145 Fat Tuesdays later, Rex is much more than a Mardi Gras parade
On Feb. 13, 1872, Lewis J. Salomon, a New Orleans businessman, served as the first king of Carnival. The Rex organization, according to Mardi Gras historian Errol Laborde, was formed for three reasons: to provide an appropriately regal greeting for the visiting Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovitch Romanoff of Russia; to give revelers something to enjoy during the day on Fat Tuesday until Comus’ parade rolled that night; and to lure visitors to New Orleans, which needed the economic boost of tourism because it was still in the throes of Reconstruction.
Because of Rex’s international prominence as the king of the annual celebration, the monarch generally has a strong business background and civic résumé. Previous Rexes have included the surgeon Alton Ochsner; A.B. Freeman, who brought Coca-Cola to Louisiana; John G. Weinmann, a former ambassador to Finland; R. King Milling, a former president of Whitney Bank; and Paul McIlhenny, a former head of the company that makes Tabasco sauce.
- Rex introduced doubloons at its 1960 parade. Every other krewe has adopted them, and they have become coveted – and, occasionally, fought-over – souvenirs.
- Legend has it that the Rex anthem, the nonsense song “If Ever I Cease to Love,” was played in 1872 because the grand duke was smitten with Lydia Thompson, who sang it in a show called “Bluebeard” that happened to be in New Orleans at the time. That romance is pure myth, according to researchers and the Rex website, but that hasn’t stopped the Rex organization from playing it year after year at its ball.
- In 1950, New Orleans bluebloods were in a tizzy because the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were coming to Mardi Gras, and there was a great deal of speculation over whether a former king of England and the woman for whom he gave up his throne would bow and curtsy, respectively, before make-believe royalty. They did, at Rex’s and Comus’ balls.
Everyone has their favorite parade, but there is no disputing that Rex’s procession is the signature event of New Orleans’ signature celebration. Its royal roots notwithstanding, Rex is a crowd-pleaser: the music is good, the floats are exquisite, and the throws are distinctive and plentiful. A deeper connection to the community is ingrained in its mission statement, “Pro Bono Publico (For the Public Good).” The Pro Bono Publico Foundation has awarded $5.5 million to local causes since it was created after Katrina.