Endymion Thinks Big

Myths and realities of super krewes

Endymion captain Ed Muniz stands beside one of the Pontchartrain Beach float details that is fashioned after his wife, Peggy.

GREG MILES PHOTOGRAPH

Mystery surrounds the character of many figures in Greek mythology, and the lad known as Endymion is no exception. Some literary scholars portray him as a handsome shepherd who fathered dozens of children with a moon goddess. Others peg him as a king endowed by Zeus with eternal youth.

Students of mythology generally agree as to Endymion’s physical attributes, but many seem unaware of another, equally important asset: Endymion knew how to have a good time.

For evidence, look no further than the New Orleans Carnival organization that bears his name. The Krewe of Endymion is far from being the oldest Carnival parading organization, but during the 46 years of its existence it has become the largest such group and a leader among dozens of peers.
Every year on the Saturday before Mardi Gras, the krewe rolls out its massive parade of super-sized floats graced by celebrities and a few thousand other riders tossing huge quantities of trinkets to admiring crowds. The parade is a favorite of many Carnival devotees, particularly denizens of Mid-City who line the route that Endymion has traveled on most Saturday nights before Mardi Gras for several decades.

The krewe’s annual “Extravaganza,” held the evening of the Endymion parade, offers not only the spectacle of Mardi Gras finery and frivolity but also big-name entertainers performing exclusively for the party-goers. In terms of overall bigness, Endymion has come to lead the ranks of the organizations known as “super krewes,” and this year is raising the bar.


 

When the Endymion parade starts rolling on the early evening of Feb. 9, it will feature the largest float ever seen in New Orleans and possibly the world.

Stretching 330 feet, the nine-unit mega-float will carry more than 220 riders and pay tribute to the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park, a popular Lakefront attraction that closed in 1983.

As the parade ends hours later inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the largest single party of Carnival will begin. The Endymion Extravaganza of 2013 is expected to draw 15,000 people for a show and celebration headlined by Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Kelly Clarkson.

The anticipation of the biggest-ever Endymion parade and ball has krewe founder and Captain Ed Muniz marveling over the growth of New Orleans’ signature celebration.

“Mardi Gras is bigger now than it has ever been in my lifetime,” the 72-year-old says.




Endymion has come to lead the ranks of the organizations known as “super krewes,” and this year will feature the largest float ever seen in New Orleans and possibly the world. Stretching 330 feet, the nine-unit mega-float will carry more than 220 riders and pay tribute to the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park (below).




Size matters
Though Muniz claims Endymion doesn’t aim to one-up other krewes, there’s no question the new float will outsize all others, including the Krewe of Orpheus float called “Smoking Mary,” which Orpheus Captain Sonny Borey says has expanded from six to seven sections and will carry more than 200 riders this year.

Muniz says he had been thinking of how to mark Endymion’s 50th anniversary in 2017. But when the National Football League chose New Orleans to host Super Bowl ’13 and he realized that the game would occur just before Mardi Gras, bringing many thousands of extra visitors to the city, he felt this is the year the krewe should make a bigger-than-ever splash.

Having grown up in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans, Muniz had spent considerable time at Pontchartrain Beach in his youth, and it occurred to him that the park was one of the few local icons Endymion had not yet featured in its parade. He got together with the park’s former owners, the Batt family, who offered photos and memorabilia for designers to use in planning a new float.

Setting the tone for Endymion’s 2013 theme “Ancient Mysteries,” the Pontchartrain Beach float will present replicas of the park’s Zephyr roller coaster, carousel, Ferris wheel, haunted house and “Wild Maus” ride, among other features.

Barry Kern, chief financial officer of float builder Blaine Kern Studios, says the float, designed by the studio’s creative chief Damon Bowie, will also offer a light show the likes of which parade-goers haven’t seen before.

Kern shopped for the technology during one of his regular trips to Hong Kong and says the advanced LED system will illuminate alternately on the float with vintage, carnival-style lighting. The float also incorporates scent-generating technology.

“People are going to see an amusement park on wheels going down the street, and they’re also going to smell popcorn and cotton candy,” he says.

