TRAVEL

A trip to New Orleans can make a CEO feel like a king.

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 St. Charles Avenue wearing a crown and a Prince Valiant wig. After the parade, Phillips reigned over a royal ball attended by the city’s most glamorous ladies, but alas, “I didn’t dance,” sighs Phillips, “I had to sit on the throne and greet my subjects all night.”

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 New Orleans to impress the visiting Grand Duke Alexis of Russia with a little pageantry on his Mardi Gras visit. In those days, there was no formal procedure for selecting a queen, so when the 1873 Rex saw an attractive lady in the crowd on Mardi Gras day, he plopped a crown on her head, declared “You are the queen,” and led her away from her bewildered husband.

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 Canal Street for a showdown. Proteus backed down and ever since, it has paraded on Monday nights.

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, New Orleans has parading clubs for Blacks, Creoles, laborers, seamen, children and senior citizens. Kern provides these groups with economical floats adaptable to any number of themes. When one club needed a float displaying a maiden dressed as a Russian princess, Kern boarded a float portraying the antebellum south, removed a steamboat and added some silver tinsel streamers to transform the muddy Mississippi into the frozen Volga. At the height of Mardi Gras, Kern has over 120 floats on parade.

Bacchus, like Rex, has a king and a royal ball, but the king is a Hollywood celebrity who runs the ball with all the protocol of a Las Vegas spectacular. Past kings have included Bob Hope, who rode into the ballroom atop a float and drank wine out of a horn while chucking doubloons at more than 7,000 adoring fans.

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 Tuesday, 27 February 1990. Events leading up to the big day begin as early as 4 February. The Rex Parade begins at about 9:30 A.M. on 27 February. Bacchus Parade begins around 5 P.M. on Sunday, 25 February.

Invitations to Mardi Gras balls, such as Rex on the evening of 27 February, are not publicly available. However, some New Orleans executive travel services have connections who can obtain such invitations. One such service is Inside Info., (504) 866-5758.