It was in 1827, sometime before the elder Davis opened the old Orleans Theatre Ballroom, that a number of young Creole gentlemen, some of them just returned from finishing a Parisian education, organized the first street procession of masqueraders in New Orleans. One more splendid still, and still larger in numbers, took place on the Mardi Gras of 1837; and another, still more brilliant, in 1839.
The French side of the Bee, of Tuesday, 13th February, 1839, had a very gay and witty article on the day's celebration, written by one of its assistant editors, Hans Boussuge, a talented young Frenchman, a new-comer from Paris, who died a year or two after, of yellow fever. This article concludes thus: "The persons who are to take part in the masquerade are requested to meet at the Theatre d'Orleans, at 3 1-2 o'clock p. m., at the latest.
From the Theatre d'Orleans, Royal street, St. Charles, Julia, Camp, Chartres, Conde, Esplanade, Royal."
We very well remember the appearance of this long and brilliant cavalcade as it passed up St. Charles street, near Lafayette square, one of the most conspicuous figures being an immense chicken cock, six feet high, who rode in a vehicle and whose stentorian crow, as he flapped his big wings, elicited cheers of admiration and applause from the crowds on the sidewalks. A distinguished physician, then quite a young man, it was understood, bore this admirably rendered disguise. A grand mask and fancy dress ball in the old St. Louis Hotel Ballroom, and one in the Salle d'Orleans (next to the theatre) wound up the famous Mardi Gras of 1839.
From 1840 to 1845, several of these brilliant day displays took place. They were in the hands of gentlemen representing all the respectable element of the city's heterogeneous population, and were conducted in the same thorough style, and with the same taste and liberal expenditure that have made the later displays of the Mistick Krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, and the Knights of Momus memorable gala nights in the history of New Orleans.
The lapse of years and changes of fortune 'brought many changes, also, in the social characteristics of New Orleans; and the day celebration of Mardi Gras lapsed into oblivion. The last, most brilliant and most successful of all, delighted and amused the town, after several years' quiescense and neglect, on the Mardi Gras of 1852.
A number of New Orleans' first young men determined to get up a procession, on the occasion alluded to, that would equal in numbers, in order, variety, elegance and piquancy of costumes, any that the chronicles of Mardi Gras in this country could record. The announcement of this intention, through the press, excited universal curiosity; and when the memorable day came. New Orleans boasted of an accession to her population, in the shape of visitors from the North, West and South, that has not been surpassed since.
The procession traversed the leading streets of the city, which were positively jammed with admiring throngs, and at night the old Orleans Theatre was the center of attraction for all that the Crescent City held of beauty and fashion. The maskers of the day there received their friends; and that bewildering ball was long remembered as the gem of many such jewels clustering in the diadem of the Queen of the South.
In these days, however, the celebration of Mardi Gras was confined mainly to a number of maskers who walked or rode around the streets. It was a great day with the boys, also, who, clothed in old dominoes and masks, with a stout hickory club in their hands and a bag of flour by their sides, would march around the streets, looking for an available victim on whom they could throw their flour, and whom, if they resisted, they would punish with their shillelaghs. Some of the wilder boys, conceived, however, the idea of substituting lime for flour, and as this on more than one occasion came very near producing blindness, the police had to step in and arrest the boys. This surveillance was kept up for several years, until both the flour and the lime disappeared. The flour throwing was evidently a relic of the Roman habit of throwing little confetti made of paste or plaster at maskers.
But, although for many years Mardi Gras was celebrated by the appearance of many maskers on the streets, there was no attempt at a general procession or celebration such as we have to-day.
Mobile first inaugurated the idea of presenting scenes on floats moving around the streets, the Cowbellions of that city having had a parade as early as 1831. The first entertainment of this kind in New Orleans was given in 1857. The affair had been well worked up, and there was so much secrecy about it that not even the wives of those who were engaged in it knew aught of it. All that the public was aware of was that an organization, known as the Mistick Krewe, would appear on the streets at night, representing various tableaux. The consequence was that the streets were crowded with people, who welcomed this display with shouts of applause. Its complete success was assured, and as a consequence the Mistick Krewe has not since ceased to parade on Mardi Gras except when war or pestilence forbade.
The following is a description of the first appearance of the Mistick Krewe procession on our streets, from a paper of that date: "This Krewe, concerning whose identity and purposes there had been tortures of curiosity and speculation, made their dehut before the public in a very unique and attractive manner. They went through the streets at nine o'clock with torchlights, in a guise as much resembling a deputation from the lower regions as the mind could possibly conceive. The masks displayed every fantastic idea of the fearful and horrible, their effect being, however, softened down by the richness and beauty of the costumes, and the verdant decorum of the devils inside.
