In a normal year, this column would introduce you to the year’s Southern Decadence Grand Marshals. But as we all know, 2020 is anything but normal. With the bars closed and City Hall not issuing parade permits, Southern Decadence 2020 has effectively been canceled. Or has it?
That question has generated a lot of discussion on several Southern Decadence Facebook pages—and not without controversy. Decadence devotees from around the country, and some who have never attended but want to, have asked if it’s worth coming to New Orleans this year. The vast majority of responses, posted mostly by locals, is an overwhelming “No. Stay home.” Still others, from out of town, have expressed regret about not attending this year but vow to return next year.
Southern Decadence means different things to different people. To purists, it’s the traditional Sunday parade. To out-of-towners, it’s a chance to get out of their hometowns and cut loose. To bar-owners and their staffs, it’s a time to work really hard and make a lot of money.
The financial loss of not having Southern Decadence is profound. The Labor Day extravaganza usually attracts upwards of 250,000 visitors. In recent years, the economic impact of Southern Decadence has exceeded $300 million. Hardest hit are the gay bars, many of which depend on the weekend to generate significant portions of their annual revenue, and their staffs—managers, bartenders, barbacks, DJ’s, dancers, security—whose income over the weekend can easily exceed what they would make in a month.
But not this year. With bars closed because of the pandemic and large gatherings, even private ones, limited, some bars and entertainers have planned virtual, on-line events, and as successful as those may be, it will be different.
And it will be historic. Although Southern Decadence has been “canceled” before (in 2005 and 2008 because of hurricanes), this is the first time it has been canceled because of a pandemic. And unlike before, this year, all the bars are closed. If the bars were open, even for to go drinks only, an informal bar crawl would have been possible. That would have been a return to Southern Decadence’s roots in the early years, before parade permits and tens of thousands of revelers packing the bars for days.
So what will Southern Decadence look like this year? It will look like it did the very first year it was celebrated. This year is a return not to its roots, but its very conception.
Southern Decadence began in 1972 with a group of friends who playfully called themselves the “Decadents.” This core group included Michael Evers, his boyfriend David Randolph, Frederick Wright, Maureen and Charlie Block, Robert Laurent, Tom Tippin, Robert King, and Robert Gore, Preston Hemmings, Bruce Harris, Kathleen Kavanaugh, David Red, Ed Seale, Judy Shapiro, and Jerome Williams. All were young, mostly in college or recently graduated, and counted among themselves male female, black and white, and gay and straight.
Many people are aware Southern Decadence began as a going away party for Michael Evers and a welcome party of sorts for Maureen, but what is not as well known is that there were actually two parties. The “Decadents” met regularly at Randolph and Evers’ home in the Treme, which they dubbed “Bell Reve” after the plantation Blanche DuBois lost in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Sunday Night Bourre (a popular card game in South Louisiana) and croquet games were a staple of the Decadents’ social life, as was gathering at Matassa’s bar before a night of carousing in the Quarter.
As Labor Day 1972 approached, Randolph, who was roughly ten years older than Evers, had to leave town on family business. Wright was returning from Chicago to visit his good friend Evers. Maureen kept complaining there was nothing to do. School would be starting soon and an end summer party was in order. The Decadents planned a costume party on the Sunday before Labor Day. It was a fun party marked by spiked punch and a lot of drug use, especially marijuana and LSD.
A few weeks later, Evers left to join Randolph in Michigan. Robert Laurent designed and sent out invitations that encouraged all to come dressed as their favorite Decadents to another party to say goodbye to Evers. About fifty people attended the party. And that was how Southern Decadence got started. It was a house party among friends.