NORTA 922 carrying the Phunny Phorty Phellows on Twelfth Night.
NORTA 922 and the Phunny Phorty Phellows, Twelfth Night, 2023. Kerri Becker photo.
Seeing NORTA 922 carrying the Phunny Phorty Phellows is a treat.
The Phunny Phorty Phellows (PPP) announce the arrival of the Carnival season. While there are other organizations parading on Twelfth Night, PPP are the senior members of the cohort. We’ve written a bit about PPP here, but the star of this post isn’t the krewe. It’s the streetcar! NORTA 922 is one of the remaining vintage 1923-24 arch roof streetcars designed by Perley A. Thomas. They dominated the New Orleans transit landscape from their debut to the conversion of the Canal Street line to buses in 1964. There are 35 remaining 900-series cars.
A streetcar numbered 922
While any of the “green streetcars” is more than capable of transporting PPP on their run, NORTA 922 adds a bit of flair to the proceedings. It’s the streetcar from the streetcar movie. The film adaptation of Tennesee Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire required a streetcar. The rail department of New Orleans Public Service, Incorporated (NOPSI) chose car 922 to be the streetcar. The movie opens with it, and the rest is, well, less history and more legend.
So, NORTA 922 was a movie star. By the 1970s, however, an imposter took credit for 922’s starring role! NOPSI 453, a wood-frame Brill streetcar, received the appelation, “Streetcar Named Desire.” This streetcar functioned for decades as the “training car.” NOPSI installed it at their facility on Tchoupitoulas Street and Napoleon Avenue. They rigged the operator’s console with the same equipment as the 900-series. New-hire motormen (and the “motorettes” during WWII) trained on 453. It was set up to rock and bump. Senior motormen taught the new folks.
As streetcar service in New Orleans dwindled, so did the training needs. NOPSI 453 stood idle. The story of how this streetcar became identified with the movie is fascinating. I invite you to go read this article by Earl W. Hampton, Jr. and H. George Friedman, Jr., for details and lots of photos.
922 back at work
In the meantime, NOPSI 922 went back to work on the St. Charles line. It’s done its duty well, coming up on a century of service. One of those duties is charter rides, like the PPP. On Twelfth Night, the news folks and photographers head to Carrollton Station to see off the year’s designated driver. They file their stories and go home, as the streetcar rolls the krewe down S. Carrollton Avenue, turning onto St. Charles Avenue. They announce the start of Carnival along St. Charles. When the streetcar reaches Tivoli Circle, the streetcar circles around. It becomes an outbound car, returning to the barn.
On a side note, streetcar 922 started live as NOPSI 922, and was designated as such from when it first rolled out of the barn. In 1983, NOPSI transferred its transit division to a new entity. The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority assumed control of the city’s transit routes and assets. So, those 35 green streetcars switched to the new notation.
Phunny Phorty Phellows begin Carnival on Twelfth Night.
Members of the Phunny Phorty Phellows prepare for their uptown ride on January 6, 1994. (Infrogmation photo)
Phunny Phorty Phellows begin Carnival
While the “society” folk attend the bal masque of the Twelfth Night Revelers, the Phunny Phorty Phellows begin carnival on the streets of New Orleans. The PPP ride streetcars, announcing the start of Carnival. The title of one of Erroll Laborde’s books says it all: I Never Danced with an Eggplant (on a Streetcar Before): Chronicles of Life and Adventures in New Orleans.
The Original PPP
On Mardi Gras in 1878, a group of men followed behind the Rex parade, mocking the King of Carnival and his procession. These “Phunny Phorty Phellows” continued to follow Rex until 1885, when they disbanded.
In 1981, group of New Orleanians desired to form a new Carnival organization. Some were part of the original “Krewe of Clones,” the spiritual predecessors of what is now the Krewe du Vieux. A bit older at that point, this group wanted to revive the whimsy of the Clones. To keep costs reasonable and make the outing a ride rather than a march/walk, they decided to charter a NOPSI streetcar. They chose to revive the name, Phunny Phorty Phellows, even though the new group included women.
On the evening of January 6th, the PPP gather at 6:30pm at NORTRA’s Carrollton Station. At 7pm, they roll out of the streetcar barn on Willow Street in a pair of arch roof streetcars. They roll down S. Carrollton and St. Charles Avenues, announcing the start of Carnival. The streetcars circle around Leah Chase Circle, then return to the barn.
The PPP do not have an annual theme, as do many krewes. They don costumes of their choosing, mask up, and have a good time. While NOPSI (and later, NORTA) allowed consumption of alcohol on “party car” rides in the early years of the PPP, risk management rules changed this in recent years. A good time is had by all, nonetheless, as seen in this 1994 Infrogmation photo.
