It takes a lot to call off Mardi Gras parades. It takes even more to call off an entire season. Other than widespread political unrest, which halted Mardi Gras activities in 1875, only wars have canceled Carnival. The Civil War (1861-65) and World Wars I (1918-19) and II (1942-45) caused 11 Fat Tuesdays to be paradeless.
The next big scare didn’t come until 1979, when Mayor Dutch Morial, the New Orleans City Council and the majority of Carnival captains voluntarily called off all parades in New Orleans rather than give in to wage demands made by Teamsters Union members of the New Orleans Police Department. The matter was eventually settled in the city’s favor but not until after the Carnival season.
Among the 16 canceled parades were the most historic and significant ones, such as Rex, Comus, Venus and Zulu. Bacchus and its celebrity king, Ron Howard, staged a miniparade inside the Rivergate Convention Center. The remaining 13 parades scrambled to find venues outside Orleans Parish.
The Krewe of Okeanos moved to Chalmette, while Hercules and the truck parades of Elks Orleanians and Crescent City paraded in Gretna. Slidell, in St. Tammany Parish, welcomed the New Orleans East krewes of Pontchartrain and Selena. But it was Kenner in Jefferson Parish that came to the rescue of the most parades; seven clubs rescheduled there, including the superkrewe Endymion.
With some 800 members at that time, the Krewe of Endymion presented enormous logistical challenges to the Kenner officials. After several lengthy discussions to weigh the benefits and liabilities of hosting the largest parade ever to travel the streets of Kenner, the City Council there gave its approval.
From the Monday night when the deal was struck until the parade finally rolled late the following Saturday afternoon, officials of Kenner and Endymion spent every waking moment reshaping schedules, routes, reviewing points and deployment of marching units from long-established locations in New Orleans to appropriate sites in Kenner. What took 13 years to evolve in New Orleans was restructured in a week for the Endymion parade in Kenner.
The traffic jams in Kenner and much of East Jefferson were monumental, as more than half a million people turned out to see Endymion on a rainy Feb. 14, 1979. On that day, more than 5 miles of Interstate 10 became a virtual parking lot, and Kenner became the largest city in the state.
The 1979 police strike may have rearranged Mardi Gras, but it certainly didn’t cancel it. Even in paradeless Orleans Parish, the party continued in the streets, in homes and at private balls. And the one-year absence led to a deeper appreciation of the parades when they returned to the streets of New Orleans the following year.