In 1963, Arthur Jacobs came up with a great idea to drum up business for his Bourbon Street diner, The Clover Grill. He would host a costume contest on Mardi Gras, late in the afternoon after the Rex parade. Because the Clover Grill was located in the “gay” section of Bourbon Street, directly across from Café Lafitte in Exile (the city’s oldest gay bar), the contest drew a mostly gay crowd and featured mostly gay contestants, many of whom wore costumes from the tableau balls they had attended just days or weeks earlier. Thus The Bourbon Street Awards was born. The show soon took on a life of its own and is now in its 60th year.
In the 1960s, when closet doors were firmly shut and New Orleans was much more homophobic than it is now, Mardi Gras was the only day of the year people could legally cross-dress. Southern Decadence was years away and Mardi Gras was the premiere day each year for gay revelry in the Quarter. Unfortunately, most of those memories have been lost to history. But not all of them.
Recently, the Louisiana State Museum acquired a large and historically important group of photographic slides documenting the LGBT+ community in New Orleans from the 1950s to the 1970s. Many of those slides depict the Bourbon Street Awards.
From 1959 to 1974, a photographer named Joe Crews documented Mardi Gras in the French Quarter. Little is known of Crews other than that he served in the U.S. Navy and was a devoted photographer, shooting at Mardi Gras for several years consecutively.
Nearly all of these color slides focus on members of New Orleans’ LGBT+ community in costume on the street on Mardi Gras. Crews captured both candid images as well as posed shots of maskers in flamboyant costumes. The pride and confidence that these drag queens possessed comes through clearly in Crews’ slides.
Many other slides show identifiable members of early gay Carnival krewes, including Petronius, Amon-Ra, Armeinius, and Olympus, appearing on the street in their Ball costumes and participating in the Bourbon Street Awards. Because the slides were shot on high quality Kodak Kodachrome and Ektachrome film, they have maintained their integrity and strong colors despite their age.
The collection’s cultural and historical value as a whole is enormous; some of the individual slides are highly desirable. Consider for example the 1971 photograph of Nick Donovan and Gene Cheatham at the Bourbon Street Awards in their costumes as King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, which they debuted at the Krewe of Olympus’ premiere ball whose theme was “Camelot.” Wayne Phillips, Curator of the State Museum’s Carnival Collection notes, “Anything from the famous Camelot ball is very exciting.”
Gay Carnival historian Howard P. Smith observes, “The mere mention of the word Camelot within the secretive realm of gay Carnival still evokes a sense of wonder, magic, awe, and ultimately envy. No tableau ball has excited more passion or praise.”
There is also a slide dated 1971 of Lee Brewster from New York City, who brought tour groups of transgender visitors to Mardi Gras for several years. Brewster is depicted wearing a body-length fishnet bedecked with rhinestones along with purple gloves and a headpiece of purple feathers and plumes.
Eventually, the Crews collection of over 800 slides came into the possession of Sean Dillard. After acquiring the Crews collection, Dillard, an eBay seller based in San Diego, began selling the slides individually in the $5-15 range depending on the content of the slide. He had sold about 75 of the slides in the last couple of years when the photographs caught the attention of Phillips.
Phillips recalls, “Once I showed interest in acquiring the entire collection of slides, Dillard delisted them from eBay and offered to hold them for the Louisiana State Museum until we determined if we would be able to acquire them. He was very enthusiastic about keeping the collection intact and allowing the Museum to acquire them so that they can be shared and made available for research and publication.”
The price for the entire collection of 820 slides was $4,000, roughly just under $5 per slide. With the State Museum’s budget being stretched as it always is, Phillips began searching for grants and outside sources of funding to purchase the collection. Ultimately, the purchase was underwritten by the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana, the Friends of the Cabildo, William A. and Elijah B. Hagler, the Louisiana Museum Foundation, and the Louisiana State Museum.
Under the leadership of curator Phillips, the State Museum has a long history of documenting and preserving gay Carnival. The museum’s Carnival collection includes gay Carnival Ball costumes (Phillips doubles as the Curator of Costumes and Textiles), video footage of Carnival balls, invitations and programs from balls, minutes and notes from krewe meetings, and other memorabilia. In 2019 and 2020, the State Museum hosted an exhibit at the Presbytere called “Grand Illusions: The History and Artistry of Gay Carnival in New Orleans.” That exhibit was also funded, in part, by the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana.
The Joe Crews collection is currently being digitized and will eventually be made available to the public.