Jill Hezeau and Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS – It’s as common a sight now as Rex toasting the mayor at Gallier Hall or his queen along St. Charles Avenue.
But 25 years ago, Rex’s arrival on the riverfront on Lundi Gras was just an idea.
Now it’s an institution.
“Prior to that the only thing was the Proteus parade,” said Errol Laborde, a Carnival historian. “It was historically a very dull day in terms of Carnival and so it expanded it and almost made another holiday over the day before Mardi Gras.”
Laborde gets much of the credit for bringing back Rex’s riverfront arrival, working in 1986 and early 1987 to bring together some key players.
“In 1984, New Orleans hosted the World’s Far and the World’s Fair created infrastructure along the riverfront,” Laborde said. “What was the International Pavilion became the Riverwalk. The company that owned the Riverwalk, the Rouse Corporation out of Maryland, had had a tradition of urban waterfront development and so they were the right people in place at the right time.”
As for the royalty, Rex signed on almost immediately, hoping to revive the tradition of a Monday even at the foot of Canal Street, which was common in the 19th century but had fallen out of practice.
“For the early decades of the Rex procession, there were really two parades – there was the parade on Monday when Rex arrived by river, went to City Hall and was given the keys to the city,” said Dr. Stephen Hales, archivist for the Rex Organization. “And then the grand parade on Mardi Gras itself. That stopped after World War I.”
Also key was the support of the Krewe of Proteus, who had Lundi Gras to itself for many years.
“Prior to that, the only thing was the Proteus parade,” Laborde said. “It was historically a very dull day in terms of Carnival and so it expanded it and almost made another holiday over the day before Mardi Gras.”
All the key players embraced the idea, making the first year a success.
The Rex Organization even created a special costume for the king and with musical acts and a fireworks show, a new tradition was born.
“What it has done along the riverfront has been tremendous because a few years later Zulu came and starting doing something too,” Laborde said. “And now you see a lot of activity on that Monday afternoon you see a lot of activity on the riverfront when in the past you didn’t see that much.
“It brings a huge crowd. Can you imagine that before Lundi Gras started, the river didn’t have much to do with Mardi Gras. The river, which gave birth to New Orleans, was not part of the playground.”
This year, Rex will celebrate the anniversary by once again revealing the identity of its king at the Riverwalk on Monday night. In addition to the music and fireworks, a Marine Corps flyover will pay tribute to Rex, joining the Coast Guard cutter, which has been Rex’s chosen mode of transportation since the first day.
It’s all part of the new traditions which make the day before Mardi Gras as much fun as Fat Tuesday itself.
“Thousands and thousands of people have enjoyed that celebration for the last 25 years,” Hales said. “It has become again a part of the tradition of Carnival.”