Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Krewe of Rex - Hail Rex - St. Charles Avenue New Orleans Mardi Gras - Essay

Photograph Rex Ball Sheraton Hotel, year unknown,
photo by Mike Posey. Image from Krewe of Rex website.

"It wouldn’t do for King Rex to toast at some inelegant venue..."

Krewe of Rex - Hail Rex - St. Charles Avenue New Orleans Mardi Gras

Please, I asked the gods, save the fluted columns. Crowned with perfect ionic capitals, they curve gracefully around the floor-to-ceiling bay windows that add asymmetry to the home’s exquisite façade. While watching internet coverage of fire destroying the historic Montgomery-Grace Home on St. Charles Avenue, one of New Orleans’s architectural treasures, my heart ached for those columns. Three of the home’s occupants and an elderly poodle escaped without injury, however firefighters suffered mild distress from chemical fumes. Video captured an owner's tears.

Feeling utterly useless in Houston, I projected good voodoo to the Montgomery and Grace families, saluted the city’s other architectural jewels, then made a mental note to renew my support of New Orleans historical preservation societies. How could this happen two weeks before Mardi Gras day?

After fire fighters extinguished the fire, the home’s owners vowed to proceed with their traditional Mardi Gras day celebration, even if it meant plopping down ordinary folding tables and chairs in the yard. A day later, the Krewe of Rex chimed in with the official announcement that it will not cancel its annual Mardi Gras-day toast at the burned Montgomery-Grace Home.

For those unfamiliar with New Orleans Carnival carryings-on, I’ll explain the relationship between the burned house at 2525 St. Charles Avenue and the Krewe of Rex. Ever since 1907 the house has been the location of an annual Mardi Gras day toast between the home’s occupants and the King of the Krewe of Rex, whom tradition holds is the King of the New Orleans Carnival. On Mardi Gras day King Rex's parade float pauses in front of the house, the house's occupants raise their glass to King Rex, and Rex returns the toast. With this annual toast, the King of Rex honors five former Kings of Rex who resided in the house during its existence.

“That toast is to the entire New Orleans Carnival and its longevity,” announced Krewe of Rex official James Reiss, Reiss quoted by John Simerman in "The Advocate."  “The tradition will not end with the fire. Rex will stop once again in 2019 at 2525.”

There is a dynastic tone to the longevity mentioned by Reiss, look no further than Anna Eugenie Huger, the 2017 Queen of Rex, who has over a dozen relatives who were Rex "royals," dating back to 1886. The dynasty includes her late grandmother Eugenie Jones Huger, the 1952 Queen of Rex.

Rex Ball Sheraton Hotel, year unknown, photo by Mike Posey.
Image from Krewe of Rex website.

To be sure, the fire put a dent in decorum. It wouldn’t do for King Rex to toast at some inelegant venue, Fat Harry’s Bar for instance, on the parade route near Napoleon Avenue, crowded with inebriated hooligans. I spent some memorable nights knocking back cocktails with Mackie in Fat Harry’s Bar. Far more suitable for Rex to toast at a stately pre-1865 mansion with strong ties to Carnival tradition.

A less elegant place for the public to see Rex is near the river when the mayor of the city of New Orleans presents the keys to the city to King Rex. This tradition takes place every year, unless, of course, the levees break.

On Mardi Gras day the public can watch King Rex toast the Queen of Rex. The Queen and her Court, splendid in spring suits and hats, gather in a rather wind-blown reviewing-stand in front of Hotel Intercontinental. From his parade float, King Rex raises his glass and mumbles praise to the Queen. After, a Krewe official rattles off King Rex’s philanthropic and civic contributions. Then the Queen raises her glass to toast Rex. “Hail Rex, Hail Rex.”