Just as important to the show-stopper’s success is the engineering beneath the float. An “articulated,” or segmented, chassis enables maneuvering on narrow streets and turning corners without interrupting the parade’s flow. The float’s solid rubber tires will squelch fears of flats. And pulling the behemoth – which could top 40 tons when fully loaded with riders and beads – will be a tractor similar to those used to tow Boeing 747 airplanes.

Kern, whose father founded the float-building and entertainment business that has become associated with Mardi Gras around the world, says the Pontchartrain Beach float suits Endymion, which has a history of setting Carnival trends.

“Ed Muniz has been a pioneer in Carnival in terms of always wanting to make his parade and show better,” Kern says.

 

 


Paying the Bill
The quest to keep the offerings fresh is expensive for every krewe, but more so for super krewes such as Endymion, Bacchus and Orpheus, which are known for the length of their parades and oversized floats.

Some of the krewes have departed from policies followed by old-line Carnival groups and financed their growth not only through membership dues and bead sales, but also with the sale of tickets to their annual parties.

Tickets to the Endymion Extravaganza this year range from $150 up to $230 if food and drink are included, Muniz says. The revenue helps cover fees paid to the Superdome, catering services and entertainment – the krewe will pay Clarkson $300,000 for her performance.

“Instead of putting on an event that costs us, we put on an event that makes money for the organization,” Muniz says. He calls the extravaganza proceeds “icing on the cake” after the krewe collects dues of about $1,000 per member, and sells each member signature bead-and-trinket packages, which this year include inflatable beach balls.

As a nonprofit, Endymion uses the net proceeds to cover its growth. Krewe president Dan Kelly, who owns Carnival supplier Beads by the Dozen, says big costs for Endymion in recent years included about $300,000 spent to upgrade the captain’s float and incorporate new lighting, and construction of a new float warehouse, or “den,” at a cost of almost $3 million.

“We had about $700,000 to put down and got a loan for the rest, which we paid off in three years,” Kelly says. “We don’t have any bills that we can’t pay.”

Many Carnival krewes adhere to a code of secrecy about their inner workings, and some have become particularly sensitive about financial matters in the wake of fiscal stumbles by a few of their peers. Several suburban parade groups have folded or taken a hiatus due to financial pressures.

In New Orleans, the Krewe of Bacchus made news last summer when several of its members sued the organization to gain access to its financial records. The move followed a reported hike in membership dues from $1,000 to $1,450. The lawsuit named as defendants Bacchus Captain Owen “Pip” Brennan Jr. and his son Owen Brennan III.

While the suit only sought access to records, postings on a Facebook page called “Save the Krewe of Bacchus” suggested that krewe members had larger concerns. While most postings were later removed from the page, news reports last July quoted Facebook comments criticizing the krewe for paying a $138,000 salary to the younger Brennan, as krewe director, and close to $100,000 spent for unspecified travel and out-of-town events. Neither of the Brennans could be reached to comment for this article.

A statement released by the Brennans last summer in response to the criticism stated: “In order to continue to move forward, our Board of Directors has approved an increase in dues and a building fund assessment to lease-purchase our own den ... if there are members of Bacchus who would prefer not to move forward with us, they have every right to resign their membership.”

Robert Kutcher, one of five Bacchus members who sued the organization, declines to comment on the current dues or reported dissension in the ranks, saying only that the records dispute was resolved. “The suit had to do with the ability to inspect the records,” Kutcher says. “We saw the records and the issues were resolved and we’re rolling in February.”

Whatever the outcome, the flap points up the challenges of making Carnival organizations financially viable. No matter what their size, all krewes are dependent on members’ willingness to work as volunteers. For krewe officers, this often means donating substantial amounts of time not just during Carnival season but throughout the year to plan minute details of the parades and parties; arrange entertainment; communicate with members; prepare and mail event invitations; collect dues; and manage bead purchases and ticket sales.

“It’s never-ending,” says Orpheus Captain Borey, who estimates he puts in more than 15 hours a week on Orpheus business. “Some people play golf, I do Orpheus,” he says.

Orpheus employs two full-time workers in its office and adds a part-time staffer in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, Borey says. Like Endymion, the krewe’s revenue comes from dues, bead sales and the after-parade party, known as the Orpheuscapade.

