What Mardi Gras Looked Like in Vintage Los Angeles

Tina Lerno, Librarian, Digital Content Team,
Olvera Street Mardi Gras revelers
Participants in the Olvera Street Mardi Gras celebrations in fancy costumes, [1995]. Photo credit: Gary Leonard, Los Angeles Photographers Collection

I must confess I didn't really know that much about the history of Mardi Gras, but with a little bit of librarian research, I found out some interesting facts. Mardi Gras—which means Fat Tuesday in French—refers to the Carnival celebration which begins with the Christian feasts of the Epiphany (Three Kings Day) and culminates on the day before Ash Wednesday; the start of the Lenten period. So basically party like a rock star, and eat like Henry the 8th before giving it all up for the next 40 days.

The parades and parties of New Orleans (the other LA), got their start in Mobile, Alabama circa 1699. When the French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville set up camp about 60 miles downriver from the future site of New Orleans and knowing it was Mardi Gras back in France, d'Iberville named the spot Point du Mardi Gras and held a small party. It wasn't until around 1857 that the celebrations started to look like they do today. My favorite fact is the story of the secret societies that grew around the planning of the day (and night). It all started with a group of New Orleans businessmen who called themselves the Mistick Krewe of Comus. They organized a torch-lit Mardi Gras procession complete with marching bands and rolling floats. From there, many other "Krewes" and societies popped up with names like the Krewe of Rex, the Knights of Momus, Krewe of Proteus, Les Mysterieuses and even Krewe of Chewbacchus. There are over 70 Krewes to date. Another fun fact is about the beads and their traditional colors. According to legend, when Russian Grand Duke Alexis visited in 1872, his courtiers handed out purple, green, and gold beads to the party-goers that year, as they were the colors of his home. The trio of shades came to symbolize the festivities and was later assigned meanings: purple for justice, gold for power, and green for faith. Also, every year, one lucky mucky muck is crowned King of the Carnival by the Krewe of Rex. Another tradition is the King Cake, which is only available only during the Mardi Gras season. The cake is traditionally braided and laced with cinnamon, the dough is glazed with purple, green and gold sugar or covered in icing in those same Mardi Gras colors. The King cake also comes with a tiny plastic baby cooked inside. Whoever finds the baby must buy the next cake or get roped into hosting the next party.

Mardi Gras celebrations are held around the world, though New Orleans, LA tends to be the most extravagant. Our own L.A. has been hosting Mardi Gras celebrations for a while as well. Photos in our collection dating back to the 1930s depict the fun and lively carnivals. There is evidence in our newspapers that Mardi Gras was happening here as early as 1887, and L.A.s first ball was held in 1907.

So as they say in LA (the other one), laissez les bon temps rouler!

the Times from Feb 23, 1887
Los Angeles Times, February 23, 1887
LA Newspaper from 1907
High Revelry Before Lent. Los Angeles had her first real Mardi Gras Ball last night. Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1907
giant paper mache heads on Venice Beach
Mardi Gras celebration of 1935 at Venice Beach showing four young ladies on the beach wearing the giant heads which will be used in the parade. Security Pacific National Bank Collection
Mardi Gras parade of 1936 at Venice Beach showing one float with giant characters in masks standing beside the float while one young lady in a swim suit stands atop it.
Mardi Gras parade of 1936 at Venice Beach showing one float with giant characters in masks standing beside the float while one young lady in a swimsuit stands atop it. Security Pacific National Bank Collection
Mardi Gras parade of 1935 or 6 at Venice Beach showing a crowd on both sides of the street as a marcher wearing a costume from "Fun House Venice Pier" marches by.
Mardi Gras parade of 1935 or 6 at Venice Beach showing a crowd on both sides of the street as a marcher wearing a costume from "Fun House Venice Pier" marches by. Security Pacific National Bank Collection
Mardi Gras parade of 1936 at Venice Beach showing a crowd gathered around Neptune and his assistants as he receives the key to the city from the Venice Chamber of Commerce representative.
Mardi Gras parade of 1936 at Venice Beach showing a crowd gathered around Neptune and his assistants as he receives the key to the city from the Venice Chamber of Commerce representative. A couple of parade floats can be seen in the background. Security Pacific National Bank Collection
Bathing beauty parade, Venice Mardi Gras1939
A bevy of beauties parade down a platform "catwalk" in the Bathing Beauty Parade, held at the Venice Beach Mardi Gras. Throngs of people are visible on both sides of the raised platform, watching the girls as they pass. Photograph taken on August 14, 1939. Security Pacific National Bank Collection
Mardi Gras masquers
Photograph caption dated January 28, 1959 reads, "Mrs. Thomas Gairdner, left, chairman of Children's League Valley Committee Mardi Gras Ball, selects masks for occasion with aid of Mmes. Beryl Notthoff and William G. Loose, standing from left. Gala costume benefit fete is set for March 19 in Starlite room of Sportsmen's Lodge." Valley Times Collection
Cruz Ladesma, Mardi Gras King, posing with Mardi Gras Queen.
Cruz Ladesma, Mardi Gras King, posing with Mardi Gras Queen, [ca. 1960]. El Pueblo Monument Photo Collection
Altar society mothers plan Mardi Gras fashion luncheon
Photograph caption reads, "Committee makes Mardi Gras decorations for benefit - From left are Mmes. Miskowiec, Granara and Aylmer." [1963]. Photo credit: Gordon Dean, Valley Times Collection
Mardi Gras parade down Olvera Street, 1960s
Mardi Gras parade down Olvera Street, [ca.1960]. El Pueblo Monument Photo Collection
Queen, King of the Mardi Gras and court parading, 1960s
Queen, King and court parading, [ca.1960s]. El Pueblo Monument Photo Collection
Children in costume for Mardi Gras at the old Plaza and Olvera Street, annually the night before Ash Wednesday
Children in costume for Mardi Gras at the old Plaza and Olvera Street, annually the night before Ash Wednesday, [ca.1960]. El Pueblo Monument Photo Collection
Group in costume including Consuelo de Bonzo
Group in costume including Consuelo de Bonzo, [ca.1960s]. El Pueblo Monument Photo Collection

 

 

 

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