Why is "If Ever I Cease to Love" such a big part of Mardi Gras? Didn't they used to have parades in the French Quarter? Who was the first celebrity king of Bacchus?
Even though Mardi Gras is officially over, I know you still want answers to all of your interesting questions.
The silly song that became Rex's signature tune was written by George Leybourne and published in London in 1871. It was popular in New Orleans long before the first Rex parade in 1872.
In England, Lydia Thompson, a 36-year-old showgirl, included the song in her burlesque show Bluebeard, a popular production that she brought to America. While on a cross-country tour of America, the Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff attended a performance and heard Miss Thompson sing. The royal visitor was apparently smitten with both her and the tune.
When the duke arrived in New Orleans and became a good excuse for a parade, Rex was officially created in 1872. The newly created king of Carnival issued a number of official edicts published in the papers, one of which stated that all bands taking part in this first daytime parade were to "play passing in review the Royal Anthem, 'If Ever I Cease to Love.'"
And now the song is permanently associated with Rex and has been played at all its balls and parades ever since.
Rex, of, course, was not the first Mardi Gras krewe, but from earliest times there were parades in the French Quarter. During the 19th and early 20th century, krewes paraded there, many on Bourbon Street on the way to balls at the French Opera House, which burned in 1919. But the last time we saw parades in the Vieux Carre was in 1972, when we watched 14 of them, many from balcony apartments. Gee! That was grand. Then the next year, krewe leaders decided to abandon the traditional routes temporarily, but the decision became permanent.
Even before the krewes left the French Quarter, there were slews of krewes and passels of parades. There were even dozens of defunct organizations that had either disbanded or retired. But when 12 businessmen gathered and produced a major change in the traditional celebration of Mardi Gras, the Krewe of Bacchus was born. In 1969, we saw the largest floats ever to appear on the streets, a supper dance at the Rivergate Convention Center instead of the traditional tableau ball, and a "king" that wasn't a local. In fact, the new krewe started the tradition of choosing a celebrity to reign, and the first Bacchus, god of wine, was the brilliant Danny Kaye, the first celebrity to be a king since Louis Armstrong was king of Zulu 20 years earlier.
Born David Daniel Kaminsky in Brooklyn in 1913, the son of an immigrant Ukrainian tailor, he became an internationally known singer, dancer, actor, and orchestra conductor beloved by all.
Danny Kaye died in 1987. The Rivergate lasted a few years longer. Both are missed.
When did the plastic Mardi Gras throws we have come to know and love begin to be produced? What did they throw before then?
If you mean beads, the answer is sometime in the late 1960s. In the days before this, the beads were made of glass, and most of them came from Czechoslovakia. But the beads got to be expensive and difficult to get after the country was invaded in 1968.
But the tradition of throwing stuff to crowds of onlookers began in the 19th century. In the early days, riders in carriages threw candy and nuts and even small sacks of flour, dust, or quicklime as a joke. And the maskers on foot returned in kind.
The first newspaper account of "throws" came in 1871 when a float rider dressed as Santa Claus in the Twelfth Night Revelers' parade dispensed gifts. Then in 1881, maskers in the Rex parade threw peanuts and candy and a few costly trinkets, mostly to family and friends.
But it wasn't until Mardi Gras 1921 when Rex began the idea of all maskers tossing the beads and trinkets that became expected features of every parade.