This year’s event, celebrating the organization’s 20th anniversary, will feature krewe founder and Broadway singing star Harry Connick Jr., among other performers. Borey estimates Orpheus will spend $1.5 million on its parade and ball, which is expected to draw 6,000 people.

Ask krewe members why they’re willing to donate so much time to activities that people elsewhere might see as frivolous and they’ll inevitably answer that it’s a labor of love.

Muniz – who likely puts in more time than any other captain given the size of Endymion and the fact that the krewe pays only one part-time employee – admits that many people have questioned his sanity. “They think I’m nuts,” he says.

But he adds that nearly everyone who dips into the Endymion experience for the first time ends up coming back for more. “We’ve got 700 members who live outside Louisiana and come in every year to participate,” he says.



Above: Instead of holding a costly ball the Endymion Extravaganza makes money for the organization. Krewe captain Ed Muniz call the proceeds “icing on the cake.”

 

Lifelong obsession
Muniz believes Carnival is truly in his blood and says his mother is to blame: “She loved Mardi Gras and dragged me to every single parade.”

The only child of his 7th Ward working-class parents, he soaked up New Orleans’ Carnival traditions like a sponge and considered himself lucky years later when he met a girl named Peggy who was equally addicted. Peggy eventually became his wife and through the decades supported not only the founding and growth of Endymion but also her husband’s parallel careers in the radio business and politics.

Muniz began his radio career in the 1960s as an advertising salesman, but quickly learned the nuts and bolts of the business and began buying radio stations, gradually amassing an enviable portfolio. In time, his station ownership would give him the financial freedom to indulge his Endymion obsession. He sold his stations in ’99 at a price said to be near $30 million.

While still in the radio business, Muniz stepped into politics, winning a seat on the Kenner City Council. He later served several stints on the Jefferson Parish Council, and after a short respite was elected mayor of Kenner, serving one term before retiring in 2010.

Muniz figures his diverse experiences enhanced his qualifications as captain of Endymion. Along with growing the krewe’s membership from 140 in its first year of parading to the current 2,700, Muniz says both his radio experience and political instincts have helped him lead the krewe into the big leagues of Carnival entertainment.

Ironically, he credits the Krewe of Bacchus with opening his eyes to the long-range potential of Endymion’s after-parade parties. That happened in 1973, when Blaine “Mr. Mardi Gras” Kern invited him to attend the Sunday night Bacchus ball.

The Krewe of Bacchus was a few years younger than Endymion (which had started as a small Gentilly-based krewe), but it had launched with more members, and in contrast with old-line krewes whose galas mostly centered around the crowning of “royalty,” Bacchus staged annual events that were as much concerts as balls.

On the night that Muniz joined Kern at the Rivergate Auditorium, film and comedy icon Bob Hope reigned as the king of Bacchus, and Muniz recalls the moment when Hope’s float rolled in and the Harry James Orchestra broke into “Thanks for the Memory” as being a stunner.

“Everybody went crazy,” he says. “It was beautiful.”

The experience convinced him that big-deal entertainment at krewe balls was the wave of the future. The following year, “Tonight Show” bandleader Doc Severinsen headlined the Endymion Extravaganza.

In order to make that first big ball financially viable, Endymion needed to increase membership to 400 and sell at least 4,000 ball tickets. “We barely made it,” Muniz says, adding that by the skin of its teeth Endymion had “transitioned into a super krewe.”

Subsequent years brought a long string of big-name headliners to Endymion’s parade and party, including Bobby Vinton, Alice Cooper, Wayne Newton, Neil Sedaka, Lou Rawls, Tom Jones, Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, Stephen Stills, Britney Spears, and last year, Maroon 5.

During that period Endymion went from renting a handful of floats from another krewe to housing 80 of its own floats in three warehouses. “And we have no trouble getting riders to fill them,” Muniz says.

Even so, he admits that Endymion could be nearing its limits. One concern he has is what would become of the krewe if he and other key members were no longer around. “It’s a lot of work, and who else is going to invest this much time and energy?” he asks.

Muniz says the krewe has attempted to answer that question by drawing younger members into its ranks in the hope that they’ll come to love Endymion enough to help it thrive into the future.

It’s ironic, he says, that many students of mythology see Endymion as a god of youth. “We didn’t choose him for that reason,” Muniz says, “but Endymion has been a great leader for this krewe.”

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