Every Lundi Gras, kings from the two main organizations that parade in New Orleans on Mardi Gras meet face-to-face on the riverfront, an event that since 1993 has signified a growing friendship between krewes that have long shared St. Charles Avenue on Fat Tuesday but for many years had little to do with each other.
This year brought another type of meeting between kings of the Rex organization and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club — the oldest living kings of both organizations, one white, the other black.
On Monday, the Woldenberg Village Retirement Community in Algiers became the unlikely scene of a well-attended Mardi Gras ball, drawing in a veritable “who’s who” of parade royalty from years past. The event was held to honor 94-year-old John Phillips, who was Rex in 1983, and 87-year-old Arthur Vigne, king of Zulu in 1988.
Mark Romig, a member of the Rex organization and president of the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corp., was on hand to present both kings to an audience of more than 100 spectators both young and old.
“This is the first time the two oldest living kings from these organizations are being honored together, so y’all are part of history,” Romig told a cheering and applauding crowd as the former royalty were brought out in their wheelchairs.
As family and friends looked on, Romig presented Phillips with Rex’s 2016 ducal crown pin, this year fashioned as a flower resembling a magnolia, in honor of the parade’s theme, “Royal Gardens.” He also gave Vigne an official Rex proclamation, in which the king formally invites his subjects to the grand celebration of Carnival.
“Once again, the friendship that’s been created between Zulu and Rex over the years has been exemplified,” Romig said. “This event is in keeping with that friendship.”
The two kings weren’t the only royalty to travel to Algiers for the Lundi Gras celebration. Also in attendance were 53-year-old Elinor Bright, who was Phillips’ queen in 1983, and 44-year-old Gina Vigne, the former Zulu king’s daughter, who said she had been the social club’s first princess.
The Wild Opelousas tribe of Mardi Gras Indians also were on hand to make merriment, strutting in suits with buffalo and Native American themes made by students at the Martin Behrman Charter School Academy of Creative Arts and Sciences, formerly known as Martin Behrman Elementary School.
The Carnival royalty joined the crowned kings and queens of the retirement community, including Willie Webb, Geraldine Johnson, Arthur and Dolores Branan, Olga Cazenavette and Lloyd Pablovitch.
Although the Woldenberg retirement home hosts a Mardi Gras party every year, this year’s special event involving the Rex and Zulu presentation was planned just a week earlier. Even though both men have been staying at the community, living just four or five rooms apart, the staff had only discovered the significance of who they were once Carnival was in full swing.
Vigne, a New Orleans East resident, had gone in for rehabilitative services following knee surgery, his daughter said, and Phillips was living with his wife in the retirement community.
As soon as the staff found out who the two men were, they knew they had to throw them a special party, said Bobby Hoerner, director of social services at Woldenberg.
“It’s very unique,” Hoerner said. “They’ve both been in our facility. What are the chances?”
As for Phillips and Vigne, both said it was a wonderful opportunity for them to reminisce about earlier times and to remember what it was like to be king for a day.
Although a man of few words on Monday, Phillips sat bright-eyed and cheery as his former queen flipped through a photo album of the Rex royal court in 1983. The photographs had slightly yellowed over the years, but the regality of the golden costumes showed through, with both queen and king wearing sparkling crowns and flowing, sequined trains.
“It was one of the most memorable days of our lives,” Bright said as she recalled a cold but beautiful day that started with a run in Audubon Park and ended with Carnival’s most famous ball and the meeting of the courts with Comus, the city’s oldest Carnival organization. “It was really an honor to my family and my father.”
Phillips, too, had been chosen king to honor his commitment to New Orleans, according to his wife, 73-year-old Pierrette Phillips. His family and friends described a man who had been CEO of Louisiana Land and Exploration Co. as well as chairman of the board of Tulane University Hospital and a director of Whitney National Bank.
“You name it, he was in it,” Romig said. “He was, and still is, a mentor and a role model.”
Asked if he felt honored to be recognized as a king once again, Phillips smiled and responded simply, “Absolutely.”
Vigne looked equally pleased as he recalled his experiences with Zulu, which he joined in 1969 after paying just $2 in membership fees, back when there were fewer than two dozen members, he said.
Vigne said he could remember being crowned, a moment he called “one of the biggest” in his life, and the “wonderful” parade.
“It was one of the best rides you could ever have,” he said with a wink. “I got more kisses then than I’ve ever had in my life.”
The two men’s memories, and the significance of their coming together for one event, wasn’t lost on the crowd. As they danced to a band playing “Hey Pocky A-Way,” some remembered a time when Rex and Zulu didn’t acknowledge one another, and when it would have been unlikely for a color barrier to be crossed for an event such as Monday’s.
“Now, this is the way it should be,” said Gina Vigne, as she watched her father take the stage. “We’re all just out here to have a good time. And Mardi Gras is the only day you can be whatever you want to be, whatever color you want to be, and it doesn’t matter.”
As for her father, he said it was just good to once again feel like a king.
“I’m overjoyed today. I’ve got goose pimples,” Vigne said, laughing and sipping Champagne. “It’s been a long time since I had that feeling.”