"After going through the principal streets, and calling upon Mayor Waterman for the purpose, we suppose, of obtaining a license to "raise the supernatural" in the Gaiety Theatre, they proceeded to that elegant establishment in order to entertain the hosts of guests they had summoned.
"The interior of the theatre was decorated with a profusion of hanging wreaths and festoons of flowers. In a short time after the doors were thrown open, all the space inside, apart from the floor and stage, was jammed with an audience composed of the elite of Louisiana and the adjacent States — none being in mask but the Krewe —
"In due time the Mistick Krewe appeared on the stage in the full glare of the lights. If we may so speak, they were beautiful in their ugliness — charming in their repulsiveness. There were upwards of a hundred of them, and no two alike, whilst all were grotesque to the last degree. They represented the different characters with which religion, mythology and poesy have peopled the Infernal Regions, and which Milton has aggregated in his "Paradise Lost."
"Four tableaux were given. The flrst represented Tartarus, the second, the Expulsion, the third, the Conference of Satan and Belzebub, and the fourth, and last, the Pandemonium.
"At the conclusion of the tableaux, the barriers were removed, and the brilliant audience crowded upon the dancing floor. The Mistick Krewe having disbanded, dispersed among the crowd and joined in the dance in a manner which showed them to be very gentlemanly and agreeable devils."
Knights of Proteus, new organization, appeared in 1882, the day before Mardi Gras, with a very handsome parade. A Dream of Egypt, showing the various Egyptian deities, Osiris, Isis, Thoth and Nilus; the Mourning of the Egyptians, an Egyptian "Wedding, etc.
The Carnival celebration in New Orleans has of late years surpassed, in extent and grandeur, all similar events occurring either in Europe or this country. Beside it the carnivals of the Corso of Rome and the canals of Venice are tame affairs, lacking the exquisite order and organization with which the Americans have endowed it. Though frequently described in letters and by the public press, it yet has to be seen to be appreciated, and few enjoy that privilege once without thereafter making an annual pilgrimage to the Crescent City during its festive season.
Few understand the admirable and thorough system of organization, through which alone such grand successes can be achieved — a system as complete in its little way as that of an army or an established government.
In fact, it does embrace a phantom government, ruled over by the mythical Rex, whose reign is absolute for twenty-four hours, during which his flag is alone permitted to fly; and whose edicts are as implicitly obeyed as were those of an Alexander or a Nero. The central power is contributed to and supported by several secret societies, each independent within itself, but all co-operating to a single end. Outside of Rex's court there are other and some older secret associations, such as the Mistick Krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, the Knights of Momus, etc. Each of these has its own distinct gala night devoted to its street procession and its tableau balls, to which the tickets are invariably complimentary.
The expense of one these displays ranges in cost from $12,000 to $18,000, and sometimes higher. In one instance Rex's display cost $28,000. Each association owns its twenty floats, its ladders and lights, housings for the draft-horses and disguises for the torch-bearers, but none of them have any known permanent meeting-place, which changes constantly and is kept sacredly secret.
Each association ntimbers from 150 to 200 men, generally club men, some of them grand-fathers. One hundred are generally selected to appear in the display, while the others are utilized in other duties which are more onerous than is generally supposed. The preparation for a display occupies almost an entire year, and the torchlights of one hardly die out before work is on foot for its successor, all of which is conducted with the greatest secrecy.
The first step taken after Mardi Gras is a meeting for the election of a design committee for the ensuing year, over whom is elevated "the captain," with absolute power, experience having demonstrated imperial power and blind obedience to be the main essentials of the system. Next the artist is summoned for consultation. Each member of the committee now proposes one or more subjects for treatment, the best half-dozen of which are delivered to the artist to reproduce in rough crayon sketches throughout. When completed, the committee meets again for consultation, and a final selection is made. This is always the most difficult problem encountered, and generally consumes an entire month, after which the work begins in earnest.
The artist at once commences the preparation of accurate water color sketches of each of the hundred characters, upon cardboards about the size of an imperial photograph. These are finished to the minutest detail and carefully colored for the use of the costume manufacturer, the material of which every part of the dress is to be made being inscribed upon it.
These completed to the satisfaction of the design committee — no easy task, by the way, and one requiring a couple of months for execution — the cast of characters is then made in harmony with the individual characteristics of the members, who from that time forward also their identity and are designated only by numbers which are inscribed upon the separate character cards. These cards also bear upon their reverse the height, girth, weight, size of foot, head and hand, together with a record of the physical peculiarities of the individual who is to assume the indicated role.
This done, the artist at once commences upon a duplicate series of eighteen or twenty larger and much more elaborate water color designs in which all the characters appear grouped in the respective emblematic tableaux they are to exhibit upon the floats in the street procession, together with the float, designs, decorations and aacessories, each one being a little scene within itself.
