The Quirks Of New Orleans Culture: Mardi Gras Balls
Part three in a 4-part series on what makes New Orleans different.
[This is part three in a 4-part series on what makes New Orleans different. The series was originally written during 2016 Mardi Gras. Here’s part one, about Second Lines; part two, about King Cake; and part four about “everything else”.]
New Orleans, LA—To outsiders, the Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans might appear to be about parades and outdoor parties. For many locals, though, the highlight of the season is the formal indoor parties–known as Mardi Gras Balls—that are thrown by numerous social clubs. Dating to the 1850s, these balls have been an entrenched part of the city’s social order, marked by notions of rank, tradition and exclusivity. For visitors and even many locals, the balls are thus expensive or impossible to get into. But recently I attended one of the more democratic-style Balls, to experience an internal city quirk that is little-understood by those outside of New Orleans.
To grasp the Mardi Gras Ball concept, one must understand the dynamics of the festival itself. Mardi Gras season begins every year on January 6–the twelfth day after Christmas–and concludes on Fat Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday (this year Fat Tuesday was February 9). Throughout the season, there are dozens of social organizations–or krewes–that participate in the festival. For example, the Krewe of Zulu is a predominately black club formed in 1909 as an offspring of the city’s longstanding, neighborhood-based Benevolent Aid Societies. The Krewe of Rex, dating to 1872, is another stalwart that invented many of today’s Mardi Gras traditions. More recently, the Krewe du Vieux formed as a rebel organization known for politically- and sexually-provocative street demonstrations. The sizes of these Krewes typically range from a couple hundred to well over a thousand people, and can be difficult to enter. Doing so often requires $1,000 or more in annual membership fees, along with strong social connections. Many of the prominent families within given krewes, for example, have memberships that date back for generations.
These clubs host various events, but are best known for their respective parades, and to a lesser extent, their annual Balls, both of which occur during Mardi Gras. The Balls are nighttime white- or black-tie events, with men arriving in tuxedos and women in gowns to eat, drink, dance and socialize. According to Nola.com, “the more traditional balls present tableaux, which are staged pageants that depict stories, usually from mythology or history. A queen’s supper, which might be a dinner dance or informal party, often is held after the ball.” Many Balls have ceremonies in which the “kings”, “queens” and other high-ranking krewe members are announced for the year, and the people selected are often lifers who grew up within the krewe. Other Balls are less serious–more about the dancing and the drinking.
Most of these Balls are private, held at small venues and open only to krewe members and their guests. But more recently, three krewes–Orpheus, Bacchus and Endymion–have thrown “Super Krewe” Balls that are large, blow-out parties available to the public. They charge around $150 for tickets, or more for VIP tickets, and quickly sell out large venues by booking prominent music acts. This year, the Bacchus Ball was held at the New Orleans Convention Center, while Endymion celebrated its 50th anniversary by hosting Steven Tyler and Pitbull at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Ball that I attended on Monday night, February 8, was called the “Orpheuscapade,” and was thrown in the Convention Center by the Krewe of Orpheus. The krewe had also scheduled its parade that day, so the festivities began mid-afternoon, when the krewe started shuffling floats from the convention center towards Napoleon Avenue, in the Uptown area. The parade began at 6pm, turning from Napoleon, and east onto St. Charles Avenue, moving slowly back towards the Convention Center.
About this time, Orpheus was also launching its Ball. When I arrived at 7pm, after catching the first few minutes of the parade, the Convention Center doors had just opened, and there was already a huge line of dressed-up people holding tickets. Most of them had coolers, because, like with other Balls, Orpheus attendees are expected to bring their own food and alcohol.
After joining the line, I walked with my date into the main convention hall, which was an expansive warehouse-style space. Across the floor were hundreds of tables, including an above-ground platform for VIP ticket-holders, who enjoyed catered dinner and drinks. Near the back was a stage with a live cover band, and people dancing all around.
This continued throughout the night, with the only break in action coming around 10pm. Orpheus’ parade had completed its outdoor route, and was now back outside the convention center. The large security detail cordoned off a pathway, and the parade entered the arena for one grand finale. Attendees crowded along the path to watch elaborate floats, bead throwers, break dancers, and marching bands, whose booming sounds echoed from the rafters.
When the parade was complete, everyone returned to their seats to watch the on-stage ceremony, which was co-hosted by an Orpheus administrator, and famed drag queen Bianca Del Rio. Then a number of bands continued playing until 3am, headlined by renowned local jazzman Harry Connick, Jr.
While undoubtedly fun, the Orpheus Ball was more akin to a concert than a normal Mardi Gras Ball. According to early estimates from the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Economy, the Ball was attended by more than 8,000 people, and generated around $2 million in revenue. Other Balls are smaller, and sometimes more formal, given that they aren’t always held on the same night as their krewe’s parade.
But Barry Kern, a local businessman and city native, says the increasing diversity of the Balls has helped the concept–and Mardi Gras itself–grow in New Orleans. He owns Kern Studios, a multi-generational, family-owned company that builds floats for many parades, including Orpheus. With many warehouses throughout the city, he has also built for parades in countries as diverse as China, South Africa and Spain. But he has never found a city that so openly embraces the Carnival Ball concept.
“The difference with New Orleans, I think, is the fact that Mardi Gras democratized,” he says. “There are clubs and krewes for everybody to be a part of…if you live in New Orleans and work in New Orleans, chances are you’ll have somebody in your office, or somebody that you know, or brother or sister or somebody that participates.”
That said, Mardi Gras Balls remain a quirky New Orleans quality that isn’t immediately apparent to visitors. I didn’t learn about them until talking to locals, and found it difficult to find tickets. To truly understand some of these events from the inside, one may just need to live here and join a club.
[This article was originally published by Forbes.]
Scott Beyer owns and manages The Market Urbanism Report. He is a roving cross-country journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine and HousingOnline.com.