The 73rd year of Gay Carnival is upon us. For those familiar with it, Gay Carnival usually means formal balls produced by krewes such as Petronius, Amon-Ra, Armeinius, Lords of Leather, Mwindo, and Narcissus. But Gay Carnival did not start out with krewes or balls. It began with a group of gay men who decided to do lunch.
It all began in 1949 when Bob Demmons brought five out-of-town friends to lunch at Brennan’s. During the lunch, and much to his guests’ surprise, Demmons produced a bouquet of flowers and a tiara and crowned one of his friends “Queen of the Lunch.” After the meal, a carriage was waiting for the group, and they began making their way around the French Quarter tossing gladiolas to those they passed. Thus was born a tradition that survives today—the Fat Monday Luncheon.
It was also in 1949 that Dixie Fasnacht relocated her “Bar of Music” from the 200 block of St. Charles to the intersection of Bourbon and St. Peter Streets. In the 1950s, Dixie’s became ground zero for gay men on Mardi Gras. At the time, Dixie’s was the epicenter of gay nightlife in the Quarter. Across the street was The Bourbon House, a popular eatery among gay and lesbian folks who lived in the Quarter. A half a block away was Pat O’Brien’s, which featured a bar “for bachelors,” code for “gay man” in that era. And nearby were popular gay bars Tony Bacino’s and Café Lafitte in Exile.
Among the queer denizens that frequented Dixie’s was Doug Jones. It is also likely that Jones attended the Fat Monday Luncheons in the 1950s (although membership records no longer exist and this supposition cannot be verified). Jones lived across town on S. Carrollton Ave., along the Krewe of Carrollton parade route.
Each year, he hosted a parade viewing party for his friends. Among these friends were Elmo Avet, John Henry Bogie, Claude Davis, Jr., John Dodt, Stewart Gahn, Jerry Gilley, Tracy Hendrix, JoJo Landry, Carlos Rodriguez, Jim Schexnayder, Otto Stierle, and Bill Woolley. In 1958, these men (many of whom were also members of the mysterious Steamboat Club, which had been founded in 1953) decided to change their casual parade party into something more formal, a mock ball, replete with costumes and royalty. They called themselves the Krewe of Yuga.
The first two Yuga “balls” were held in Jones’ home but as the event grew in popularity, a larger venue was needed. By the third year, it was clear the ball would have to be held elsewhere. In 1960, Yuga left Uptown for the Lakefront and held their ball at Mama Lou’s Jazz Club on Lake Pontchartrain. The following year the ball moved to Metairie to a venue called The Rambler Room, which was a dance studio attached to a day care facility at which one of the krewe’s members worked. The location was perfect, and Yuga scheduled their fifth ball there. But the fifth Yuga ball was ill-fated.
The 1962 ball was off to a good start. The costumes were fabulous, alcohol was flowing, and aging French Quarter legend Elmo Avet, who owned an antique store on Royal Street, dressed as Mary, Queen of Scots awaited being crowned Yuga Regina V. But it was not to be.
Before the tableau began, Jefferson Parish police arrived at the Rambler Room, kicked open the doors, and raided the ball. Pandemonium ensued and many fled the building by jumping out of windows. Several ran into the adjacent woods but were stopped when police dogs approached. Nearly 100 men were arrested.
That was the end of the Krewe of Yuga, but from its ashes arose other gay krewes. The men who founded and later joined Yuga would eventually go on to start other gay krewes:
Petronius: Elmo Avet, Bill Woolley, John Dodt, William McKenzie, Otto Stierle Jr., Carlos Rodriguez, Brad Lysholm, JoJo Landry, Don Fitzpatrick, and Joseph Barcellona
Amon Ra: Brad Lysholm and Jim Schexnayder
Armeinius: Tracy Hendrix
Ganymede: JoJo Landry
Celestial Knights: Bill Woolley, William McKenzie, Otto Stierle Jr., Carlos Rodriguez
Since Yuga was formed, there have been close to twenty gay krewes, including Ganymede, Apollo, Olympus, Memphis, Polyphemus, Ishtar (the only lesbian krewe), Lords of Leather, Mwindo, Rue Royale Revelers, Narcissus, and Stars. In recent years, some krewes have departed from the Bal Masque format. The Radical Faeries hosts the St. Brigid Ball, which crowns an Empress but is less formal than the traditional balls. Stars presents a Show Ball and the Rue Royale Revelers host a Twelfth Night party.
In addition, there have been, since Yuga, lesser known or very short-lived krewes, most of which did not produce balls but rather celebrated Carnival in other ways. These krewes include: Kancellation, The Queen’s Men, Phoenix, Satins and Sequins, Jason, Desime, Dionysus, David, Eros, Vesta, Tragoidia, Queenateenas, Mardi Gras Merrymen, La Cage aux Folles, and Anubis.
The children of Yuga are many. In 1958, Doug Jones and his friends could not have possibly imagined the phenomenon they started. As John Henry Bogie recalls in Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans, “The Yuga Regina was one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen in my life. When the lights reflected off her royal raiments, the room was filled with explosions and bursts of light like fireworks. Who would have guessed that her children would take up the mantle of Carnival and run with it like they were possessed?”