If you can't get a seat in the reviewing stand for next week's 138th Krewe of Rex parade on Mardi Gras day, take extra precaution in the vicinity of Hotel Intercontinental. Seasoned purse snatchers will predictably hunker-down near Canal Street, like the inept duo who tried to shove me against a wall. Having honed my skills in Rome and Palermo however, I knew a thing or two about holding on to belongings. I had the added advantage of seeing the losers approach, and managed to squirm away. For novices, it’s better to watch the Rex parade “uptown.”

Ritualistic carnival objects burned in the fire. The large chalice-style silver cup adorned with “antler” handles, used for the annual toast is a regrettable loss. So were the green, gold and purple Carnival flags, which when flown during Carnival season, indicate royalty live at that location. The Krewe can overcome these losses. Surely it has a stash of glasses for receptions and float rides, and surely it has extra carnival flags for the toast at the burned house. For my readers unfamiliar with Carnival, the colors on those flags have meaning. Green symbolizes faith, gold means power, and purple stands for justice, the colors further associate with the biblical Wise men, considered royal, they also have liturgical significance.

Admittedly, I never tire of seeing images of the Rex Mardi Gras Ball, the Queen’s jewel-encrusted gown, and the King’s glittery gold tunic over white stockings, both "be-crowned" and wearing capes so long young boys have to jump around the Sheraton Hotel Ballroom to rearrange them, so nobody trips. I’m particularly drawn to the white ties and black tuxedo tails and lovely gowns accessorized with long white gloves worn by past "royals."

You gotta hand it to the historical New Orleans krewes, they are unfaltering when it comes to spectacle. Not solely the Krewe of Rex started in 1872 by some of the richest old goats in the city, but also krewes with less longevity, Krewe of Bacchus for one, who trots out celebrities to serve as royalty, I recall the year I saw the actor Henry Winkler, and singer Glen Campbell. The parade organized by Krewe of Endymion draws over a million people annually, Endymion spends an absolute fortune on spectacle, Rod Stewart performed at the 2018 Endymion Ball, this year Endymion will host Chicago and Lionel Richie, among others. Krewe of Zulu is undeniably historical, and one of my favorites. It was an exciting day indeed the day I watched Zulu's parade, as well as got my picture on the front page of the "Times Picayune" newspaper, holding a green, gold and purple plastic cup of bourbon.

Since the fire, I’ve become aware of the existence of a historical photograph from the John T. Mendes Photograph Collection, in the Louisiana Digital Library of The Historic New Orleans Collection. The photograph was taken on Mardi Gras day in 1925, and captures the King of Rex, Leonidas M. Pool, on his float in front of the house at 2525 St. Charles Avenue.

When I look at the crowd of parade spectators in the photo, I can’t help but think about my great-grandfather Bertrand who immigrated to New Orleans from the French Pyrenees in the 1890s to work as a butcher in the French Market. By 1905, Bertrand owned a small house on Broadway street south of St. Charles Avenue, I once saw a 1905 receipt for the living, dining and bedroom furniture he purchased from a Magazine Street furniture dealer. A few years later, Bertrand purchased a larger raised-basement style house on the corner of Broadway and Perrier Streets, near the meat market he operated. Donnie and I recently photographed that raised-basement house. According to my mother, Bertrand's granddaughter, the house's street level basement contained Bertrand's garage, laundry, and large barrels for wine-making. It’s possible my great-grandfather Bertrand took a break on Mardi Gras day 1925 to see King Rex in crown and cape toast at the house on St. Charles Avenue. It's possible he pulled off his white butcher’s apron, locked up his meat market, and gallivanted over to St. Charles and joined the crowd of parade watchers. It’s more likely, on the other hand, my great-grandfather remained in his meat market and worked.

John T. Mendes Photograph Collection, Rex Parade 1925,
2500 block of St. Charles Avenue, Mardi Gras Day, 1925.
The Rex King's float (Leonidas M. Pool) with crowd
watching. The Historic New Orleans Collection

Carnival Flags. Image from Krewe
of Rex website.

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