Mention King Tut, and those of us of a certain age in Louisiana will smile in cheerful recognition of a time, nearly four decades ago, when the brilliant relics of that great pharaoh arrived in New Orleans — a cultural event that affirmed the city’s stature as a national attraction.
We hadn’t thought about any of this in a long while, but a wonderful cover story in the latest issue of Humanities magazine brought memories of the Tut craze back to us. Humanities is published by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the federal agency that had a big hand in bringing the King Tut exhibit to New Orleans and five other American cities. Readers can see the whole Humanities story at www.neh.gov/humanities.
It’s one of the few stories one can read these days in which Richard Nixon, the only president to resign from office, comes off as something of a hero. In June of 1974, just a couple of months before the Watergate scandal forced him to exit the White House, Nixon was visiting Egypt, hoping to advance peace in the Middle East. He wanted Americans to think of Egypt in connection with something besides war, which is how the idea of a U.S. tour of Egyptian artifacts got started. And as ancient treasures go, none seemed more intriguing than the items discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. Among the startling finds was a solid gold funeral mask that would become an iconic feature of the traveling exhibition.
The exhibit opened at Washington’s National Gallery in 1976, and Tut fever swept the nation. A young comic named Steve Martin parodied the phenomenon with his novelty song, “King Tut.”
After a run in Chicago, the exhibit arrived in New Orleans on Sept. 15, 1977 and stayed until Jan. 15, 1978. “John Bullard, the director of the New Orleans Museum of Art, confessed to having ‘nightmares’ before its arrival,” Humanities writer Meredith Hindley tells readers. “The museum had never hosted anything to rival Tut. One month before the exhibition debuted, group tours sold out. The museum also stopped offering memberships, which included access to the exhibition, after subscriptions climbed from 3,000 to 12,000.
“When Tut opened, the line meandered into City Park,” Hindley adds. “The museum erected a striped canopy over the sidewalk to provide shade. Sixteen portable “Tutlets” were also stationed nearby. Lelong Drive, which leads to the museum’s front steps, was painted Nile blue and the Fairmont Hotel served Sphinxburgers, Queen Nefertiti’s salads, and bowls of Ramses’ gumbo.”
Meanwhile, over on Bourbon Street, others paid tribute in their own way: “While decked out like an Egyptian goddess, legendary burlesque dancer Chris Owens shimmied her way through a routine called ‘Pharaoh’s Favorite Toy.’”
Crescent City residents had reason to dance. In New Orleans, 870,594 people saw the Tut exhibit, spending $75 million during their visit. The museum bade farewell to Tut with a jazz funeral.
Today, the Middle East seems as war-torn as ever, and zealots are destroying some of the region’s oldest treasures. All of which makes us nostalgic for the days when King Tut took America by storm, and found a second home in Louisiana.