Gay History Goes to the Armeinius Ball
The Krewe of Armeinius recently celebrated its golden anniversary as well as New Orleans’ tricentennial at its annual Bal Masque.
The theme of the ball was “Nouvelle—Orleans: 300 Years of Fabulous” and featured the following historical characters from New Orleans history: The Lady Bugs of New Orleans (mosquitos, termites, cockroaches, and lovebugs), Poke-A-Hot-Ass, Jean Baptiste LeMoyne Bienville, Bayou St. John’s Three Queens and a Bear, The Delta Queens: The Great Steamboat Race, Fat Monday Luncheon, Streetcar Named Disaster, The My-O-My: Lady Slurs the Booze, Krewe of Yuga, Ms. Dixie, Shrimp Boat, Chris Owen’s Easter Parade, Audubon’s Aqueerium, Burning of the French Quarter: Interview with a Vampire Movie, and King and Queen Armeinius 50: Miss Big Nelly and Her Storyville Playground.
Some of the aforementioned references are obvious to anyone familiar with New Orleans’ colorful history, but others, however, are more obscure. Miss Big Nelly, for example, was the Madam of a brothel on the edge of Storyville that catered to gay men in the 1890s. Historian Al Rose describes it as the site of “large-scale, noisy interracial functions.”
Many of the allusions were, appropriately enough, to Carnival. The Krewe of Yuga was the progenitor of Gay Carnival, and queens of a certain age will remember Ms. Dixie, who not only posted bail for the 95 men arrested at the ill-fated 1962 Yuga Ball, but also hosted fabulous parties on Mardi Gras afternoons at her home on lower Bourbon Street after she closed her bar in 1964. Begun in 1949 by Bob Demmons, the Fat Monday Luncheon is the oldest continually operating annual gay social event in the nation. And Bienville, the founder of New Orleans, lived into his 80s and never married. Just saying.
In addition to paying homage to the city’s and our community’s heritage, the Armeinius Ball also honored its own history. Originally, Armeinius King and Queen 50 were slated to be Wendell Stipelcovich (a founding member) and Albert Carey (member since 1969), both of whom served as the Krewe’s first two Captains. Health concerns prevented Stipelcovich and Carey from participating in the Ball; consequently, they selected as their surrogates Ned Pitre and Brent Durnin.
In a poignant personal reminiscence printed in the Ball program, Carey writes, “I am inclined not to think about the people that were horrible to us as gay men. I like to remember the men and women that were nice to us.” And later, “Krauss Department Store had a fabulous selection of trims and the ladies would even let us try on opera gloves on the main floor close to the entrance. Betty Heckman’s on Elysian Fields was the go to place for leotards.”
Ball programs, coveted by archivists and researchers, are often discarded by attendees after the ball but the Armeinius 50th Program is one people should keep. The program is chock-full of interesting articles. In addition to “As I Look Back on These Past 50 Years,” Carey also wrote “The Almost True Gay Fun Facts of Our 300 Years of Fabulous” and “Does Your Mother Know? How Publicity Evolved in the Gay Mardi Gras World.” Ray Durand’s “We Loved Dixie’s Bar of Music” is a beautiful tribute to Ms. Dixie and Kevin Hemenger’s “A Mardi Gras Reminiscence” perfectly captures Mardi Gras’s magical ability to seduce Carnival virgins.
The cover of the program was designed by local artist and Co-Captain Frederick Guess. The artwork depicts a plethora of local icons and legends posing at Café Lafitte in Exile, the oldest continually operating gay bar in the nation. Ball hosts Varla Jean Merman and Ryan Landry figure prominently; Stipelcovich and Carey appear as Bienville and a church lady, respectively; Jeff Palmquist, representing Southern Decadence as a former Grand Marshal, is behind the bar mixing drinks; the city’s African-American heritage is represented by a Mardi Gras Indian and Voodoo Queen Marie LaVeau; Zak Gillespie appears in drag as Ms. Dixie; a Corner Pocket dancer brandishes a sword as legendary pirate Jean Lafitte; timeless showgirl Chris Owens is also there.