I recently spent the afternoon with Maureen & Charlie Block and Robert Laurent at their beautiful antebellum home on Magazine Street. Those names may not ring a bell, but they should. These three people, along with a handful of their friends, started Southern Decadence in 1972.
Back then, of course, they had no idea a simple house party would evolve into the extravaganza it is today. Fifty years ago this group of friends just wanted to have a good time. And what a group of friends it was—gay/straight, black/white, male/female. They were children of the 1960s, counter-culture types who bucked convention. Founder Ed Seale once recalled, “We were a struggling group with no ambition, the first group to embrace the lowlife.” And Frederick Wright described the group as “outcasts.”
They were a tight knit group of friends too. Their social life was centered at the Treme home of Michael Evers and David Randolph. In the rear was a dilapidated slave quarter. They dubbed the compound “Belle Reve,” after Blanche DuBois’ plantation in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and they nicknamed themselves “The Decadents.” Belle Reve was basically a commune housing, at any given time, six to ten residents, including David Randolph, Michael Evers, Robert King, Dennis Divine, Jerome Williams, Ed Seale, Robert Gore, Tommy Fandle, Judy Shapiro, and others.
In August of 1972, the Decadents decided to have a costume party on the Sunday before Labor Day. Robert Laurent designed an invitation instructing people to come dressed up “as your favorite Southern Decadent.” About fifty people attended the first party—more than had been invited. Robert King later recalled they had to “take up a collection and run to K&B to buy more liquor.”
At the time, Randolph’s father was ill and then died; consequently, Randolph and Evers had to move back to Michigan. Belle Reve was coming to an end and as a last hurrah, and as a way to say goodbye to Evers, a second party was planned two weeks later. Robert Laurent designed the invitation which read:
“Come Back to Belle Reve. Return to Belle Reve for one final night of Decadence. Before Michael Evers, the proud owner, is forced to vacate Northward, another night of revelry is being held—this time in honor of his impending departure. Come Saturday, September 16th, 1972 to Belle Reve, 2110 Barracks. The festivities commence at dusk and again, dress for the occasion. So let us come and make merry for after this final revel Belle Reve will be, alas, no more.”
Although Randolph and Evers had moved away from Belle Reve, Randolph still owned the house in 1973 and the remaining Decadents decided to repeat the costume party on the Sunday before Labor Day. Only this time, Laurent had a brilliant inspiration—everyone was to meet in costume at Matassa’s Bar and then they would walk together back to Belle Reve. About 15 people showed up, in costume, and embarked on what we now call the first Southern Decadence parade. At the time, it was more of a drunken bar-crawl.
The Decadents did it again in 1974 and in that year they named Frederick Wright the parade marshal. Wright was surprised at the announcement, which was made in Laurent’s invitation, but Wright embraced his new role and went out & bought a baton & a whistle and began to think of a route that would include stops at the group’s favorite bars.
Thus, Wright firmly established the tradition that the Grand Marshal was in complete control of the parade. Wright, who was black and gay, leading the parade (dressed in an Uncle Sam motif no less) signaled a departure from the racism and homophobia that permeated society at the time. That and the presence of drag in the parade represented a subversive element that remains a part of Southern Decadence. Shortly after 3:00pm on Sunday, September 1, Wright, cocktail in hand, blew his whistle and marched into history.
In a 1998 article for Impact, historian Roberts Batson quotes an early parade participant: “That was one of the first times I did mushrooms. I thought it tasted like cow-shit, so I had to swallow it down with the acid punch.” Heavy drugs were not uncommon among the Decadents but not everyone did hallucinogens. Maureen Block disagrees with the description of the Decadents as “drug crazed hippies.” But they were drinkers and most smoked grass.
The 1974 party was the last at Belle Reve. By this time, the parade was attracting larger crowds and many uninvited people ended up at Belle Reve. One of these uninvited guests stole a pound of marijuana at the party and, in the words of Robert King, the thief “got the fuck beat out of him.”
