Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Delicious Decadence

By Rich Collins

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  Popeyes isn't the only New Orleans institution celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The crowds of people arriving at the airport this week with suitcases full of sequined costumes, wigs and stiletto heels signal the start of the 25th annual "Southern Decadence" party in the French Quarter.

From Wednesday through Sunday, the city's craziest neighborhood will get even crazier thanks to an influx of revelers decked out in outrageous, eye-catching costumes that call to mind the best Carnival-time celebrations.

A major event on the national "gay calendar," Southern Decadence recently has drawn tens of thousands of people into local hotels, restaurants and bars on the traditionally slow Labor Day weekend. This year, the partyers will mix and mingle at a variety of events located at gay nightclubs and other spots and then congregate for a "walking tour" (i.e., an unofficial parade) of Quarter bars that will begin at 2 p.m. Sunday in front of Golden Lantern, 1239 Royal St. The route is kept secret by the Decadence grand marshal until the big day.

The history of Southern Decadence can be traced to a group of friends living in a Royal Street house in 1972. The house, which was in need of repair, had been dubbed "Belle Reve" in honor of Blanche DuBois' Mississippi plantation in A Streetcar Named Desire. The party planners decided to riff on that theme by requiring all participants to dress as their favorite "decadent Southern" character.

An impromptu parade through the French Quarter and along Esplanade Avenue that year laid the groundwork for future events, and, by 1974, the Southern Decadence visionaries had named Frederick Wright as their first grand marshal. Since Wright's reign, every grand marshal has named a successor responsible for creating the next Decadence theme and helping plan some of the event's particulars. (This year's GM, "Miss Love," designed "A Wedding to Remember 1997.") Over a period of two decades -- and 20 grand marshals -- the event remained an important tradition for the city's gay community, and it provided a late-summer influx of money for many gay bars and restaurants.

But in the past several years, Decadence has transformed into something bigger than ever.

Thanks to parallel developments of the World Wide Web and an emerging national "gay party circuit," the little Labor Day party that used to attract 10,000 locals is expected this year to attract roughly 50,000 visitors. A website (southerndecadence.com) launched last year by the publishers of the gay and lesbian magazine Ambush is receiving roughly a million hits per month from people around the world interested in information about Decadence events, accommodations and history.

Ambush writer George Patterson says the magazine plans to use the 'net to spread the word about Decadence and related events as much as possible. Promotional efforts so far have attracted groups from many states and from as far away as Australia. They're all coming because Decadence has graduated to the level of a popular party circuit that includes Fantasy Fest in Key West, the White Party in South Beach and the Castro Street Fair in San Francisco.

Local businesses certainly don't object to being a part of the scene.

"Really, two years ago, the event took on a whole different tone," says Kyle Scafide, the editor of the gay and lesbian paper Impact (which also has Decadence info on the web at impactnews.com). "Bar owners weigh success by the amount of booze they sell, and a lot of bars sold more during Decadence last year than they sold during Mardi Gras. A lot actually ran out of alcohol, and for a bar on Bourbon Street to run out of alcohol is unimaginable."

Scafide says that in some ways he'd like to see the city pay more attention to an event that's making the Labor Day weekend a lively time for tourism. But he says that can be a double-edged sword, because more attention might mean more regulation. Which could put a damper on some of the fun.

Nobody wants to see Southern Decadence become a victim of its own success. It is, after all, supposed to be less of an economic engine and more of a really great party.

"Decadence is our way to have an end-of-the-summer blowout and to dress up and carry on the tradition they started 25 years ago," says Miss Love. "We're finding that more people come in for this than for Mardi Gras, because it's a lot more fun. You don't have the other crowds to deal with.

"[The point of] Decadence is to have a good time and remember what it's all about, which is to be decadent and celebrate our cultural diversity and to have fun ... but to obey the law."

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

News & Opinion: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Gambit Weekly . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch