Walk into "From Tramps to Kings: 100 Years of Zulu," a new exhibit opening Friday at the Louisiana State Museum's Presbytère, and the first thing you will see — alongside several familiar 10-foot tribal parade figures, towering even without their floats — is one of the finest Mardi Gras gowns ever made.
Designed by the renowned Colombo family and worn by 2000 Queen Desiree Glapion Rogers, the shimmering dress holds special significance in the Zulu costume canon. Roy E. Glapion Jr., a New Orleans city councilman who took the organization's reins in 1973 and ranks among its most hallowed patriarchs, was to be crowned King Zulu in 2000; he selected his daughter to be his queen.
Roy Glapion never rode in the 2000 parade. In the final week of 1999, Zulu's president succumbed to colon cancer, and for the first time in history, the king's float bore no riders — only a framed photograph honoring its stricken leader. (Glapion's unworn costume also resides at the Presbytère in a Carnival exhibit on the second floor.)
"Roy Glapion, to us, is just like Louis Armstrong," says Clarence A. Becknell Sr., Zulu's historian since 1983. "He helped put us where we are today. We're very proud of [Rogers' gown] — we could not have this exhibit without it."
Staged front and center, the gown is a purple-and-gold jewel in the centennial's crown: a wide collection of royal court costumes, from the 2008 king's and queen's outfits to simpler designs from the 1970s. Although Zulu was the subject of a Louisiana State Museum (LSM) exhibition in 1993, at the Old U.S. Mint, organizers say there has never been anything quite like "From Tramps to Kings."
"These are probably some of the most exuberant costumes you're going to see anywhere in Mardi Gras," says Wayne Phillips, curator of costumes and textiles for the museum. "It's been a real feat for me and my volunteers to figure out the right way to mount these on the mannequins. But it's been a real joy, because these costumes are so beautiful."
"Since August, Clarence and I have been working hand-in-hand to create this," says LSM historian Charles Chamberlain. "We talked about the highlights of the history; I wrote a script for what I thought would be appropriate. We've gone back and forth on all the details since then."
"This is the largest one," Becknell confirms. "It's more comprehensive than what we've shown [anywhere else]. Some things we've never shown to the public will be on display here."
They include the contents of an early-history wing (1909-1959), which will feature a coconut-decorating station and a tribute to Louis Armstrong, King Zulu of 1949 and the first celebrity ever to reign as king in any Mardi Gras organization. The special section is highlighted by artifacts and archives from the Louis Armstrong House in Queens, N.Y., as well as a four-page letter penned by Armstrong himself, detailing his day as king. ("We really did pitch a boogie woogie," Satchmo wrote.)
But the focus will rightly be on the eye-popping costumes, many on loan from the individuals who made them. Preserved for decades in home garages and storage rooms, they fill the exhibit's modern-era wing (1959-present), reanimating a half-century of rich history. More than 20 are slated for display, from kings' and queens' regal wear to the larger-than-life suits donned by the characters that flesh out the Zulu procession, such as the Big Shot, who leads every parade, and the Jean Knight-inspired Mr. Big Stuff, who always rides last.
"We created (some of) these characters back in the early '20s," Becknell explains. "The Big Shot is a flamboyant-type person, the big spender of the organization. His original costume in 1930 had a derby hat, a glass doorknob ring and a large cigar."
Becknell points to one outsized white tuxedo on display — the suit worn by the 2008 Big Shot. "Notice the color. At coronation balls, you always see kings dressed in white. They're the only members allowed to wear white. This year, the Big Shot tried to outdo the king. Got his collar as large as he could, and he put on the white just to mess with him."
Stitched on the gigantic tux are three icons: a derby hat, a doorknob ring and a cigar. As well as four words: "Biggest Big Shot Ever."
"He's a very huge guy," Becknell says, laughing. "He weighs about 300 pounds."
Along with the humor and haute couture, the exhibit also places Zulu in the proper, yet often misunderstood, historical context, from its roots in benevolent societies of New Orleans' Baptist churches to the civil rights movement and beyond. In the 1960s, many boycotted the organization's costumes and traditional blackface makeup. It wasn't until 1969, a full 60 years after its inception, that Zulu obtained a permit from the city to parade on Canal Street, in the process becoming an official part of Mardi Gras.
Chamberlain believes the exhibit should answer any questions — and correct any misperceptions — the public might have about the organization. "Even the routes," he says. "In the old days, people said that Zulu had no planned parade route. So we're actually going to trace some historic parade routes to show you what they had."
"Stories have been told for many, many years that Zulu was created as a spoof of Rex," Becknell says. "That's not so. You're going to see the purpose of why we were created. It was more than just a Mardi Gras club: It defrayed the cost of funerals; [social aid and pleasure clubs] was the first form of insurance in the black communities."
Also deeply felt will be the influence of Roy Glapion, whose direction brought Zulu to the foreground of New Orleans social aid and pleasure clubs, expanding both the organization's roll (it currently counts around 600 active members) and its role as a charitable force in the local communities. Zulu will honor the entire Glapion family — including Desiree Glapion Rogers, recently named the White House social secretary by President-elect Barack Obama — at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday at 1 p.m., among other Zulu royalty.
"That was all part of [Roy's] plan," Becknell says. "We go out into the community; we go to the schools. A lot of the kids now are members as a result of that. We bring King Zulu out so they can see him as a contributing citizen — not in blackface, not in costume. As a member of society. ... All these guys are professionals, and they bring a whole lot to the table.
"Roy would have wanted this to happen," he adds. "We're proud it's happening."
"From Tramps to Kings: 100 Years of Zulu," artifact and costume exhibit, through 2009
Louisiana State Museum, The Presbytere, 751 Chartres St., 568-6968; www.thelmf.org
Museum admission $6 general admission, $5 seniors and active military, children 12-under free
Grand opening Sat., Jan. 10, 1 p.m.
Patron Party, 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Fri., Jan. 9
"Celebrating Zulu 100 Years," BENEFIT gala featuring Deacon John and Jean Knight, 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fri., Jan. 9
Gala tickets start at $50; www.THELMF.ORG