HISTORY OF ARMEINIUS
The first gay carnival krewes began organizing in the late 1950's, as a spoof of the straight carnival balls. They slowly evolved into more serious clubs, but not without much perseverance on the part of our predecessors. A carnival ball follows a particular theme, which is chosen each year by the krewe's Captain. In a carnival krewe, the Captain runs the show.
In the fall of 1968 four friends met with the intention of forming a new gay carnival krewe. They chose the name Armeinius. Why the name Armeinius you may ask. Well in most mythology books, if mentioned at all, Armeinius is given a one-sentence bio that says that he was a lover of Narcissus. We can do better than that…
Many, many years ago, in ancient Greece, among the marble temples and jagged out cropping, there lived a beautiful male youth named Armeinius. Armeinius was friends with both Narcissus and Icarus. Like Icarus, he was given a gift of white feathers, which were considered sacred by the god Apollo, (B.R., Lafayette, Texas and Bum F. Egypt). Unlike Icarus however, Armeinius used his feathers to fashion large structures, which he carried on his shoulders during the annual feast of Dionysus. He became very skilled at this and each year they became bigger and bigger. He was also very skilled at painting his face and it is thought that he introduced the sequined toga to ancient Greece. During the next feast of Dionysus, Armeinius came out with a shoulder piece that challenged Zeus himself. (Girl, he was flawless!) Zeus became so jealous that he sent down a thunderbolt from Mount Olympus and turned Armeinius into a railroad daisy. That is why to this very day, if you hum "Hey, Big Spender" to a railroad daisy...keep reading you will understand.
These four men, our "founding mothers" if you will, were, Wendell Stipelcovich, Don Stratton, Jerry Loner, and Scott Morvant. It was in the true spirit of the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney moves of "lets get together and put on a show!" They formed Armeinius in October of 1968 and scheduled the first ball for February of 1969. They were able to get their friends involved, raise money and design and build the costumes in four months. Other charter members were Tracy Hendrix, Jimmy Hulin and Ernie Apodoca.
As decreed in the krewe by-laws, the Armeinius ball must be held on the night of the last Saturday prior to Mardi Gras. For the past twenty years the venue has been the St. Bernard Civic Auditorium located Chalmette, a stones throwaway from the site where the Battle of New Orleans was fought, 4 miles down river from the French Quarter. But this has not always been the case. The first three balls were at the Labors Union Hall on Tchoupitoulas Street in uptown New Orleans. The krewe still uses this hall for our annual Miss Gay Pride Louisiana Pageant. (link) Ball number four was at The Saxony reception hall/restaurant (now demolished) on Canal Street near Interstate 10 and number five was at the DAV Hall in Arabi, a community just down river. The next three were held in the banquet hall of the St. Bernard Civic Auditorium. Number nine finally made it into the main auditorium where it stayed for three more years. Number 13 moved back to New Orleans at the Theatre for the Performing Arts (now Mahalia Jackson Theatre) at Armstrong Park and the French Quarter. We moved back to St. Bernard for ball number 14 in 1982, where Armeinius has remained.
The Armeinius logo "A" was designed by David Peltier, King Armeinius VIII, and was first used on the program for the 1974 ball, "Lilies of the Field". Previous to this, in the early years, we had a crest that featured a chalice. That is why, until very recently, the Queen and King carried a goblet instead of a scepter. The goblets were gifts to the Captain, Queen and King from the club and made wonderful keepsakes. We have used Lalique, Waterford and Baccarat crystal as well as silver and in the case of the 1986's "Black Ball", the goblets were iridescent black with a Tiffany-like design. Perhaps, this tradition can return.
The first Armeinius ball in 1969 had as its theme "Year of the Queen", and there actually was a costume called "Size Queen" which featured a purple penis and a tape measure. The theme was certainly prophetic, as the Stonewall Riots and the beginning of the gay rights movement was just a few months away. The Captain, Wendell, was a big "69". Stratton was "Queen Bee" and wore two kitchen colanders over his face decorated to look like bee eyes. He swore, "never again!" and has been glamorous ever since. Incidentally, he has been in 33 of the 35 Armeinius balls and is the only founding member still in the krewe. Jerry Loner was Armeinius's first Queen who reigned as Cleopatra. The next year, Wendell, never one to take the easy way out, designed Jerry's return as Cleopatra with two muscular slaves pulling her out on a float and seated on a throne flanked by two lions. Jerry, you must understand, was no small queen. Wendell, unable to find anything else, had placed two concrete lions on the float and the slave's struggle was genuine but to the unknowing audience the struggle was not attributed to the lions. The efforts of those formative years will remain dear in the hearts of all members.
