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From house party to major event: Southern Decadence celebrates 50 years

One of New Orleans biggest celebrations had humble beginnings.

NEW ORLEANS — Fifty years ago, away from the crowds and music on Bourbon Street, Southern Decadence started as a house party.

"In 1972, there were a very tight-knit close group of friends who lived in the Treme and decided to have an end of the summer party," historian Frank Perez said. "It was a costume party. And it was a great party! About 50 people came. And they decided, let's do it again!"

The next year, they threw their first parade. It was a bar crawl from what was then Matassa's Bar back to that same house. The next year, they had their first Grand Marshall -- a tradition that's still alive today.

A plaque still marks the spot where those first parades started rolling.

“At its core, it is the Sunday parade, the grand marshal's parade, and it's not political at all," Perez, the executive director of the LGBT+ Archives said. "It celebrates the tradition of friendship and more recently, hedonism, pleasure for pleasure's sake.”

And if you think there are some sights to see now, imagine what people thought of Decadence 50 years ago.

“They would often terrorize unsuspecting tourists," Perez laughed. "I mean if you're Harry and Edna from Wichita, and you see a bunch of bearded guys and dread drunk carrying on, this is not what you see in Wichita. So there's always a shock element to terrorize tourists — In a joking fun way.”

Now, the parade has a more formal route. Since 1981, the parade has kicked off with a toast at the Golden Lantern bar on Royal Street.

That's where you can find this year's Grand Marshalls, Rikki Redd, and Danny Girl, on Saturday. They hold the distinct honor of leading the Southern Decadence parade on its 50th Anniversary.

"That's 50 years of what started as a house party grew into where it is today. And it's phenomenal," Redd said. "Who would not want such an honor?”

And like every Grand Marshal before her, Rikki Redd welcomes everyone to come out to the parade Sunday.

“Southern Decadence here in New Orleans is open to all walks of life. We don't care," Redd said. "We don't care what color you are purple, green, yellow, blue, is open to all walks of life.”

And if you're there for the kick-off at Golden Lantern, you might even see some of the people who were at that first Southern Decadence party 50 years ago.

“I'm happy to tell you that when the parade gathers at the Golden Lantern on Sunday, they're always there," Perez said. "They don't want to be recognized. They don't want to be acknowledged. They're just sitting there, taking it all in. probably thinking, Oh, my God, what have we done? But I can tell you, they're very proud of what decadence has become.”

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