Each year in New Orleans, more than a hundred men and women have the opportunity to reign as kings and queens of Carnival organizations. While every crown confers an honor, the selection method varies greatly from club to club.
Rex, the King of Carnival, is always a prominent member of the krewe with a long résumé of community service. He is chosen by Rex’s inner circle, which keeps the king’s identity secret until the Saturday before the parade.
Endymion, the city’s largest krewe, picks its king by lottery at its coronation ball. Twelfth Night Revelers and Okeanos announce their queens the night of the ball. The young lady selected always acts surprised, though tip-offs have been known to happen.
In many parades, fees are assessed to underwrite the cost of the monarchs’ costumes, crowns and scepters. Several krewes use part of the revenue to help underwrite the costs of their parades. No limits are placed on what one may spend on gifts for the court or on parties.
The society clubs, most of which do not parade, select their queens and maids from the annual coterie of debutantes. An exception is Mystic, whose queen is always a married woman.
Court photos grace the pages of local newspapers after the balls. The queen is often the daughter or granddaughter of a prominent krewe member who likely registered her at birth as a future candidate for royalty. Officially, there is no charge to reign, but tradition dictates that royalty throw a series of parties.
In the society balls, except for Rex, the king’s identity is never made public. Only those in attendance at the ball know the name of the man behind the mask.
While all kings and queens are presented at their krewe’s private balls, some clubs also showcase their royalty on floats within their parades. In a few parades, the float-riding king toasts his queen while she is seated in the reviewing stand.
Not all krewes feature dual royalty. Chaos, d’Etat and Druids have no queen, while Cleopatra, Femme Fatale, Muses, Nyx and Pandora are kingless. Bacchus and Orpheus do not feature kings or queens, opting instead for celebrity monarchs. And some clubs have special names for their royalty — Babylon (Sargon), Choctaw (Chief), Caesar (Emperor), King Arthur (Queen Guinevere), Napoleon (Emperor) and Oshun (Shango).
Not surprisingly, Zulu, Carnival’s most atypical parading club, has its own special way of selecting its king. Each summer, candidates compete in election campaigns complete with steak dinners and fancy barbecues, as those seeking the kingship try to outdo one another.
Some New Orleanians just can’t get enough of the spotlight. Before his death in 1991, Harry P. Rosenthal set a series of records that may never be surpassed. He served as a duke more than two dozen times and reigned as king an incredible 17 times. For 12 consecutive years, from 1961 to 1972, Rosenthal ruled as king of at least one Carnival ball or parade. He also was the first-year king of the krewes of Aphrodite, Diana, Endymion, Jupiter and Rhea.
Germaine Cazenave Wells, best known for her annual Easter parade in the French Quarter, ran Arnaud’s restaurant for decades. She also made headlines in the world of Carnival, having reigned over 22 balls, starting in 1938. A display of her gowns is housed in the Germaine Wells Mardi Gras Museum on the second floor of Arnaud’s. When she died in 1983, she was buried in a gold lamé gown she wore as queen of the Krewe of Naiads.