When completed, one set of these — each figure duly numbered — is posted upon the walls of the club-room, or "The Den," as it is generally called, for the members' close scrutiny and study during the balance of the year. The other set, together with the individual character cards, are then either taken or sent to Paris, where the costumes are manufactured and numbered to correspond. These preliminaries are generally consummated by July 1, and a short breathing spell ensues, during which time the local papier-maiche maker is 'busy moulding the properties which are required to decorate the floats.
By December 1st, the costumes generally arrive in New Orleans. They are at once removed to "The Den," where they are ranged upon long tables, each costume being surmounted with its appropriate picture. Here, during a period of six or eight weeks, the members come in regular detail to be fitted with their dresses by a corps of tailors, armorers and milliners in constant attendance for that purpose. This task completed to perfect satisfaction, each costume is placed in one of a hundred boxes, duly numbered with the cast number, which is locked up and laid aside in waiting for the eventful night.
Meanwhile the Float Committee, with the duplicate set of designs, has been engaged for weeks at some out of the way place, generally the yard of a coiton press, building up, with the aid of carpenters, painters, carvers, gilders and papier-mache makers, the wonderful structures upon which the figures are to pose during the street procession. Another committee is at work preparing for the ball, which takes place at the Opera House, and is generally preceded by three tableaux, the last embracing all the characters, the large and elaborate designs for which have consumed most of the artist's leisure time up to the holidays.
As the eventful day, or rather night, approaches nearer, everybody is at work — some preparing the lights for the procession, some engaging horses, others drilling the torch bearers, who are forced to discharge their duties with military precision; others arranging matters with the authorities, so that the streets wall be in order and all obstructions removed — all this being accomplished with such thorough system and secrecy that not until the display is actually upon the street, are the public aware of either its subject or where it will first appear.
A few days prior to the great event the boxes containing the costumes and other properties are moved at dead of night to some building, in the immediate vicinity of the yards where the floats have been prepared. The front of this building, generally a warehouse, is kept closed and the windows darkened. Temporary entrances are improvised by cutting through the walls into adjoining houses, so that it can be reached from two or three different streets by members of the association, who alone are in the secret.
The processions usually move about 9 o'clock at night, but as early as 2 p. m., upon the appointed day, the members commence straggling into the Den, all in full evening dress. This they remove and deposit in their numbered boxes in place of the costume in which they array themselves. About 7 o'clock in the evening, when all are dressed, the roll is called; the characters (all masked) take their places in line, and a final inspection takes place.
About this time a squad of police arrives upon the scene, and after clearing the street in front of the building, cordon all the cross streets for four or five squares. Into the left of this reserve space shortly file the torch-bearers under guidance of officers, who silently take up the places along the curbs for the entire distance. In a few moments the floats follow and drive in regular order up to the door of the warehouse. When the first arrives the hitherto sealed doors are thrown open, and a long bridge is run out over the sidewalk. As the captain calls the numbers each man steps out and takes his appointed place upon the fioats, which are driven off expeditiously until all are in line. The bands are then marched to position, and everything is in order in a remarkably short space of time.
The proceedings, so far, have heen conducted in utter darkness. The captain then rides rapidly along the lines, and, finding everything in order, gives an appointed signal. In a moment all the torches flash out into a blazing parallogram of light, securely inclosing the procession, and guarded outside at regular intervals by the police, who have quietly taken up position.
The procession thus formed marches rapidly until it reaches the nearest prominent thoroughfare, when the bands' strike up, the bombs explode, the rockets fly, and port fires of every color blaze brilliantly along the line, over which hangs a heavy cloud of smoke, reflecting the many-hued tints of a monstrous fantastically illuminated canopy, which lends an indescribable weirdness to the unnatural, yet artistic scene.
After traversing the route appointed, which is generally short and hemmed in by throngs of admiring and wonder-stricken people, the floats flnally arrive at the stage-door of the Opera House, where they unload their living freight, and drive rapidly away in the darkness. Meanwhile the boxes containing the clothing of the members have been taken by express wagons to the Opera House, and are all arranged in order in the dressing rooms.
The tableaux generally occupy the time up to 11 o'clock, after which the characters are permitted to mingle with the guests upon the dancing floor, under no restrictions save that of keeping their individuality unrevealed.
Precisely at 12 o'clock the captain's shrill w^histle sounds, and from that moment they gradually disappear, until long before the next hour strikes every one has vanished and the members are mingling unnoticed among the guests, save where they are occasionally found explaining their absence for the day to unsuspecting wives or daughters, with the most unconscionable excuses, and — not to put too fine a point up it — lies.
They have merely slipped into the dressing rooms, exchanging their costumes for ordinary everyday dress, and long before the ball closes in the wee small hours the express wagons have carried the entire paraphernalia back to the den and packed it away securely. When the actor gets up in the morning it is all over, as fleeting and illusive as the dreams from which he wakes.