The Second ball had as its theme "Armeinius Gardens" a name derived from Harmonica Gardens, the restaurant in Hello Dolly. The program was a menu and the evening started with the appetizer, Shrimp Cocktail-the Captain, and ended with dessert, Cherries Jubilee-the Queen. The captain wanted to make his entrance as "Shrimp Cocktail" reclining in a five foot tall Plexiglas champagne glass. When he went to a fabricator to have the glass built, the guy inquired, "bet you're gonna have a pretty girl in that glass." The captain looking down his nose and retorted, "Indeed not, I'm going to be in it." He later sold the glass to a stripper on Bourbon Street. Who used it in her act for years
That year the ball was held at the Laborers' Union Hall, which has only minimal backstage space so the costumes had to enter through the double doors from the foyer. Cherries Jubilee was too wide and too high to enter that way, so a room had to be built as part of the set to contain the Queen (Don Stratton). The poor queen had to be dressed, made-up and in place before the union hall doors opened to the public and had to remain there isolated for hours. Even though she had been up all night and in pain from the hoop skirt, Stratton was a radiant and gracious queen as pictures from the ball indicate. To add insult to injury, the captain made her load the truck at the end of the ball!
For many years, we had original sets some were designed by krewe members. For two years, they were designed and built by Rick Paul who does sets for Tulane Summer Lyric Theatre. Another two years, the sets were designed and built by Constantine Kritikos, who was the designer for the New Orleans Opera Association and went on to design for the Houston Grand Opera. Many more came from commercial studios that specialize in New Orleans Carnival sets, of course, we members still add our own special decorative touches as we need them.
I compiled the following interesting ball stories for a memorial ball program however the editor claimed them as his own. So, now I'm taking back the authorship and sharing them once again.
Ball III-1971 Atlantis Redividous
The captain unwittingly gave a costume composed of dozens of large eyeballs to a member with one glass eye. During the presentation of the costume, one of the eyes fell off, rolled conspicuously across the floor and landed at the captain's feet.
Ball IV-1972 Gala Evening
The Queen had the vapors backstage from the makeup applied and the only person left with him was frantically looking for someone to send out in his place. The Queen's music started, the curtains opened and no Queen. The curtains closed and the Captain came to center stage, stuck her head through the curtains, and in her best stage whisper said, "You have ten seconds to get your pussy on stage!" Luckily that cleared the Queen's head, and when the curtains next parted, he was there.
Ball VI-1974 Lilies of the Field
The Captain decreed that nothing but white feathers were to be used on every costume. Every type of feather was used, but in white. Our New York feather supplier said that this was his biggest white feather order since Ziegfield.
Ball VIII-1976 Grand Illusions
The Captain wanted four nearly nude young men as horses with long boas as tails. He neglected to make the tail attachment however. The night of the ball, he called each into his dressing room, put hot glue on the boa, and slapped it onto their bare asses. Three never came back next year, but one did!
Ball IX- 1977 Girls of the Golden West
The Captain wanted to have a live horse on stage to carry the ball lieutenant. With much difficulty and no rehearsal, he was put on the horse and the reins given to a hapless member to hold. When the curtains opened, the lights and noise so spooked the poor animal that he bolted off stage to the wings, sending the costumed members backstage running for dear life. A second try was made with more success.
Ball XIII-1980 All That Glitters
The Queen kept adding things to her crown. On the day of the ball he added one dangling crystal too many. At his entrance, his wire collar swooped up over his head, got caught on the dangling crystal, and lifted off crown and wig, revealing her rather baldhead.
Ball XV- 1983 Great Disasters of the Western World
Henry Denoux was the San Francisco Earthquake, on skates. Miss Denoux practiced coming down the ramp, holding up his hoopskirt, as graceful as you please. But on the night of the Ball, he got so carried away by the excitement of it all that, instead of holding up his hoop, he threw his arms up into the air. Of course, the hoop caught up in the skates, and poor Miss Denoux came tumbling down the ramp headfirst. Being the trooped that he was, he got up tore off the offending hoop, straightened his tits and glided across the floor to the approval of the crowd. The Captain, livid, swore that the bitch planned the whole thing.
As you can imagine, there is more to putting on a ball than building costumes and sets. Armeinius and all other carnival krewes have fundraiser's. In straight krewes this means bingo and dinners, but in gay krewes it's DRAG.
