“Well, here we go again. Decadence is upon us once more. My God, have any of us sobered up from last year yet?”—SDGM XXXII “Donnie Jay”
Southern Decadence began in 1972 with a group of friends who playfully called themselves the “Decadents.” This core group included Michael Evers, his boyfriend David Randolph, Frederick Wright, Maureen and Charlie Block, Robert Laurent, Tom Tippin, Robert King, and Robert Gore, Preston Hemmings, Bruce Harris, Kathleen Kavanaugh, David Red, Ed Seale, Judy Shapiro, and Jerome Williams. All were young, mostly in college or recently graduated, and counted among themselves male female, black and white, and gay and straight.
Many people are aware Southern Decadence began as a going away party for Michael Evers and a welcome party of sorts for Maureen, but what is not as well known is that there were actually two parties. The “Decadents” met regularly at Randolph and Ever’s home in the Treme, which the dubbed, “Bell Reve,” after the plantation Blanch Dubois lost in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Sunday Night Bourre (a popular card game in South Louisiana) and croquet games were a staple of the Decadents’ social life, as was gathering at Matassa’s bar before a night of carousing in the Quarter.
As Labor Day approached, Randolph, who was roughly ten years older than Evers, had to leave town on family business. Wright was returning from Chicago to visit his good friend Evers. Maureen kept complaining there was nothing to do. School would be starting soon and an end summer party was in order.
The Decadents planned a costume party on the Sunday before Labor Day. It was fun party marked by spiked punch and a lot of drug use, especially marijuana and LSD.
A few weeks later, Evers left to join Randolph in Michigan. Robert Laurent designed and sent out invitations that encouraged all to come dressed as their favorite Decadents to another party to say goodbye to Evers. About fifty people attended the party.
In 1973, the Decadents decided to have another party on the Sunday before Labor Day. Laurent suggested they all meet at Matassa’s and “parade” back to Belle Reve. This was the second Southern decadence but the first parade.
The party continued in 1974 with one notable change. The Decadents chose Frederick Wright to lead the parade. This was the beginning of the Grand Marshal tradition.
In Southern Decadence in New Orleans (LSU Press), Maureen Block, observes, “Frederick simply had to be the first grand marshal. There was no question about it.” Though he did not live in the city, “he would always make time for a stopover in New Orleans for his job travels. . . . Everyone fought to pick him up at the airport. He was the guiding spirit of the group, a natural force. No one knew what he’d do next, the life of the party, but with a huge heart. Just a lovely man.”
By 1980, the focus of Southern Decadence had shifted from the house party to the parade. In 1981, the Grand Marshal’s Parade began at the Golden Lantern, a tradition that continues today.
Another important tradition began in 1987 when SDGM XV Olive introduced the first official theme. There were no themes in 1988 and 1989, but there has been an official theme every year since 1990. It was also in that year that SDGM XVIII Ruby introduced the first official color. SDGM XV Miss Love secured the first parade permit in 1997. The first official song was introduced in 2000 by SDGMs XXVIII Tony Langlinais and Smurf. There has been an official song every year since 2000. SDGMs XXXVIII Toby Lefort and Julien Artressia introduced the first charity. There has been a charity every year since. In 2016, SDGMs XLII Jeffrey Palmquist, Felicia Phillips, Tony Leggio. and Derek Penton-Robichaux introduced the first official shot.
After the advent of the internet in the 1990s, Southern Decadence has grown exponentially in both participants and visitors, as well as in terms of economic impact. Over 300,000 revelers are expected to attend Southern Decadence 2018.
According to Southern Decadence founder and SDGM IV Robert Laurent, “Cheers to Southern Decadence! What began in 1972 as an end-of-summer party among a small group of friends has transformed itself into a Quarter-wide weekend celebration. The first costume party was a farewell to Michael Evers, who was leaving New Orleans. Now, 41 years later, his spirit, wit and sense of frivolity continue, transformed into a celebration of Laissez les bon temps rouler!”