The PPP aren’t rolling in 2021. We look forward to their return next year.
New Orleans brewing dates back to the earliest German families in the city.
ED note: This article originally appeared at GoNOLA.com in 2012. Updated with different images and some additional history.
JAX Brewery, Decatur Street, 2013, Ed Johnson photo.
New Orleans Brewing
The German celebration of Oktoberfest is defined by beer. New Orleans has enjoyed a long love affair with beer, chiefly in part because New Orleans has had a strong German community since the 1700s. Those German families built up a strong local beer industry, laying the foundation for today’s excellent local New Orleans brewpubs and craft beers resulting in serious Oktoberfestivities.
Germans have lived in New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana since the 1720s, since the days of John Law’s Mississippi Company. The biggest influx of Germans into New Orleans took place in the 1850s, the result of the turmoil of the mid-late 1840s in Continental Europe. By the late 1850s, the Germans were a strong force in the community, with their own church in the Irish Channel that rivaled the one the Irish built across the street.
Maginnis Cotton Mills, originally the Fasnacht Brewery. Illustration in New Orleans, the Crescent City, as it Appears in the Year 1895.
The first commercial brewery in New Orleans was opened in 1852 by Louis Fasnacht. Fasnacht and his brother, Samuel, came to New Orleans from Switzerland in 1846. They bought the Poeyfarre’ family home, located at Constance and Poeyfarre’ streets, and built their brewery next to it. The Fasnacht brewery did not survive the Southern Rebellion’s tight economic times. The brothers sold the brewery in 1869. The location became Erath and Company Brewery. The Fasnachts re-acquired the brewery in 1872. They closed for good in 1875. The site became the A. A. Maginnis Cotton Mill in 1882. The building is now the Cotton Mill Apartments.
The re-opening of the port after the rebels surrendered the city encouraged others to open breweries, most notably George Merz, in 1869. Merz brewed lager beer. Lagers require cooling. Purchasing ice from Maine boosted the price of Merz’s beer. He operated the Old Canal Brewery in the block bounded by Villere, Toulouse, Robertson & St. Louis. (“Old Canal” refers to the Carondelet Canal, built in 1795.)
Brewing lager made Merz an innovator as well as a brewmeister. He acquired an air compression system built by a Frenchman, Charles Tellier, to improve cooling in his plant. Merz hired a local engineer, F. V. De Coppet, to install it. The Merz brewery became the first with air-conditioning with this installation. Tellier’s system ultimately did not work out as A/C, but De Coppet modified it as an ice-making machine, acquiring several patents for his work.
Brewing continued to grow in the 1870s, and by 1880s, New Orleans became the largest beer-making city in the South. Merz’s Old Canal Brewery, Southern Brewing Company, Crescent City Brewing, Weckerling Brewery, Pelican Brewery, Lafayette Brewing, and Louisiana Brewery all distributed their beverages regionally. Steamboats heading up the Mississippi River and sailing ships connecting ports along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts spread the popularity of New Orleans beer. As part of the cycle of business growth, the industry eventually grew to the point where it was ripe for acquisition. To avoid acquisition by a syndicate of Englishmen, the German brewers merged their operations into the New Orleans Brewing Company, basing their operations at the Louisiana Brewery plant at Jackson Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street, Uptown, and the Weckerling plant, located at what is now the Louisiana Pavillion of the National World War II Museum, in the Warehouse District.
American Brewing Co. truck, featuring Regal Beer ads, 29-Oct-1954. Franck Studios photo via HNOC.
The American Brewing Company opened in 1891. American acquired an old winery on Bourbon Street, between Bienville and Conti Streets. They brewed “Regal” beer. The name is “Lager” backwards! American brewed Regal until 1962.
In 1891, a group of investors opened a brewery across from Jackson Square in the French Quarter. They named their company after the famous general whose statue dominated the square. By the late 1890s, restaurateur Lawrence Fabacher acquired the Jackson Brewing Company. The company purchased the “JAX” beer name from a company in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1956. The facility closed in 1974, to be resurrected as a specialty shopping center in 1984.
