Now officially known as the Morris F.X. Jeff Sr. Auditorium, the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium was constructed in 1929 at a cost of $1.76 million. Though the auditorium’s official purpose was to serve as a memorial to veterans of World War I, there is no doubt that architects Favrot & Livaudais designed the building with Carnival balls in mind.
Situated at the edge of the French Quarter, the building offered seating for 9,500 people and a floor capable of admitting 1,000 more. In its configuration for Carnival balls, the auditorium’s central arena could be divided into two separate ballrooms, allowing it to play host to two balls at once.
The larger St. Ann Street “auditorium” side and the smaller St. Peter Street “concert” side provided options for clubs of different sizes. With perfect sight lines, ceilings high enough to accommodate theatrical scenery and parquet floors expansive enough to permit the passage of the long trains worn by Mardi Gras royalty, the building indeed proved a perfect venue for a world-class Carnival ball.
In 1930, the Elves of Oberon presented the auditorium’s first ball, followed by the Atlanteans, the Krewe of Mystery, Mystic Club and the Mistick Krewe of Comus. As more and more krewes moved their events to the new building, competition for reservations grew so fierce that a seniority system was put in place to assign dates. Rex moved its ball there in 1936, and for nearly six decades, the ceremonial climax to the Carnival season occurred at the auditorium each year as the courts of Comus and Rex met to make their farewell toast.
A highlight in Carnival history took place at the auditorium in 1950 when the visiting Duke and Duchess of Windsor bowed before Rex and Comus on Mardi Gras night.
The auditorium’s cachet as a Carnival venue peaked in 1973, when a record 68 balls were staged there between Christmas and Fat Tuesday. By 1993, the schedule included only 29 events, and the next year, the building was converted into a temporary casino.
Four years later, the auditorium was again in use for Mardi Gras functions. In all, 19 balls returned.
Through the years, the auditorium has hosted such varied events as high school graduations, operas, wrestling matches, NBA games, the Shrine Circus and the Home & Garden Show. But to many New Orleanians, the Municipal Auditorium always will be remembered as the home of the Carnival balls.
Twenty-two balls were held there in 2005, roughly eight months before Hurricane Katrina dumped five feet of water into the building. Of the great structures yet to be fully restored from the devastation of the storm, few can claim to house as many grand New Orleans memories as the Municipal Auditorium.
A $30 million rehabilitation project is underway, with a completion date of April 2015. Additional funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency could then make the building ready for public use. Many are hopeful that this grand old building will once again showcase Carnival balls.