They came, they rode, they conquered.
But now, 40 years after the Krewe of Caesar first began parading through Jefferson Parish, they will ride no more.
On Wednesday, founder and longtime captain Bob Carnesi announced in a letter to members that Jefferson Parish’s biggest krewe will suspend operations this year.
The loss of Caesar, which parades on the Saturday of the first weekend of Carnival, creates a gaping hole in the parish’s parade calendar and marks a major setback for elected officials and Carnival krewes that have sought for years to spur flagging interest in Jefferson parades.
Caesar was founded in 1979 as Carnival celebrations in the parish were on the upswing, gaining interest and attendance from residents less inclined to head into New Orleans with its reputation for crime and raucous revelry.
But over the last two decades, and particularly as more parades began relocating to the St. Charles Avenue route from less well-attended areas, the number of Jefferson Parish parades has declined.
Sherrell Gorman, captain of Isis — one of the few krewes that is older than Caesar — said the club's departure from the Metairie parade schedule is a big loss for what was once a vibrant lineup.
“It’s going to be a hard hit,” said Gorman. “It’s long been the super parade of the first weekend.”
Copies of Carnesi’s announcement appeared on social media early Wednesday as word trickled out that the renowned krewe was quitting.
In his letter, Carnesi cited uncertainty about the future of the Veterans Memorial Boulevard parade route, difficulty attracting new members and the challenge of competing with the city's massive parades.
Helen Fish grew up experiencing Carnival the Metairie way. She remembers watching the Krewe of Caesar near Bonnabel Boulevard with her folks, …
“It has become exceedingly difficult over the past several years to fund a parade of the high quality that we are known for and are accustomed to,” Carnesi wrote in his letter to members. “It is because of these factors as well as others that myself and the board of directors have decided to cease operations.”
Carnesi presented his feelings at a somber meeting of the krewe’s officers and lieutenants Tuesday, said Ben Lampo, one of the lieutenants.
“We were shocked. There was a quiet, solemn sadness,” Lampo said. “It’s a big part of all of our lives.”
From its first parade in 1980 with a “Hail the Heroes” theme, Caesar quickly became one the metro area’s best parades, according to Mardi Gras historian Arthur Hardy.
It earned a reputation for elaborate costumes and its fondness for choosing children’s television shows as its themes, which aligned with the more family-friendly Carnival experience Jefferson leaders tout as an alternative to New Orleans’ celebrations.
By the end of its first decade, Caesar had grown into one of the largest suburban krewes. It became so well-regarded that for more than a decade, Caesar members would travel to Walt Disney World to take part in one of the parades there.
The krewe had 800 members at its peak. And while it always selected its king from among the membership, it hosted a wide range of celebrity guests, from baseball icon Billy Martin to Brittany Spears’ sister Jamie Lynn Spears and comedian Weird Al Yankovic.
Children’s show characters like SpongeBob SquarePants, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and, most famously, Mickey and Minnie Mouse also were featured.
“It certainly rivaled parades in Orleans Parish,” Hardy said. “They just had the quality and the quantity, and that’s what it takes to put on a great show.”
Much of the credit for the krewe’s success goes to Carnesi, Hardy said. “He built that parade slowly over decades,” he said. “He’s widely respected. It’s been his baby since day one.”
In the late 1990s, however, Metairie’s parades began to suffer as those in New Orleans exploded in membership, fueled by the consolidation of routes and schedules, according to Hardy.
Until about 2000, the biggest New Orleans krewes had around 1,000 members. Now, three of them have over 3,000 members. Caesar has shrunk to around 500 members, Carnesi said.
Parish Councilwoman Jennifer Van Vrancken, who represents much of Metairie, said the move was not entirely unexpected.
“He was an important part of our Mardi Gras tradition over the last 40 years,” she said, referring to Carnesi. But, she added, he spoke in the past about ending the parade after its 40th year.
Carnesi’s granddaughter reigned as queen this year, when changes to the Metairie parade route irked Carnesi and many of his krewe members.
This year, parish officials moved Family Gras, the concert and music festival formerly held near Veterans and Causeway boulevards, to Clearview Shopping Center, which is where Metairie parades have traditionally originated.
Officials also unveiled an alternative parade route that traveled west along Veterans and ended at Family Gras.
Carnesi fiercely resisted the introduction of the new route. This year, krewes were given the option of which direction to roll, but there has been speculation that only the new route will be available next year.
“I called the parish in the last month and a half,” he said. “They would not give me an answer about the new route.”
Carnesi also said subsidies from the parish weren’t enough to support his budget. Caesar was one of three krewes that received $25,000. A fourth krewe got $10,000.
“My band budget is more than $40,000,” Carnesi said.
Parish President Mike Yenni said he was disappointed in the krewe’s decision.
“You would think that a krewe that’s 40 years old would have other people waiting in the wings” to take over its leadership, he said. The route isn’t something “that should break that organization,” he added.
Other krewes will likely move to fill the Saturday evening parading slot, Yenni said.
Yenni and other parish officials have acknowledged the struggles that Jefferson krewes are having in attracting new members. Nine Metairie parades have called it quits since Hurricane Katrina.
Lampo, a 20-year member of the krewe, said he was still trying to grasp the idea that there would be no Caesar parade next year.
“I feel like I lost a family member last night,” he said. “My daughters were princesses; my whole family went to the ball.”
He praised Carnesi and his wife, Sylvia, for their four decades of service to the club.
“The amount of work they did for the community and for us was just amazing,” he said. “Bob has told us forever that if it came to a time when he couldn’t provide the quality, that was it.”
Caesar may not remain dormant, however. Carnesi said that the krewe and the associated Roma Club are not disbanding, just suspending operations.
Caesar could take to the streets again in coming years, perhaps even in a new location, he said.
“I never say never,” he said.