For an organization steeped in tradition, the Bunch Club is no stranger to change.
The group that adheres to a strict ritual to open its legendary Carnival dance is the same group that canceled that dance in the early 1960s in solidarity with the civil rights movement in New Orleans.
Maybe that’s also because this organization, which today includes some of the most prominent men in New Orleans' black community, was originally built by Pullman porters, teachers and administrators.
This is the legacy that the Bunch Club will recognize in its 100th anniversary celebration this Mardi Gras season — capped off by the Centennial Carnival Dance on Friday, Feb. 24, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
The club went on to survive Hurricane Katrina, which prompted the only other known cancellation (in 2006). Today, it continues to shine with its popular event.
It's a dance, mind you, not a ball, members are quick to point out. There are no debutantes presented at this event, which draws 1,500 guests. However, debutantes from other organizations such as Vikings, the Original Illinois Club and Young Men’s Illinois Club have been known to attend.
For member Wayne DeLarge, the invitation to this year’s dance might be the most treasured. He should know; he designed it in commemoration of the club’s 100th anniversary.
Instead of the usual plain white invitation card with red lettering, this year’s card will feature the iconic dancing couple in full color and will include the club’s medallion.
“That invitation, as long as I’m invite chair, will never be like that again,” said DeLarge, an accountant who has served as comptroller for the city of New Orleans as well as the Orleans Parish School Board. "It’ll go down as a watermark.”
It’s one symbolic gesture for an organization that’s provided a social space for some of the most influential black people in New Orleans.
Members include retired Xavier President Dr. Norman Francis, attorney James Williams (who last year became Zulu’s first king of the Washington, D.C. Mardi Gras), FirstNBC Executive Vice President Dr. Charles C. Teamer and Alden J. McDonald, president of Liberty Bank — each of whom has been a member for nearly 50 years. Williams introduced the group’s first event flag, something more commonly found among other old-line organizations.
Past members include Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial, New Orleans’ first black mayor.
The Bunch Club thrives on tradition and continuity, including the opening “Champagne Sip” around Twelfth Night to kick off the season to the dance’s ceremonial waltz, and the “Grand March” — highlighted by its members’ signature attire — red hats with white plumes.
Then there’s the invitation itself; each of the 50 regular members (and some special members) sends out 15 invitations, good for one person and a guest. The anticipation for this treasure can be tense, especially for out-of-towners who visit for Carnival and hope to count the Bunch Club dance among the high points of a visit.
“You don’t know if you’re going to get an invitation,” club historian Keith Weldon Medley pointed out. “It changes. Whoever the member puts down (on the list), that’s who gets to be at the dance. You may think you’re going to get an invitation, but you may not.”
The dance has enjoyed several host sites over the decades, including the old Bethlehem Masonic Temple and the Pythian Temple, but monthly meetings traditionally have been held at Dooky Chase’s restaurant. Change is fine, they’ll tell you, but tradition remains a hallmark — even for some of the younger members.
“The key is bringing in the right members,” said 43-year-old Jay Dumas, who, like many others, is the son of a member. “We try to look at upstanding gentlemen in the community. People who are going to guard and protect that history.”