If you live in New Orleans, there’s a chance you’ve attended one of the several gay Carnival balls presented each Carnival season. If you have, you know these balls are highly elaborate productions requiring hundreds of hours of work and thousands of dollars. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the gay balls is that they are produced by relatively few people, depending on the size of the krewe. This year, as the existing krewes show off their hard work, let us take a moment to remember a few krewes that are no longer with us.
Yuga (1958—1962). The Krewe of Yuga, or KY, established the template later krewes would follow, which involved a lot of drag and the naming of royalty. Founded by Doug Jones and his friends, Yuga grew out of an annual house party Jones hosted to view the Krewe of Carrollton parade. The annual Yuga “ball” became so popular it quickly outgrew Jones’ home. Yuga’s fifth ball, and the krewe itself, ended in 1962 when it was raided by the police. Jones and others believe the police were tipped off by a former member who had been expelled from the krewe.
Ganymede (1968—1974). The Krewe of Ganymede was founded by Vincent Indovina, Scott Hoy, Rivet Hedderel, and Jerry Koplin. Indovina had served as the second King of Amon-Ra in 1967 and his partner, Scott Hoy, had served as Amon Ra’s first Captain in 1966. Indovina was somewhat inflexible, exerting almost dictatorial control over the krewe. After its first ball, titled “The Gods of Mount Olympus”, member and costume designer Wendell Stipelcovich left the krewe to co-found the Krewe of Armeinius. Other members left to form the Krewe of Olympus.
Olympus (1971—1990). Lou Bernard, Nick Donovan (a former Captain of Ganymede), and George Wilson founded the Krewe of Olympus in 1970. Their debut ball in 1971, Camelot, is still remembered as one of the most legendary balls a gay krewe has ever produced. Historian Howard P. Smith writes, “The mere mention of the word “Camelot” within the secretive realm of gay Carnival still evokes a sense of wonder, magic, awe, and ultimate envy. No tableau ball has excited more passion and praise.” The first Captain of Olympus was Jamie Greenleaf, who left Petronius because of internal bickering within the krewe.
Memphis (1976—1983). Of all the former krewes, the least is known about the Krewe of Memphis. As was the case with many krewes, it was probably founded by disgruntled members from another krewe. Memphis is perhaps best remembered for its rivalry with the Krewe of Celestial Knights (both krewes selected a similar ball theme for the 1983 season). We also know it formed a sister krewe in Lafayette.
Celestial Knights (1977—1992). After the 1976 Petronius ball, the captain’s election was disputed and caused a split within the krewe led by William Woolley. Woolley and six other members left Petronius to form the Krewe of Celestial Knights, or KOCK. Woolley had been a member of Yuga and a co-founder of Petronius. During his time in those krewes, he learned from the legendary Elmo Avet, the creative spirit behind the first two gay krewes. Woolley absorbed some of Avet’s genius, a fact evidenced in the grandeur of KOCK’s balls. One innovation Woolley introduced was the introduction of more performers (and hence more costumes) in smaller roles to accompany the main performer.
Ishtar (1981—1986). The Krewe of Ishtar, gay Carnival’s only lesbian krewe, was founded by Diane DiMicelli, Rosemary Pino, and Sue Martin. DiMicelli was a lesbian bar owner who purchased Alice Brady’s bar in 1978 and later opened another lesbian bar in Jefferson Parish. Pino owned Club 621 and had raised money for the Krewes of Armeinius and Polyphemus. Martin served as Captain of Ishtar for five of its six balls.
Polyphemus (1983—1992). Close friends Gary Martin, Michael Hickerson, Eugene Fenasci, and David Smith founded the Krewe of Polyphemus in 1982. Hickerson had been the first Black person to join Amon-Ra and would later co-found the all-Black krewes of Somnus and Mwindo. The 1987 Polyphemus ball was especially memorable because it was interrupted by a bomb threat. Many believe the threat was called in by a member of the krewe who was expelled days before the ball because he had fallen so far behind on his costume; Martin feared it would never be completed. The rest of the krewe helped finish the costume and just when Kevin Keller, a member of Apollo who agreed to pinch-hit wearing the costume at the ball, stepped onto the stage, the auditorium was evacuated. No bomb was found, and the ball went on.
Satyricon (2003—2016). When Mickey Gil was not re-elected Captain of Petronius in 2002, a position he had held for thirteen years, he and his partner, George Patterson, (and sixteen others) left the krewe and founded the Krewe of Satyricon. Early members included Ted Jeansonne, David Boyd, Carl Mack, Joe Brooks, Wedon Brown, Richard Read, and Stephen Rizzo. Also involved in the krewe were long-time French Quarter fixtures like Becky Allen and up-and-coming star Roy Haylock (aka Bianca Del Rio).
The reasons these krewes folded are varied. Sometimes money was a factor. In other cases, the leaders simply grew tired or dispirited. Co-founder and Captain of Polyphemus recalls that by 1992 he had lost so many friends and krewe members to AIDS, he was “ready to call it a day.”
As the aforementioned brief sketches illustrate, the evolution of gay Carnival krewes is not only a fascinating study in personality conflicts and competitiveness, but also of imaginative brilliance. Despite all the drama, the gay krewes and the balls they’ve produced have provided an important outlet for the creative and artistic talents of the gay community—invitations, posters, set designs, costume designs, etc.
Regardless of why they faded away, however, these lost krewes are an integral part of gay Carnival history.