While this year’s list of celebrity riders is a respectable one, a look at the recent roster of guest riders in Mardi Gras parades reveals an obvious fact: Krewes are no longer able to attract as many of the A-list celebrities who once flocked to New Orleans to participate in Carnival. And fewer and fewer krewes are even trying.
Maybe this is just as well. The great Carnival krewes offer plenty enough in the way of floats, bands, themes and throws to draw a crowd. An informal poll finds few paradegoers who can recall an Endymion Saturday or a Bacchus Sunday when they thought to themselves, “What’s missing here is a few more people on the neutral ground.”
Zulu rightly proclaims itself the first krewe to present a celebrity in a Mardi Gras parade, but the 1949 ride of native son Louis Armstrong proved an anomaly — albeit a pretty spectacular one — rather than the beginning of a tradition.
The 1953 Elks Orleanians parade featured cowboy movie star Hopalong Cassidy, but this, too, turned out to be a one-shot deal. The next year, Elks rode celebrity-free.
It wasn’t until 1969 that the Krewe of Bacchus began the celebrity-guest craze, with Danny Kaye’s reign as the god of wine in the krewe’s inaugural procession. When Endymion morphed from a neighborhood parade into a superkrewe in 1974, trumpeter Doc Severinsen led the way, not only riding but also entertaining at the after-parade Extravaganza. Since 1994, when Harry Connick Jr. co-founded Orpheus, that krewe has featured numerous celebrities.
Through the years, many other Carnival clubs joined the celebrity monarch business, attracting stars who were household names in their respective eras. The trend peaked in 1980, when 11 parades featured celebrities in their processions.