Gay Carnival at the Historic New Orleans Collection
On Wednesday, January 31, the Historic New Orleans Collection hosted a public lecture on the history of gay Carnival that also served as a book launch for author Howard Philips Smith’s new book Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans (University Press of Mississippi, 2017).
The event was held in the elegant and well-appointed lecture hall of the Williams Research Center in the French Quarter. About 150 people attended the lecture, including several founding members of a handful of gay krewes.
Assistant Curator Eric Seiferth noted “Over the years, Howard has become something of a mixture in our Reading Room where he’s combed through our extensive Carnival holdings, which include a large collection of materials documenting Gay Carnival – many of which were reproduced in his book. It’s been exciting to see all of that work come together and it was an honor for The Historic New Orleans Collection to host the book release at the Williams Research Center where so much of the research was done.”
After some introductory remarks and providing a historical survey of how gay Carnival began, Smith surprised a delighted audience by showing a video of actual footage from the legendary 1969 Petronius Ball, whose theme was “The Glorification of the American Girl.” Petronius is the oldest surviving gay krewe.
After the presentation, Smith greeted attendees and signed books.
Reference Specialist Robert Ticknor observes, “The Historic New Orleans Collection is actively collecting materials relating to the LBGT community in New Orleans, especially in recent years. Among other examples, we have an important collection from artist Skylar Fein about the Upstairs Lounge Fire, a research collection about the legal trials of Clay Shaw, an oral history project devoted to the murdered artist John Burton Harter, gay carnival ephemera, as well as the works from many gay artists active in New Orleans. The history of Gay Culture in New Orleans is one that is severely under-researched, but from my perspective, is starting to emerge more and more every day.”
Traditional Carnival has been well documented with a vast array of books. However, few of them, if any, mention gay Carnival krewes or the role of gay Carnival within the larger context of the season. Smith corrects the oversight in this lavishly illustrated new work.
Based on years of detailed interviews, each of the major gay krewes is represented by an in-depth historical sketch, outlining the founders, moments of brilliance on stage, and a list of all the balls, themes, and royalty. Reproductions of brilliant never-before-published invitations, large-scale commemorative posters, admit cards, and programs add dimension and life to this history. Sketches of elaborate stage sets and costumes, as well as photographs of ball costumes and rare memorabilia, further enhance descriptions of these tableau balls.
Howard Philips Smith grew up on a farm in rural Mississippi and attended the University of Southern Mississippi and the Université de Bourgogne, Dijon. He began writing about pre-AIDS New Orleans and the gay ball scene during the early 1980s, the so-called Golden Age of Gay Carnival. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband and three cats. His forthcoming book, Southern Decadence in New Orleans (co-author Frank Perez) will be published by the LSU Press this summer.