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Rex has been the global symbol of New Orleans’ most famous holiday since his first appearance in 1872. The all-male krewe is responsible for the concept of day parades, for the official Mardi Gras flag and colors – green for faith, gold for power, purple for justice – and for the anthem of Carnival, “If I Ever Cease to Love,” as well as for one of the most popular throws, the doubloon. Sponsored by the School of Design, the 600 men of Rex Operate Pro Bono Publico – For The Public Good. Rex selects an outstanding civic leader to reign over Mardi Gras, and his queen is always a debutante.
Rex has reigned as King of Carnival since he first appeared on Mardi Gras in 1872. Seven generations of New Orleanians and millions of visitors have hailed his majesty and reveled in the glorious traditions of his rule – including the jewel in Rex’s crown: his annual glittering procession of floats on Mardi Gras morning, led by his captain and lieutenants on horseback.
Rex entered the picture in 1872. New Orleans was struggling to recover from the lingering effects of the civil war, and divisions and isolation prevailed. At the same time, many city leaders saw the need to bring some order to the chaotic street parades of Mardi Gras day. The news that Russia's Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff would visit Mardi Gras and New Orleans provided another impetus to add order and brilliance to the day. This portrait shows the Grand Duke as a dashing young man, about the time he made his visit to New Orleans.
The group of young men who founded the Rex Organization hoped not only to entertain the Grand Duke, but also to create a daytime parade that would be attractive and fun for the citizens of the city and their guests. True to the Rex motto, "Pro Bono Publico—for the public good," they succeeded beyond their hopes. They selected one of their members, Lewis J. Solomon, to be the first Rex, King of Carnival. Before he could begin his reign he had to borrow a crown, scepter, and costume from an actor who happened to be performing in town at the time.
The first Rex Parade bore little resemblance to the Rex Processions of later years. Rex rode a horse, not a float. The parade that followed was made up largely of the informal maskers and marchers who were on the streets anyway. The 1873 Rex Procession was better organized and far more grand, beginning a long tradition of colorful and creative parades illustrating a theme selected from the worlds of literature or mythology.
In 1873 Rex held its first ball, and selected the first Queen of Carnival. Carnival balls traditionally were formal and very private affairs, with elegant decorations, tableaux presentations, and with dancing limited to the masked and costumed members and their guests.
The Rex Ball, in keeping with the organization's more public role, was not a masked ball, but rather a formal presentation of Carnival Royalty, followed by grand marches and general dancing. This tradition continues to this day. Elaborate ball invitations were created each year, and have become sought-after and valuable remembrances, another tradition that continues today.
The royal colors of purple, green, and gold have been used since Rex's founding, but the original symbolism intended was never made clear. It would make sense that purple, associated with royalty, and gold, the metal of choice for crowns and scepters, would be chosen, and various rules of heraldry may have been applied. The 1892 Rex Parade's theme, "The Symbolism of Colors," suggested that purple, green, and gold symbolized justice, faith, and power, respectively. The Rex flag displays these colors, arrayed diagonally, with a crown in the center field, and is flown during Carnival season at the homes of past Kings and Queens of Carnival.
Other traditions developed, including Rex's arrival in his Kingdom by boat on the Monday before Mardi Gras. Accompanied by costumed officials, Rex would step grandly from his decorated ship to be conveyed in a grand carriage to City Hall. There city leaders surrendered the keys of the city to the new sovereign of this fanciful and temporary realm.
Rex's reign as "King of Carnival" had begun. The Rex Organization, incorporated as "The School of Design," went to work to achieve the twin goals of presenting a grand daytime procession as the highlight of Mardi Gras day, and to encourage visitors to come to New Orleans to enjoy the celebration. In subsequent years, and to this day, Rex has issued his Official Proclamation of Carnival, and invited his subjects to gather in his "Capital City" to celebrate.
Rex's proclamations and invitations found their way to railroad stations and other public places in faraway cities, and had the desired effect. Mardi Gras in New Orleans helped to heal and strengthen the city almost a century and a half ago, and continues to be a major component of New Orleans' economy.
Visitors have come to New Orleans and enjoyed Mardi Gras year after year, and many new parading organizations have taken to the streets in a Carnival season that now stretches over two weeks. But the culmination of the celebration is still Mardi Gras day, when Rex climbs onto his float and greets his subjects as his Procession passes through the streets of his kingdom.
Thank you to the Rex Organization for providing the information and images above. For more information on Rex, please visit www.rexorganization.com.