In a few old warehouses in the Faubourg Marigny many of the gay krewes rented studio space. Scattered throughout the various floors of the building where the dens of Armeinius and our sister krewes. There existed an artist colony atmosphere, with a bit of gossip here and there. Today, only Armeinius and Lords of Leather continue the tradition of building costumes at their own studio or Mardi Gras den.
Many of us in Armeinius enjoyed going to New York to shop for fabric, trim and feathers and to see the latest Broadway shows. At the first Armeinius studio on Orleans Street, we had a phonograph on which we played mainly Broadway Show tunes from the cast albums while we worked on the ball. This "love of Broadway" inspired al fundraising function that we called "Broadway Babies".
The first one was held at the Laborer's Union Hall. What made it special was that we had to sing the numbers ourselves, no lip-syncing. We rehearsed, singing and dancing, for six weeks. We made the costumes and built sets. The first show was a success!
Our second show was more ambitious. We rented the now defunct Gallery Circle Theater for two weekends and called it "Broadway Babies at the Palace". We gave four performances complete with three musicians and a professional choreographer. After the forth performance we were really good, or so we thought anyway.
An officer of a straight women's carnival krewe in St. Bernard Parish (a suburb of New Orleans) saw the show and invited us to repeat it as a fundraiser for them for a flat fee. So, we took Broadway Babies on the road . . . . . . to Chalmette.
After we arrived, and while getting made up, we had second thoughts. How would a straight conservative Chalmette audience take to our rather "glamorous" show? We decided that some of our members should keep their car engines running in case we had to make a hasty exit.
We opened with "Hey, Big Spender" and at the end of the number we were greeted by stone silence. (sound like a scene from Pricilla Queen of the Desert?) We nervously looked at each other for what seemed like an eternity, but was actually only a few seconds before we got a standing ovation. After that, we were home free. They loved us. As we were packing to leave, the women and their husbands insisted that we stay and party with them. We all collected several phone numbers that night.
Once you become a Queen of the Armeinius ball that puts you into an entirely separate category of queen. You automatically become a member of the Queens' Guild, also know as the Vipers or Snakes. Ok, maybe that's not so out of the ordinary for a queen, but what is, is the superstition in the Queens' Guild that the life expectance of the queens of even numbers is greater than that of the odd queens. The statistics prove this out.
In 1981, our queen was Tom Wood (no, not that Tom Wood of the bars). Her stage name was Miss Nunnguesser. He was a brilliant man whose wicked sense of humor was treasured by all of us. Miss Nunnguesser loved to party despite the fact that he was diabetic. Well, it all caught up with him and his condition was grave in the months leading up to the ball.
That year the ball was held at the Theater for the Performing Arts and everyone was convinced that he would not live to be queen. He had by now lost the use of his legs. When the curtain went up on the King and Queen, Miss Nunnguesser was slumped on the throne, head to one side and his eyes were closed. The audience gasped, had he died on the throne? No, he had one more trick up his sleeve. Knowing what everyone expected, he tricked us. He raised his head and gave the audience his radiant smile. He was gleefully wheeled around the stage on his mobile throne.
Tom died a short time after the ball and his family told us that being queen kept him alive a few more precious months. Miss Nunnguesser was Queen Armeinius XIII. Odd number! Many an odd queen have since gone that route.
Over the past 35 years in her association with the gay men of New Orleans gay community, some of repute and some not, Armeinius has had a few scandals.
The treasury was stolen twice. The first time it was missing, we had to have a function every week to have enough money for the ball. The second time, well girl that's still too recent to talk about. On another occasion, although it wasn't stolen, the treasurer kept the money in his piano instead of depositing it in the bank. Just before the ball we discovered that the account was empty but the treasurer was able to account for every dollar . . . from his piano.
Two Queens of Armeinius committed suicide. (odd numbers)
Story goes, one member was murdered by his lover, who was also a member. He claimed it was a boating accident, just like Shelly Winters in "A Place in the Sun".
Another member was said to have been murdered by a trick and his body was not discovered for years.
One member got married to a woman and we promptly threw him out of the club.
At a Le Petit function, one member was caught being indiscreet in the men's room. The function lieutenant became suspicious when the line to the men's room was long well after intermission. Too bad we didn't sell tickets to that.
