Krantz Stable Updates
Fair Grounds and Mardi Gras
- Published: March 4, 2003
- Written by Bryan Krantz
On March 3, 1699, Pierre leMoyne, Sieur d'Iberville chose a camp site for his men two leagues from the mouth of the Mississippi River. In honor of the festive holiday being celebrated that day in France, this site at the first large bend in the river was named Pointe du Mardi Gras and the adjoining channel Bayoue du Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras has always played a part in the history of New Orleans. Fair Grounds has been intertwined in the history of the city since its formal coming of age as Fair Grounds in 1872.
Mardi Gras served as an escape from the grief of the Civil War for the citizens of New Orleans. For several years Mardi Gras maskers gathered along the larger streets and boulevards of the city on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras Day). In 1871 there was a failed attempt to gather these groups into an organized parade. In 1872 a visit to New Orleans by Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff provided the justification to try again. The leader of the event on February 13, 1872, was called Rex (Latin for king). This also was the name given to the parade, which became the centerpiece of the Fat Tuesday celebration. The organization that created Rex also introduced the official colors of Mardi Gras and a musical anthem for the celebration, eventually transforming Mardi Gras into an official city holiday.
The story of Rex's beginning is intertwined with Fair Grounds, the visit of the Grand Duke Alexis, a friendship shared with general George Armstrong Custer and two burlesque singers. Custer was a horseman through and through. He owned and trained Thoroughbreds, racing his charges in New Orleans at the Metairie Course and Fair Grounds. He served as correspondent for the Spirit of the Times (the forerunner of the Daily Racing Form) for some of the New Orleans race meetings. He had experienced Mardi Gras while in the city and related his experience of the event to the Arch Duke Alexis on a trip out west as the two hunted buffalo in Nebraska with Buffalo Bill Cody and General Philip Sherman. It's believed Custer suggested a visit to New Orleans.
General and Mrs. Custer arrived in New Orleans with the Arch Duke on February 11, 1872 after a steamer ride from Memphis. Alexis made an immediate impression on the city by doing a great impression of a drunken frat boy in the local saloons. He was attracted to show girls and particularly to an English burlesque singer named Lydia Thompson. Lydia was the toast of Broadway and was in New Orleans performing at the Academy of Music. She invited Alexis to attend her show but he went MIA (missing in action). Legend holds he was being entertained at the Louisiana Jockey Club and remained all evening into the daylight hours. Alexis disappointed Lydia and the expectant guests of her show but managed to garner the attention of Lydia's rival Lotta Crabtree who was performing at another theater. He attended her performance and also presented her with a diamond bracelet. Lydia was said to be so miffed at the snub she added a new verse to her hit song If I Ever Cease to Love. The song was amended to include, "May the Grand Duke Alexis ride a buffalo in Texas if I ever cease to love." The original version of the song went on to become the official anthem of Rex and Mardi Gras and the Arch Duke went back to Russia and to obscurity.
The Krewe of Endymion was formed in 1966. By 1974 the parade emerged as a "Super Krewe." These are the parades that drive tourism and sell hotel rooms for the spectacle of the Mardi Gras holiday in New Orleans. Endymion was founded by Ed Muniz, who lived in the shadow of the Fair Grounds on DeSaix Blvd. Ed worked in radio but his uncle "Blackie" Muniz was a jockey agent and Ed's cousin Mervin was to become a racing official at Fair Grounds. Ed dreamed about creating a parade in Gentilly for the Saturday evening before Mardi Gras. He researched names as he planned and settled on two to choose between, Bacchus or Endymion. The name of the parade was settled on at the Fair Grounds on New Orleans Handicap day March 2, 1963, when Endymion, trained by Sly Veitch and ridden by Jimmy Nichols, stood in the winner's circle for pictures after winning the one mile and an eighth fixture. The bet Ed cashed was a small token of good fortune that has made the Endymion Parade one of the grand spectacles of the entire Mardi Gras celebration. Many of the charter members of the Krewe of Endymion were either horsemen or employees of Fair Grounds. Over the years the parade has grown to nearly 3,000 members and has changed routes but still lines up near the Fair Grounds to ride the "downtown" route to the Superdome and the Endymion Extravaganza. The Endymion Extravaganza is the end of parade party best described as the world's largest winter formal. Nearly 20,000 people in tuxedos and formal dresses jump for beads and baubles. After the parade, popular musicians entertain until the sun comes up.
Twelve years ago now Mervin Muniz (a charter Endymion member) along with Vickie (my wife) convinced me it would be fun to ride. They were right. Mervin, horse trainer Neal Pessin and I have ridden most of the succeeding years together. Vickie has participated by attending the Extravaganza with friends and then stopping for breakfast in the early morning hours at the Fair Grounds track kitchen with her group. The sight of beaded gowns and tuxedos on the rail in the barn area of a racetrack at dawn is a little unusual, but not in New Orleans at Mardi Gras time.
Marie Krantz tribute With my mother passing away this past week, my mood was a bit somber and I wasn't up to the ride in Endymion. Vickie suggested I should reconsider because there was a float in honor of the Fair Grounds and she had heard there would be a tribute to Marie. Since Marie had attended the Extravaganza a number of times and truly enjoyed Endymion, I thought it would be nice to see what Ed had planned and bought my beads. The theme for the parade this year was New Orleans form A to Z. The "f" float was "Fair Grounds to Fountain" (as in Pete Fountain). Since Pete was a great friend of Marie's, the combination of the Fair Grounds and Pete was a moving sight to me, but the simple tribute of a placard bearing the Fair Grounds horse head logo with Marie's name and dates under was deeply touching. Marie knew and touched so many people. Ed gave her a special way to say goodbye.
Thanks Ed, we will always remember this year's parade.