Every year since 1943, Louisiana shows Washington, D.C. how to do Mardi Gras

WASHINGTON, D.C. - With 100 years of Mardi Gras history in their Louisiana heritage, it was inevitable that those displaced Louisianians living in our nation’s capital would want to bring the celebration to their new home where there was a thriving Louisiana State Society of 400 members.

It almost happened as early as 1938, but didn’t. Senator John Overton telegraphed Louisiana Governor R.W Leche, after all arrangements had been made, that the society had changed its mind.

Why?

Perhaps because it was the end of Depression days, or because the war in Europe was heating up, or perhaps politics played a role. The reason is unknown.

The idea never entirely disappeared even during the long days of World War II, which managed to darken Mardi Gras in New Orleans. In 1943, C.J. Bourg, society president, announced that a “surprise demonstration of the spirit of Mardi Gras” would be introduced at the society’s social on George Washington’s birthday. Bourg and Lt. Col. Leonce Legendre of New Orleans were the inspiration for the February 1944 Mardi Gras ball for exiled Louisianians who flocked to the Statler Hotel masked in carnival style. Ensign Hale Boggs portrayed George Washington while Miss Rupert Perry of Monroe, a member of the staff of Rep. Charles McKenzie, was Martha.

This first queen was Mollie Gaumer, a member of Senator John Overton’s staff. Legendre was to be king, but had to be replaced at the last moment due to illness. Legendre was a large man, but F. Edward Hebert, a member of the Louisiana Congressional delegation, fit the costume. Thus, by default, Hebert became the first Washington Mardi Gras Ball king.

Among the revelers at the first ball were Felix “Dan” Broussard and his wife, Kathryn. Broussard, a life insurance salesman from Lafayette, was merely a spectator that night, but by the time the next ball came around in 1946, he was in charge of entertainment. He recalled later for a newspaper reporter how his 30-year involvement with the ball began.

“The night of that first ball was the night I got into trouble. I got up and said it would be a great chance to bring the culture of Louisiana to Washington. That night they put me in charge of the future balls,” said Broussard.

There was no ball in 1945 due to the war effort, but 1946 saw a revival. Broussard ran the pageant, which attracted several hundred party goers to the Wardman Park Hotel. The theme for the ball was “The Four Spirits of Early Louisiana History,” and the evening was ruled by King Hale Boggs and Queen Corrine Waterman Morrison, the wife of the mayor-elect of New Orleans, de Lesseps “Chep” Morrison.

Broussard approached Louisiana Congressman Henry Larcade from Opelousas with the idea of inviting Louisiana festival queens to the ball. Larcade’s hometown festival, the Yambilee, had just spent money to invite the reigning Miss America to its celebration, so why couldn’t money be found to send Louisiana queens to Washington? Larcade liked the idea, money was raised and in 1948 six Louisiana festival queens were presented. These days, over 25 Louisiana festivals proudly send their queens to Washington, including Crowley’s International Rice Festival Queen.

By 1950 media attention given to the ball was growing. The budding television audience nationwide caught a glimpse of the pageantry of the ball when John Cameron Swayze brought his Camel Caravan to the ball’s dress rehearsal at the Statler Hotel. Footage from the rehearsal ran on the NBC evening news.

International conflict again brought an end to Mardi Gras revelry in 1951 and 1952, but the ball was revived in 1953.

The revived ball made several leaps forward in 1953. Broussard, now society president, needed a plan to finance the ball, so he approached Louisiana Congressman F. Edward Hebert with an idea. If Hebert would find contributors and subsidize any shortfall the ball experienced, Hebert could be “chairman” and choose the ball’s theme, king and queen. Hebert agreed to the deal, but Broussard had one caveat - he wanted to pick the queen. Hebert quibbled but gave in to Broussard’s persistence. Broussard named Hebert’s 16-year-old daughter, Dawn, queen, and the two men shook hands on the deal. With that handshake the ball’s chairman was born. As long as the society was sponsor of the ball, the chairman was selected by the society from the Louisiana Congressional delegation. Today, members of the Louisiana delegation select their own chairman.

The year 1957 marked the beginning of “the Russell Long era.” Senator Long brought new ideas, some well received and some not, to the ball and helped expand it to the three-day celebration it has become. He had an almost child-like enthusiasm for Mardi Gras coupled with his innate politician’s knack for putting together groups of people who could bring his ideas to life.

The Long era was marked by extravagant ball decorations and the inclusion of more and more revelers from Louisiana. The State Society of Louisiana was still the official sponsor of the ball, which was run out of the home of Dan and Kathryn Broussard, while the krewe’s affairs were run by Bob Hunter. Long wielded a great deal of power and on more than one occasion asked for things the society didn’t like. Broussard, a powerful man in his own right, went head to head with Long. Broussard’s son, Joe, and Long’s administrative assistant, Hunter, were often called upon to mediate between the two powerhouses.

Long’s decision in 1975 to move the ball from the Sheraton Park Hotel to the Hilton sent shock waves through the ball’s supporters. The ball had been held at the Hilton in 1970, but had quickly returned to the Sheraton. Long wanted to return it to the Hilton and even with the vote against him, he proceeded with his plan.

It was again Long’s turn to be chairman of the ball and Long was determined to move away from the Sheraton Park, because the largest ballroom there had so many tables at the same floor level as the pageant that occupants of those participating tables could not see the dance floor during the pageant. The many essential fire exits precluded elevating enough tables to overcome the problem.

By contrast, Krewe of Town Revelers the main ballroom at the Hilton was designed in an oval shape with room for two rows of tables on a level 18 inches above the dance floor. At a cost of about $25,000, it would be possible to build and install enough platforms for tables so that about 80 percent of the guests could see the dance floor even without standing. The remaining 20 percent of guests, by standing up, could also have a view of the program.

By this time the elder Broussard had retired, and his son, Joe, was president of the society. Broussard consulted with Earl Hargrove Jr., namesake of a Washington decorating and convention firm, which had been hired by Dan Broussard since 1954 to handle ball decorations. Hargrove suggested that a theater-style seating arrangement, similar to inaugural balls, be used at the Hilton. Broussard measured the ballroom and created a plan, which was unveiled by Broussard at a luncheon meeting at the Rotunda Restaurant on Capital Hill with Long and Hunter.

The new seating arrangement accommodated 3,000 and created a majority of front-row reserved boxes facing an oval-shaped, racetrack-style dance floor. The plan was given the thumbs up by Long. It went into effect in 1977 and is still used today, with some modifications, to seat 2,500.

The Hilton recognizes the Washington Mardi Gras Ball as one of its major annual events, and one the staff looks forward to. The hotel actually receives calls from staff at other hotels who want to work Mardi Gras week at the Hilton, future dates permitting. The hotel is filled to overflowing during the celebration and its 1,000 rooms are booked well in advance as 90 percent of the ball’s constituents now come from Louisiana rather than the Washington area.

In 1977 the Washington Mardi Gras Association was formed as the ball’s sponsoring organization, which lasted until 1981. That year the Mystick Krewe of Louisianians was incorporated as a non-profit organization and continues as the official sponsor of the ball. The ball is completely self-sustaining with costs covered by the sale of tickets, corporate donations and krewe memberships. The event is not supported by any state or federal funds.

What began as a “demonstration of the spirit of Mardi Gras” has grown into a celebration of Louisiana, its politics and its people.

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