In the early twentieth century, the French Opera House was the center of social life for New Orleans’ elite. The most well-known families owned boxes and would regularly attend the shows and balls held at the wonderful building located on the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse. In the late 1910s, the French Opera House became an afterthought as Americans were focused on the Great War. As the decade was coming to a close, the war was ending as well, and excitement grew to return to the Opera season and the famous Mardi Gras balls held at the Opera House. In December 1919 tragedy struck the French Opera House and the elite social class that used it as the city of New Orleans was bright with flames as the Opera House burned to the ground. This single night would have a lasting impact on Mardi Gras for years to come.
The French Opera House in New Orleans used to be the center of the season as it would host the famous krewe balls. Mardi Gras balls were the most eloquent and prestigious events in the South. It was the highlight of krewe members during the Carnival season as they get to celebrate them being in the highest class in New Orleans society. Being in a krewe meant you were towards the top of the social order in New Orleans. Holding a celebration yearly was the highlight of the year as you get to show off your wealth to everyone else. Things all changed however when the Old French Opera House burned down in December 1919.
The late 1910s were not kind to the New Orleans Mardi Gras season as World War I was ravaging Europe and the United States was in the middle of it. 1918 and 1919 did not even have Mardi Gras celebrations and the 1920 festivities were very small due to the war. Normal operations were supposed to return in 1921 for the first time in over three years, but a major factor was missing: the French Opera House. The Old French Opera House was opened in 1859 and was located in the middle of the French Quarter on Bourbon street. The House hosted many famous operas and plays performed for New Orleans’ elite. The most important part of the Opera House was that it hosted the Mardi Gras balls for the largest krewes at the time. Every year Krewes such as Rex, Momus, and Comus gathered here to host their ornate celebrations. In December of 1919, the French Opera House caught on fire and burned to the ground. The impact of the fire was really felt for the 1921 Mardi Gras season. The only famous krewe to be a part of the 1921 season was Rex. Momus, Comus, and Proteus all canceled their parades and balls due to not having a place to hold their celebrations. This put a real damper on the 1921 Carnival season, but it gave Rex an opportunity to be in the spotlight and become the face of Mardi Gras1.
Mardi Gras pre World War I was known for its old time glamour. The members of the mystic krewes were direct ancestors of Confederate war veterans and wealthy plantation owners. Krewes and their celebrations were for the elite, wealthy white citizens of New Orleans made famous with old time money. The balls were thrown the same way for years and Mardi Gras had a certain Old World feel to it. The French Opera House played a major role in this perception that the holiday had. The same people who attended the balls every Mardi Gras season, were also in attendance to the many classical operas at the French Opera House. Citizens were worried about the reputation of Mardi Gras even before the House burned down as there was no Mardi Gras for three years, and the fire affected a fourth. There was fear to New Orleanians that the holiday lost its old time luster that made the Carnival season what it was2. That fear was built up even more after the burning as the French Opera House was a main image of old time New Orleans Mardi Gras. Local leaders in New Orleans at the time promised the people that the French Opera House will be rebuilt and that magic old time Mardi Gras will return3. Leaders of the mystic krewes in Comus, Momus, and Proteus that did not parade in 1921 told New Orleanians that they will return in 1922 with hopefully a new Opera House or a magnificent building just like it. They will hold their majestic balls again and the parades will be back and better than ever. While these krewes chose to focus on rebuilding their image with wealth and a building they can express that in, Rex took the center stage and was the baton of the 1921 Mardi Gras celebrations. They found a smaller, less elegant venue for their ball in the Elks cellar and held their parade which was said to, in spite of it all, have unusual brilliancy. Rex not only had a successful Carnival season, but also showed the world Mardi Gras can be done without all the old time brilliance that was thought of with the holiday.
Despite many efforts, the French Opera House could not be rebuilt and no building of such a grand proportion took its place. The traditional old time Mardi Gras reputation also seemed to go up in flames. The 1920s brought great change to Mardi Gras and made parading down St. Charles Avenue a less exclusive activity. More krewes were formed such as the Elks Krewe of Orleanians, and others, such as the mostly African American krewe of Zulu, grew in popularity. These krewes emerged for more kinds of people other than rich and elite white men. Visitors to New Orleans for Mardi Gras were at an all time high as people flocked to South Louisiana to enjoy the holiday along with the new style of music known as jazz. People began to forget the Old French Opera House with its royal balls and grand opera performances. They became a thing of the past and those once worried that Mardi Gras would struggle without the eloquence the French Opera House brought were no longer as they could see the holiday flourishing. Comus, Momus, Rex, and Proteus still had their fancy balls, and their parades were still the highlight of Mardi Gras, but they were no longer all the holiday had to offer. Mardi Gras had turned into a middle class people’s holiday rather than an elite holiday in which only the wealthy could participate.
Written By: Tucker Ganley
Originally Published: December 12th, 2020 || Last Updated: February 14th, 2022
A part of Doc Studio’s History of the New Orleans Landscape Collection
- “Carnival Spirit Spreads As Rex Resumes Reign City Puts On Her Gala Attire of Purple,” Times-Picayune, February 7, 1921, Access World News – Historical and Current.
- “Carnival Celebration In New Orleans Not Thing Of Past Resumption in All Its Old Time,” Times-Picayune, January 16, 1921, Access World News – Historical and Current.
- “To Work To Rebuild French Opera Here Commerce Association Directors Commit Themselves to Important Task,” Times-Picayune, December 11, 1920, Access World News – Historical and Current.