To the baby-boomer generation of New Orleanians, the name Mel Leavitt is synonymous with television and Mardi Gras.
His nightly parade commentaries for WDSU-TV during the 1950s and ’60s are legendary. During his 22 years as a news star at WDSU, Leavitt covered more than 150 parades.
On Dec. 18, 1948, Louisiana’s first television station, Channel 6, went on the air, and St. Louis native Leavitt joined the NBC affiliate the next year as a sports reporter. He had worked in the same capacity for the Mutual Radio Network.
During that first televised Carnival of 1949, WDSU carried seven parades and the Iris ball, with coverage sponsored by General Electric. Later it would add the “Meeting of the Courts” of Rex and Comus on Mardi Gras night to its lineup. The station ran promotional ads in newspapers telling readers, “Now Everyone Can Enjoy Mardi Gras Parades.”
In his book “New Orleans Television,” author Dominic Massa says Leavitt “became known as the premier Carnival commentator in New Orleans.”
Leavitt was a star with a great spot from which to shine — atop the WDSU studios’ balcony overlooking Royal Street — and it became Carnival central during the years when parades rolled through the French Quarter. Cameras were positioned on the second-floor balcony and at ground level. Leavitt described the parades each night to the audience at home, including those who’d run home from the route to see the parade all over again at 10:30 p.m.
Special guests would join Leavitt to watch the parades. Through the years those celebrities included talk-show host Merv Griffin, singers Frankie Laine and Phil Harris, local musician Pete Fountain, author Harnett Kane, broadcasting icon Walter Cronkite and anthropologist Margaret Mead.
In a 1989 interview with Don Lee Keith, Leavitt shared some memories of Mead’s appearance. “She showed up in a costume from the South Seas, a necklace with beads and teeth, all kinds of medallions and bangles, all with anthropological significance,” Leavitt remembered.
Channel 6 mastered the art of Carnival coverage, with its nightly parade broadcasts and daylong Fat Tuesday coverage, employing the latest technology to broadcast from several locations along the parade route.
Leavitt won two Peabody Awards, a Freedom Foundation Award and an Emmy. He also authored three books: “A Short History of New Orleans,” “Great Characters of New Orleans” and “New Orleans, America’s International City: A Contemporary Portrait.”