Arthur Hardy: 1970s a defining decade for New Orleans Mardi Gras _lowres

Parading in the French Quarter was banned in 1973. Photo courtesy Arthur Hardy

A compelling argument can be made for declaring the 1970s the defining decade of 20th century Mardi Gras. During that decade, Carnival grew in size, old traditions ended and new customs were born that endure today.

The top stories included the permanent ban on Mardi Gras parades in the French Quarter, the police strike that canceled parades in Orleans Parish one year, the transformation of Endymion from a neighborhood parade into a superkrewe, Bob Hope’s appearance as Bacchus and the creation of Metairie’s first Mardi Gras Day parade.

The parade calendar, which had grown from 20 processions in 1960 to 33 by 1970, saw even greater expansion, reaching 51 parades by 1980. This 65 percent growth was fueled largely by the availability of rental floats, which allowed groups with limited resources to form new krewes.

While several parades had shared floats starting in the 1940s, it was Blaine Kern who turned the concept into a business. The celebration became more democratic, broadening the parading base to include more of the middle class.

The geography of Carnival also moved to the east and north, with three new parades in New Orleans East, six in St. Bernard Parish and the first major parade in Slidell (Perseus in 1970). In 1974, the Krewe of Argus brought the first Fat Tuesday parade to Metairie.

Mardi Gras also became more socially inclusive during the 1970s. In 1972, the Mystick Krewe of Apollo presented the first gay ball at the Municipal Auditorium. The following year, Zulu admitted its first white rider. Two years later, Rex invited African-Americans to its ball for the first time.

Avant-garde groups such as the Mystick Orphans and Misfits and the Krewe of Clones also began celebrating Carnival in their own unique ways. These groups were the forebears of today’s alternative parades.

In 1976, Endymion introduced Carnival’s first superfloat, the “Papa Joe’s S.S. Endymion,” which measured a then-astounding 56 feet in length.

The growth in the number of parades caused government officials to consolidate parade routes. In 1979, Metairie inaugurated the standard parade route it still employs today.

When St. Bernard Parish’s Krewe of Amor opened its ranks to men and women in 1970, it started a trend that would alter the basic structure of Carnival clubs. Single-gender clubs had been the standard for 113 years.

Historic firsts from the decade include Bacchus parading through the Superdome, the first appearance in print of a parade critic and the first study of the celebration’s economic impact.

After the Municipal Auditorium’s ball schedule peaked at 68 events in 1973, new krewes began to reject the traditional tableaux ball format. They replaced it with lavish presentations at downtown hotels and in such facilities as the Rivergate and the Superdome.

Glass beads from Czechoslovakia were phased out and replaced by plastic necklaces from Hong Kong, while doubloons enjoyed incredible popularity. Soon other krewe logo merchandise emerged, and a new industry was born, with cups leading the way.

Surviving krewes founded in the 1970s include Argus, Cleopatra, Isis, King Arthur, NOMTOC and Pontchartrain.