Encompassing a long Labor Day weekend, Southern Decadence fills the French Quarter and downtown neighborhoods with revelry. Less a gay pride event than a let-it-all-hang-out public celebration, Decadence started 42 years ago with a party, grew with the founding of a satirical drag queen parade and has become a annual massive gathering, drawing participants from across the nation.
The parade used to be the main event of the weekend, but as the festival has expanded to five days, the endless stream of parties and events at local bars has eclipsed the parade itself. Gambit asked seasoned bartenders at four local establishments to share their best and craziest memories and tips to survive the marathon party. Here's what they had to say.
Michael's on the Park (834 N. Rampart St., 504-267-3615; www.michaelsonthepark.com)
Craziest Decadence scene he's witnessed: "I've worked Decadence all over this city," Melancon says, supplementing his knowledge of Decadence's traditions (naming Grand Marshals from years past, etc.) while citing facts printed in the current issue of Ambush, the local LGBT-community publication for which he's a photographer and advertising account representative: $987 million in estimated economic impact since such receipts were recorded beginning in 1996; the third-largest moneymaker for the city's tax coffers (behind Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival). Organizers expect to draw 125,000 revelers this Labor Day weekend.
Melancon's best Decadence story isn't of debauchery but rather of pride. "It was 2003," he says. "I caught up with the parade out here on Rampart and [Grand Marshal Mumbo]'s entourage gives me this rainbow tutu-type skirt to wear with them and we had all this glitter. We called it Rainbow Fairy Dust. It was hot, sticky and sweaty. We parade down to behind (St. Louis) cathedral and are chanting "Rev. Storm!" over and over, waiting to meet him and his group there — and all that hate. We get there and we all start singing, "What the world needs now/ Is love, sweet love" and it was incredible. People were all hugging each other. A really unifying moment."
Tip: "Don't wear Mardi Gras beads," Melancon advises, echoing a patron's response to the question. "Drink sparingly. Respect the people on the street. It's great to be who you are, be free, but have respect. Come with your drink on, but remember bartenders are only one person. It's gonna be packed. Be patient. And use protection."
Bourbon Pub & Parade (801 Bourbon St., 504-529-2107; www.bourbonpub.com)
Craziest Decadence scene he's witnessed: A bartender at Parade since 2005, Martin recalls one year when a man ran up to him at the bar. "Help! I'm hot! I'm hot! Hot!" yelled the man, who was carrying a whip and had his face and upper body covered in blood.
"I just ran," Morton says. "I let security take care of him."
Tips: "Pace yourself. Stay safe. Keep cool and drink plenty of water."
John Paul's Bar (940 Elysian Fields Ave., 504-948-1888; www.johnpaulsbar.com)
Craziest Decadence scene he's witnessed: "I have a long, long list of those," Fisher says. With four Decadences under his belt, Fisher recalls last year's festivities —when the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac deprived this Marigny bar of power for a week following the storm, during what's normally its busiest week of the year. "We had lube wrestling one night in the dark," he recalls. "Bears — big hairy men wrestling around in here. Suddenly, the lights come on. It was quite hideous, actually. Much better without the lights on, in the dark. Last year was my best and my worst Decadence, really. If you had a drink from me, you probably had to taste a little bit of my sweat in it. It was so hot in here without the A/C. But people tipped me really well; I guess they felt sorry for me having to work in that heat."
Tip: "Pack a suitcase full of Alka-Seltzer."
The Country Club (634 Louisa St., 504-945-0742; www.thecountryclubneworleans.com)
Craziest Decadence scene he's witnessed: Noting that this Bywater landmark has a 31-year history as what he calls "a gay resort," Country Club bar manager Drew Kingswell tells of how the grand former plantation's space once tolerated open sexual activity. "But no more," Kingswell says. "But things happen, so we have to watch out. So we have a security camera on the sauna, just in case. Me and the previous general manager are watching the camera in the office, laughing at everything going on. We spot this odd-looking dude going at everybody, orally. We're making fun of him, like, 'Look at this hair!' But then he stands up and we see — it was a woman."
Tips: "Spend your day here and your night in the Quarter. Come here early and you get a suntan. You get some food. You get day wasted. Then go to your hotel, shower up, eat some dinner and head out for the night. But make sure you eat again before you tie on your second drunk."