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25th southern decadence phenomenon

Volume 15/Issue 16

The History
by Patrick Shannon

"I'd definitely say it was a contribution to something that got bigger than we ever dreamed it would be. It's all about having a good time." (Robert King, one of the founding members of the S.D. happening).

It has come again! The Southern Decadence festival; that circus gone amok of a wildly aberrant, unusual, motley, slightly crazy bunch of avant garde attitudes in drag; that congerie of costumed marchers who take to the streets of the French Quarter in a route only the Grand Marshal knows on a day in September that usually turns out to be one of the hottest of the year in this Bombay of the New World--New Orleans. They arrive like Asian termites hungering for cypress logs in French Quarter architecture. But these strange creatures arrive mostly to imbibe of the grape; mostly to be outrageous and have fun doing it.

Not even the fire from a dragon's breath would keep participants and watchers from assembling in the 1200 block of Royal Street on the first Sunday before Labor Day for a celebration that has gotten bigger and more wonderfully insane each year since its casual creation in 1972.

That day, usually around about 10am, an unknown quantity of men and women, gay and straight, begin to assemble at the corner of Royal and Barracks Streets. They will huddle on the banquette in front of a favorite gay watering hole named The Golden Lantern, there for some 30 years. They will spill out into the street.

No one ever knows exactly how many will show up, but recent years have seen the numbers grow into the tens of thousands. By around noon traffic will have to slow down or detour because Royal Street will be overflowing with marchers mostly costumed in drag, scare drag and traditional drag, and any other kind of rig they can conjure up from their imaginations. You will see the playful, the whimsical, the pretty, the ugly, the satirical, the witty, and the obscene. But whatever you see, it will always be totally decadent. It's a scene from a technicolor Felix film extemporaneously created. It's a happening of habadashery fit for an LSD Alice In Wonderland. It's a casting call for Lord of the Rings.

Then, at 2pm, the Grand Marshal will arrive with a following of courtiers accompanied by the squeals and screams of his/her group and often other noises - the sound of whistles, goose honks, castanets, washtub fiddles, conch shell blasts, homemade jazz bands, horse whinnies, tiger roars, pussy meows, and whatever else that particular group fancies as an auditory assault, or a musical instrument. When the time comes to march, the Grand Marshal blows his/her/its whistle and the whole drunken, rowdy group weaves its drunken way down the streets of the Quarter, one year cutting through St. Louis Basilica when a Mass was in progress, another year giving attitude to the tourists in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel, or on the Moonwalk, or where ever they can go--always trying to keep one step ahead of the law which might arrive to spoil things or run them all away. The secret route always depends entirely upon the imagination of the Grand Marshal. But it's always decadent, outrageous, and, of course, includes all the gayles bars and other favorites; it's always an extemporaneous demonstration of cutting edge freedom of expression, a walk on the wild side, a flourish, a smile, a brave conceit of the past.

1995's Grand Marshal Blanche chose Grand Marshal XXIV Wayne White August 1, 1996. You see this is tradition. It has always been at the discretion of the Grand Marshal to choose how he/she/it will pass on the Southern Decadence torch! 1996 is history: Theme - Tour of da'NILE!, Colors - Royal Blue and Gold, Beer - Bud Light.

It is the 25th anniversary of Southern Decadence this year. This is actually the 24th year with a grand marshal, but Wayne White's successor, Miss Love, will be the 25th grand marshal [there were two in 1978]. 1997 Theme - The Love Tour: A Wedding To Remember!; Colors - Silver, White & Teal; Drink - Budweiser.

It all began in 1972 with a party at Belle Reve, 2110 Barracks St. There was no parade. In 1973, an informal march began from Matassa's bar to 2110 Barracks. There was no grand marshal yet.

The grand marshal selection began in 1974. Grand Marshals include:

SDGM I-Frederick Wright 1974

SDGM II-Jerome Williams 1975

SDGM III-Preston Hemmings 1976

SDGM IV-Robert Laurent 1977

SDGM V-Robert King and SDGM VI-Kathleen Kavanaugh 1978

SDGM VII-Bruce Harris 1979

SDGM VIII-Tom Tippin 1980

SDGM IX-Tommy Stephan 1981

SDGM X-Don Ezell 1982 [deceased]

SDGM XI-Danny Wilson 1983 [deceased]

SDGM XII-Mumbo 1984

SDGM XIII-Michael "Fish" Henderson 1985

SDGM XIV-Kathleen Conlon 1986

SDGM XV-Olive 1987

SDGM XVI-Jerome Lebo 1988

SDGM XVII-George Goode 1989 [deceased]

SDGM XVIII-Ruby 1990 [deceased]

SDGM XIX-Jamie Temple 1991

SDGM XX-Rhee 1992 [deceased]

SDGM XXI-Ms. Fly 1993

SDGM XXII-Alain 1994

SDGM XXIII-Blanche 1995

SDGM XXIV-Wayne White 1996

SDGM XXV-Miss Love 1997

In 1996, the Crescent City geared up for what was to be the largest Decadence celebration in history with an estimated draw of some 35,000 to 38,000 revelers. The all les/gay "end of summer celebration" has received much acclaim in recent years throughout the United States due to the national marketing efforts of businesses like AMBUSH Mag 2000, AMBUSHonLINE, Bourbon Pub/Parade, C&J Productions, Oz and Wood Enterprises. The local economy benefits greatly, thanks to the vision of these businesses.

And now, towards the end of the '90s with a Republican smell in the air, and foreboding signs of repression showing up at odd times and places, with the creeping tyranny of rigid right-wing tastes beginning to solidify around many freedoms, Southern Decadence is even more important. Like drag queenery in certain gay bars, it might well be one of the last public incarnations of one of America's most outrageous examples of total liberty, of true freedom of expression on the march.

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