The Krewe of Armeinius turns 50 this year and in a happy coincidence, the krewe’s golden anniversary coincides with the city of New Orleans’ tricentennial celebration. Consequently, the theme of the 2018 ball is “La Nouvelle Orleans: 300 Years of Fabulous.” Co-Captain Barrett Delong-Church promises “this ball will be like no other.”
That’s a high standard to surpass. In their early years, at a time when gay bars were routinely raided and being gay was anything but okay, gay carnival balls afforded gay men not only safe spaces, but also an outlet for artistic and creative expression. The talent and artistry of the early gay Bal Masques was remarkable and constitutes a distinctive feature of local gay history. The first three Armeinius balls remain legendary as exemplars of imaginative genius.
In 1968, a group of friends (Tracy Hendrix, Jerry Loner, Scott Morvant, Wendell Stipelcovich, and Don Stratton) formed Armeinius. Stipelcovich served as the krewe’s first Captain, bringing to the krewe his experience with a former krewe—the short-lived but highly influential Ganymede.
Stipelcovich’s first challenge was finding a site for the ball. Because of the extremely homophobic climate of the time, hotels (perhaps with the memory of the ill-fated 1962 Yuga Ball, which was raided by the police, on their minds) refused to host gay carnival balls. Other locations were also reluctant. One venue, however, was more welcoming; the African-American Laborer’s Union Hall on Tchoupitoulas Street was willing to host Armeinius.
For its inaugural ball in 1969, Stipelcovich selected the theme “The Year of the Queen,” a prophetic choice considering the Stonewall riot would occur a few months later. As the tableau unfolded, various members of the krewe appeared in drag costumed as female rulers throughout world history. Of course, there was also a “Size Queen,” replete with a tape measure.
For the krewe’s second ball, Stipelcovich chose as a theme “Armeinius Gardens,” a take on Harmonia Gardens—the restaurant in the popular Broadway musical, Hello, Dolly! Participants costumed as menu items beginning with Captain Stipelcovich as Shrimp Cocktail, who dazzled the crowd by appearing in a five-foot tall champagne glass. Stratton appeared as dessert, Cherries Jubilee, in a costume so elaborate it occupied the entire stage.
Carnival historian Howard Philips Smith notes Stipelcovich “envisioned each menu dish as a grand costume, channeling not only high camp—no easy feat even within the gay world— but also the likes of the surrealist Salvador Dali’s lobster haute couture for Elsa Schiaparelli.”
Armeinius’ third ball was produced by Captain Albert Carey. Drawing inspiration from a memorable ball staged by the mainstream Krewe of Consus (1897—1907), Carey chose as a theme “Atlantis Redivivus,” which resurrected the residents of the doomed, mythical city as fantastical sea-creatures. Carey appeared as the volcano that destroyed the city and Becky Allen, in her gay carnival ball debut, traipsed around the stage as a tap-dancing crawfish.
In recognition of the high bar set by Stipelcovich and Carey, both men were originally selected to reign as King and Queen at this year’s ball but health concerns have prevented them from doing so. In their stead, Stipelcovich has designated Ned Pitre to reign as King and Carey has designated Brent Durnin to reign as Queen.
Co-Captains Fred Arocho, Chad Brickley, Barrett Delong-Church, and Frederick Guess will play the parts of historical figures from New Orleans history as the krewe interprets that illustrious history through a gay lens. Seminal moments from gay history will also be featured; for example, the Krewe of Yuga will make an appearance.
For the first time in decades, the ball will not take place in Chalmette but rather in Orleans Parish (at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World). According to Guess, this return to the city was facilitated by the city of New Orleans’ desire to promote the event in conjunction with the city’s tricentennial celebration. National publications such as Vanity Fair and Playboy will cover the ball.
The 50th Armeinius Ball will take place on February 10. Tickets are available at http://armeinius.org/.