November 1 1989 by Amiad J. Finkelthal
While he was chairman of The Louisiana Land and Exploration Company, John G. Phillips spent a day being King of New Orleans Carnival, which meant waving to throngs of royal “subjects” while parading down
The king Rex to the locals-is chosen annually by a 117-year-old parading club known as the Rex organization. Unlike the kings of other old-line parading clubs, Rex strides proudly through the streets without hiding his identity behind a mask. He is always a well-known figure, active in local civic affairs, and is accordingly shown great respect. Throngs of spectators lining the parade route greet the royal entourage with shouts of “Throw me something mister.” The paraders-all except Rex-respond by showering them with beads and baubles.
During a stop along the parade route, the king toasts his queen’s beauty. “The queen is always a local debutante, so this is a case of an old man complimenting a pretty young girl,” remarks a former Rex, John Charbonnet, chairman of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce and president of The Charbonnet Construction Company.
The first Rex parade in 1872 was an attempt by
There are no such surprises today as both king and queen have had weeks to rehearse the royal routine. “Most royal couples handle themselves very well at the royal ball,” notes one Rex insider, “though I must admit I’ve never seen one that’s able to drag around their enormous train without looking like they’re leaning into the wind.”
At midnight, Rex and his queen visit the king and queen of Comus, another old-line club, at its ball, and the four monarchs sit on the Comus throne and wave their scepters in one big synchronized motion “like a giant windshield wiper,” says one observer.
Relations between parading clubs have not always been so harmonious. In 1980, Comus and Proteus, another club, almost had a fist-fight in a dispute over right of way. Comus had traditionally paraded on Mardi Gras night, whereas Proteus did so the day before. But Comus stopped parading during a brief period in the 1880s, and Proteus took its spot. When Comus later demanded its spot back, Proteus refused, and the two parades met on
Rex and other highly exclusive clubs once dominated Mardi Gras. But in 1969, a local float builder, Blaine Kern, founded the Bacchus, a parading club which did not require its members to come from blue blood. Kern aggressively promoted his parade and even took a copyright on the sobriquet “Mr. Mardi Gras.” His company, Blaine Kern Artists, is the world’s largest builder of floats-a claim it backs up during Bacchus with such creations as a 110-foot alligator and a gorilla named Queen Kong who wears a bikini.
Bacchus’ success has boosted local Mardi Gras spirit and encouraged dozens of new parading clubs to take to the streets. Today,
Bacchus, like Rex, has a king and a royal ball, but the king is a
Some well-born locals regard Bacchus as low-brow, but Kern says he’s just getting more people into the Mardi Gras spirit. “Every year, I make an entrance at the Bacchus Ball in a funny costume that makes me look like a cross between Jackie Gleason and I don’t know who,” admits Kern. “But I dance so badly and cut up so much that people say ‘if this 60-year-old man can dance, so can I.’ “
SEEING THE SPECTACLE
Mardi Gras falls on