The parade grew gradually throughout the rest of the 1970s, eventually numbering about 100 marchers. From 1975 to 1980, the parade started at Matassa’s and ended at the Golden Lantern, where owner Danny Wilson provided a buffet. During this time, the Grand Marshal was selected by group consensus among the original Decadents.
1980 was a turning point for Southern Decadence. When the parade arrived at Jackson Square, Grand Marshal Tom Tippin wanted to head toward the sailor bars on Decatur Street but the Pair-a-Dice Tumblers Band wanted to go to Frenchman Street. After a brief argument, Tippin went one way, and the band went another. The crowd followed the band and Tippin “lost his parade.”
The affair left a bad taste in the mouths of the founders, who were ready to move on with their lives. Many of the original Decadents felt that Southern Decadence had grown too big and no longer represented what they had started nearly a decade earlier. By 1981, the only founder still involved was Robert King, who was a regular at the Golden Lantern. Tommy Stephan was chosen Grand Marshal. From 1981 on, Southern Decadence would become increasingly gay-centric and Grand Marshals would select their successors.
Southern Decadence has outgrown its humble origins as an informal bar crawl among friends. Now there are parade permits, security details, sanitation contracts, parade registration, and thousands of dollars to raise. In recent years, the parade has grown exponentially and includes dozens of walking groups. Every Labor Day weekend, the Quarter swells with over 200,000 revelers from out of town, mostly gay men who get really drunk, do a lot of drugs, and have a lot of sex. It’s a wonderful weekend.
As Maureen, Charlie, Robert and I finished our afternoon visit, I was struck with how proud they are at what they began, despite their misgivings about how commercial Southern Decadence has become.
And although they eschew the limelight, they still show up on parade day. So if you are at the Golden Lantern this Southern Decadence, just know that nearby but away from the crush of people are a small group of older folks sitting in lawn chairs beholding the unfolding spectacle with wonder and amazement. They are probably thinking to themselves, “My god! What have we wrought?”
The Grand Marshals of Southern Decadence
1972 no parade
1973 no Grand Marshal
1974 Frederick Wright
1975 Jerome Williams
1976 Preston Hemmings
1977 Robert Laurent
1978 Robert King and Kathleen Kavanaugh
1979 Bruce Harris
1980 Tom Tippin
1981 Tommy Stephan
1982 Don Ezelle
1983 Danny Wilson
1985 Michael “Fish” Henderson
1986 Kathleen Conlon
1988 Jerome Lebo
1989 George Goode
1991 Jamie Temple
1993 Ms. Fly
1996 Wayne White
1997 Miss Love
1998 Robin Malta
1999 Errol Rizzutto
2000 Smurf and Tony Langlinais
2001 Bianca del Rio, Estelle, Big Rick
2002 “Irish” Mike
2003 Rusty LaRoux
2004 Donnie Jay
2005 Regina Adams and Lisa Beaumann (Hurricane Katrina)
2006 Regina Adams and Lisa Beaumann
2007 Electra City, Marcus Martinez, Guadalupe
2008 Paloma and Tittie Toulouse (Hurricane Gustav)
2009 Paloma and Tittie Toulouse
2010 Julien Artressia and Toby Lefort
2011 Tiffany Alexander and Misael Rubio
2012 Pat McArdle
2013 Tami Tarmac and Venus Santiago
2014 Chad Boutte, Reba Douglas, Aubrey Synclaire
2015 Misti Ates, Steven Mora, Rip and Marsha Naquin-Delain, Frank Wingerter
2016 Jeff Palmquist, Felicia Phillips, Tony Leggio, Derek Penton-Robichaux
2017 Coca Mesa, Persana Shoulders, Princess Stephaney
2018 Frank Perez and Adikus Sulpizi
2019 Will Antill and Countess C. Alice
2020 Will Antill and Countess C. Alice (pandemic)
2021 Will Antill and Countess C. Alice (Hurricane Ida)
2022 Rikki Redd and Danny Girl