Royce Osborn, a writer and producer of film documentaries about New Orleans culture, died Thursday at his home in Gentilly after a long battle with melanoma. He was 58.
Osborn had a national reputation as a producer, writing and producing the gospel music competition “Sunday Best” for BET and producing the NAACP Image Awards for FOX television for 25 years.
But he may be best remembered for “All on a Mardi Gras Day,” the 2003 PBS documentary about black Carnival that he wrote and co-produced with Jerry Brock.
“That film will live on forever,” said jazz musician and Xavier University professor Dr. Michael White. “It’s certainly the definitive film on black Mardi Gras traditions. But I think it’s also one of the most important films on local black culture ever. Because it was the first time that the world got to see black Mardi Gras — baby dolls, Zulus, Indians and skeletons — and to hear about the meaning and importance of these traditions from the core of the black community.”
A native of the 7th Ward, Osborn and his broad smile and love of reggae music were well known both on the streets and in some of the city’s museums, said longtime friend and fellow historian Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, describing how Osborn knew people deeply from spending time laughing and talking with them. “He really got to know people in a way that came out of his strong hanging skills, in a way that you don’t get from a two-hour or even a 10-hour interview.”
Young filmmakers also relied upon Osborn’s almost-encyclopedic knowledge of film history and “contagious enthusiasm” for his art, said filmmaker Katherine Cecil, who often turned to him for advice.
He started out in the arts in high school during a summer program called the Governor’s School of North Carolina, where he was cast in leading roles in both "West Side Story" and "Marat/Sade."
After three years in the Navy, Osborn began studying broadcast journalism in 1980 at the Community Film Workshop in New York City. He also studied at San Francisco City College and the American Film Institute Center for Advanced Film Studies, where he was a cinematography fellow.
He was on the board of the New Orleans Video Access Center for several years.
Osborn’s other films included “If These Bricks Could Talk,” about the Lafitte public housing development; “Spirits of Congo Square,” for public television station WYES; and National Black Programming Consortium webcasts, called “Walking to New Orleans,” that he produced after Katrina about the recovering city’s cultural traditions.
Earlier this year, the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame gave Osborn its “Capturing the Spirit” award for his work documenting the Indian culture.
He was working on a feature documentary, “We are Zulu,” about the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, when he died.
He also worked in recent years as a doorman at the Monteleone Hotel, a job he had long envied because he was such a natural "people person" and because he liked the uniform.
Starting about 2002, Osborn started masking for Mardi Gras as a skeleton, most recently with his own gang, the Congo Square Skull and Bone Gang. Early on Mardi Gras morning, the group roamed the streets, waking up people and warning, “You’re next!” while dressed in large papier-mâché skulls, bloody aprons and black sweats painted white with the bones of skeletons.
Determined to help revive the skeleton masking tradition, Osborn learned it by sitting with now-deceased elders like skeleton chief Al Morris and Tootie Montana, the renowned Mardi Gras Indian chief, a former skeleton who made Osborn’s first papier-mâché skull.
A few years ago, Osborn explained the skeleton tradition during a panel discussion at Xavier. “We represent our ancestors and those who came before us,” he said, explaining why he was devoted to masking as a skeleton. “They are a reminder that death is always present, so we have to enjoy life while we’re still here.”
Survivors include his wife, Dama Fountain; a brother, Alton Osborn; and three sisters, Irene Osborn of City Island, N.Y., Yolande Osborn of Los Angeles and Sabrina Orr of New York City.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Oct. 8, starting with film screenings at the Golden Feather, 704 N. Rampart St., and moving to Congo Square. Heritage Funeral Directors is handling arrangements.