhood. On exhibit are several elaborate Native American-inspired “suits” of beads and feathers worn by the Mardi Gras Indians, or Black Masking Indians, a historically secretive group. Despite the name, the tradition is distinctly African American.
During Carnival, nearly 40 tribes flaunt their handmade costumes, singing and dancing down city streets, a tradition that dates to the era of racial segregation when Blacks were prohibited from participating in city parades.
Around 80 parades roll during Carnival season, and to the surprise of many outsiders, they are mostly family friendly. The stereotype of inebriated women flashing their breasts for beads may be the stuff of Bourbon Street, but anyone showing too much skin on a parade route would incur the wrath of local parents.
Kids in the know come with big bags to haul home their booty of beads, doubloons (coins that commemorate various krewes), stuffed animals and other goodies showered on them from extravagant floats.
Mardis Gras World, home to Kern Studios, is where artists work year-round building these outlandish pieces of rolling theater.
A somber Cleopatra and a larger-than-life gorilla wearing oversized pink sunglasses greet visitors on a guided tour of the 200,000-square-foot “den,” a working warehouse where floats and props are stored.
Approximately 600 parade floats are built here every year.
Float design has come a long way since Roy Kern designed his first mule-drawn float on the back of a garbage wagon in 1932. Blaine Kern, Roy’s son and founder of Kern Studios, was a dynamic force that revolutionized the city’s biggest bash, earning him the moniker “Mr. Mardi Gras.” His designs were so innovative, incorporating lights and animatronics as early as the 1950s, that he was often compared to Walt Disney.
The late 1960s ushered in the era of the “super krewe,” and Kern Studios helped catapult their parades to the next level with super-sized signature floats that are practically a parade on their own.
The nine-section Pontchartrain Beach Float, an ode to a defunct New Orleans amusement park, was created for Endymion, a super krewe that hosts one of the most elaborate Carnival parades.
Another showstopper is Orpheus’ Smokey Mary, an eight-car illuminated train complete with a smokestack and whistle that rolls on Lundi Gras, the Monday before Mardi Gras.
For those looking to celebrate Mardi Gras with a local krewe, Orpheus is your best bet. Unlike the invitation-only Rex ball, the black-tie Orpheuscapade party is open to the public.
After a day rolling through city streets, the gleaming, raucous spectacle that is the Orpheus parade is led by celebrity monarchs through the Convention Center as Orpheuscapade revelers cheer them on. The masked riders include out-of-towners willing to pay for this bucket list experience.
However you celebrate Mardi Gras, get the lowdown on what’s behind the madness by checking out some of the city’s key attractions. You’ll go home with more than a bunch of beads; you’ll have a deeper understanding of a centuries-old tradition.
IF YOU GO
Mardi Gras. Feb. 13. Free. The day will be marked by eight parades, including those of the Zulu and Rex krewes. Leading up to the big day, dozens of parades are held throughout greater New Orleans. For a complete schedule, go to mardigrasneworleans.com
Vue Orleans. $23.95-$29.95. 2 Canal St., New Orleans. 504-285-3600, vueorleans.com
The Presbytere. $6-$7. 751 Chartres St., New Orleans. 504-568-6968, louisianastatemuseum.org/museum/presbytere
Backstreet Cultural Museum. $20-$25. 1531 St. Philip St., New Orleans. 504-657-6700, backstreetmuseum.org
Mardi Gras World. $14-$22. 1380 Port of New Orleans Place, New Orleans. 504-361-7821, mardigrasworld.com
Krewe of Orpheus. $1,500 to ride in the parade. 504-822-7200, kreweoforpheus.com
Where to Stay
NOPSI Hotel. $250-$850 during Carnival season. Upscale hotel in a historic building near main parade routes. 317 Baronne St., New Orleans. 504-962-6500, nopsihotel.com
Virgin Hotels New Orleans. $218-$283 during Carnival season. 550 Baronne St., New Orleans. 504-603-8000, virginhotels.com
Where to Eat
Antoine’s. Fine dining restaurant serving French cuisine. Entrees $32-$48. 713 St. Louis St., New Orleans. 504-581-4422, antoines.com
Luke. Creole-inspired brasserie. Entrees $23-$39. 333 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans. 504-378-2840, lukeneworleans.com
New Orleans & Company. 2020 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans. 504-566-5011, neworleans.com