One member, who worked in a bank, was later discovered to have stolen a million dollars in negotiable bonds. He spent money like there was no tomorrow, money he said he had inherited from his father. He gave the club a gift of $5,000.00! Eventually the bank became suspicious and caught him on the very day he was leaving for Rome and freedom. The club kept the $5,000.00.
One member had a baby by having his live-in trick inseminate the trick's girlfriend. The child was raised by a Queen of Armeinius and his lover, a Queen of Petronius (both now deceased). I always wondered whatever became of "Baby Noodles", the nickname the club have him.
As scandalous as those events were none is as intriguing as the Legend of Queen Armeinius VIII and Lee Harvey Oswald.
The following story is based on a number of conversations with Jules, Queen Armeinius VIII, and although I have no first hand knowledge of the first half of the story, I did witness the tragic consequences that followed and happily the birth of an Armeinius tradition.
Our member, Jules, had a small shop on Chartres Street called Studio Jules from which he did photography and sold souvenirs, film and consignment merchandise. We always teased him about the room in the back of the store with its well-worn sofa, where he "rested."
Long before Armeinius, in the summer of 1963, Jules got a phone call from a friend asking if he had a position for a young man with photographic experience. Jules told him to send the guy over and although he did not have anything, he would make some inquiries. Lee Harvey Oswald came into the shop and Jules was taken with both his appearance and manners. He was intelligent and well spoken and Jules did secure an interview for him with another photographer looking for an assistant. Lee thanked Jules and noted in his diary or journal the kindness Jules showed to him.
November 22, 1963, and Jules is watching TV, along with the rest of America, when on comes Lee Harvey Oswald's picture as the assassin. Jules thought "oh shit" as he recognized the soft-spoken young man. The journal was found and in time Jules was questioned by the Justice Department and ultimately cleared of any involvement with Lee Harvey Oswald. And that was the end of it, or was it?
Fast forward to 1973. Jules is a member of Armeinius, and Studio Jules has become a Chartres Street institution. Jim Garrison, the homophobic New Orleans District Attorney, decides to settle some scores with the gay community who opposed his now infamous prosecution of Clay Shaw. The police raided Studio Jules and the Times Picayune newspaper reported that Jules ran a major French Quarter fencing operation. All of Jules's merchandise was confiscated including my old stereo, which I gave to Jules to sell. In time the police realized that they did not have a case against Jules but refused to return his property, items, which they claimed, had been stolen from the police property room! The legal expenses and loss of his merchandise forced Jules to close Studio Jules. Needing something to occupy his time, Jules got on with Le Petit Theatre and once there, he convinced them to let Armeinius have the dress rehearsal as a fundraising function for the ball. This association with Le Petit continues to this day. Thanks Rita!
Jules was a funny and loveable man. As the "lovely Rita" she emceed several balls with her distinctive voice and humor. For many years Jules built much of Armeinius's costume wirework of the highest quality. Sadly, he passed away before he would tell me if Lee ever made it to the sofa.
I recently received a copy of Father Robert Powell's recollections of his time in New Orleans in the 1980's and it brought back a flood of memories of Armeinius and the beginning of AIDS.
Father Bob saw the need for an AIDS hospice and started Lazarus House in an abandoned convent. He called his friends in Armeinius, especially Jon Lee Poche and Henry Denoux for help and we found ourselves, Armeinius royalty- past, present and future, on our hands and knees scrubbing the floors and toilets. Knowing that I was an architect, Bob asked if I could come up with a workable plan for the second floor. With the help of a friend, we measured the place and worked out a floor plan. Don Downs, a member and contractor, built what I had drawn and Lazarus House opened. Maurice Geisel was the first bookkeeper and another member, Poule d'eau Kyle, put in a lily pond in the weed-infested garden. Earl Punch volunteered as a cook and was active at the house. For several years we took up a collection at the ball, as did other Krewes, to help this important charity. Many others in the community gave their time and money to support Lazarus House as well.
Over the years, Armeinius lost at least a dozen members to the disease, including some who were there on that first day at Lazarus House. Jon Lee and Earl are gone and Henry spent his last days and died in Lazarus House. When my partner Jerry Hocke died, Father Bob did the funeral service for us when I couldn't get a priest.
Of course, the Halloween group has taken over the support of Lazarus House and they do the community a terrific service. However, I am proud that Armeinius was there on our hands and knees at the beginning when it wasn't such a glamorous affair.
Armeinius is justifiably proud of its heritage - of the men who banded together and formed her, and those that have taken part in her functions and tableaux over the many years.