Dixie Brewery. Unnamed illustration for the article, “New Brewery Opens: Magnificent Plant on Tulane Avenue Receives Guests.” The Daily Picayune 1 November 1907, p. 6
In 1907, Merz’ son, Valentine, built the brewery at 2401 Tulane Avenue, and the family began to brand their product “Dixie Beer.” Dixie grew in popularity, becoming a top-seller prior to Prohibition. The beer regained its position as one of the city’s popular brands when the 18th Amendment was repealed. In 1982, Coy International acquired the brewery. They sold it to Joe and Kendra Elliot Bruno in 1985. The Brunos filed for Chapter 11 protection in 1989, coming out of reorganization in 1992. Dixie added other beers, including Blackened Voodoo and Crimson Voodoo. The plant was severely damaged during the Federal Flooding of 2005. The Tulane Avenue location never re-opened, and the Dixie brand was farmed out to a Wisconsin producer.
The iconic Tulane Avenue location merged into the new Veterans Administration hospital, in Mid-City’s medical complex. In 2017, Tom and Gayle Benson acquired the Dixie brand from the Brunos. Tom Benson died in 2017. Gayle Benson opened a new brewery for Dixie in 2018. On 26-June-2020, Benson announced re-branding of her beer. The brewery will drop the “Dixie” name.
The German community recognized the need to control the distribution and retail aspects of the beer business, so they opened up a number of restaurants and bars across the city, outlets that would in turn sell their beer. This synergy of manufacturing and retail continued to grow through the end of the 19th Century and into the 20th, but hit a brick wall with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. Most of the small breweries were unable to survive Prohibition, so the industry was quite changed until it could resume legal production in 1933. St. Louis-based Falstaff moved into the New Orleans market with its acquisition of National Brewing in 1936.
Falstaff Brewery, 2600 Gravier St, ca 1949-1950. Franck Studios photo via HNOC
By the 1950s, the incredible diversity of the industry prior to Prohibition was reduced to four brands: Falstaff, Regal, Dixie, and JAX, controlling 80% of the New Orleans market. As the Interstate Highway system expanded, it became easier for national companies to distribute their products, making it more and more difficult for local companies to compete. JAX, Falstaff, and Regal all closed their plants, leaving Dixie as the only old-line brewery left in town. Hurricane Katrina did Dixie in, the owners moving production of the beer to Wisconsin, since the storm did such horrendous damage to the Tulane Avenue plant.
Maskers prepare to board a streetcar in the Phunny Phorty Phellows parade, 6-Jan-2012, dressed as mugs of Abita Beer. Infrogmation photo.
Micro/Craft brewing came to metro New Orleans in 1986, with the opening of Abita Brewing Company on the Northshore. The last 25 years have seen incredible growth of this industry, including new breweries and several brewpubs in town. Like many industries, extreme consolidation opens up opportunities for small operators, who continue the tradition of the Germans of New Orleans.
(Thanks and a raise of my NOLA Brewery tulip glass to www.thebeerbudda.com for great background info!)
Twelfth Night Reveling is how we start Carnival in New Orleans.
Replica of the gold “bean” given to the Queen of the Twelfth Night Revelers, at their January 6th bal masque, hanging on the wall at Antoine’s Restaurant. (Edward Branley photo)
Twelfth Night Reveling
Bywater Bakery’s “King Cake Kickoff” was a full-on block party in 2019. (Infrogmation photo)
While some parts of the Christian world may differ on dates, January 6 is usually recognized as the Feast of the Epiphany. The Magi, or Three Wise Men, visited the Christ Child. In most of Christendom, Epiphany marks the end of the holiday season. The Christmas tree vanishes. The decorations return to the attic for another year. Life goes on.
Except in New Orleans.
As the sun sets on Jan. 6, and the rest of the world formally gets back to normal life, New Orleanians celebrates King’s Day. Carnival begins!
A bit of explanation is in order here: One has to keep in mind that prior to our now-very-secular society, even Catholics toned down the Christmas season.
Advent begins four weeks before Christmas. Catholics observe a time of fasting and penance. They (along with other denominations) prepare for Christ’s birth. While the season of Advent largely ignored these days in modern society, pre-Christmas celebrations lead to post-Christmas and New Year’s parties. Then Carnival time arrives.
Yes, it makes it look like New Orleanians party all the time. No, we don’t care.
Twelfth Night History
The origins of the Twelfth Night celebration go back to pre-Christian traditions in Europe. The Roman winter celebrations of Saturnalia and the Celtic Yule feasts were continued even after Christianity began to dominate in the region.
Many Celts, for example, believed in the tradition of the “Sacred King,” who would be sacrificed to the land. His spilled blood anointed and fertilized the land. Catholic priests discouraged such sacrifices but allowed the Celts to continue their celebrations. The “Sacred King” softened to become the “Lord of Misrule,” who ruled over the village or tribe for the celebration. This notion — that a commoner could rule, however briefly — was part of the Twelfth Night tradition of turning things upside-down.
A common thread to these celebrations is how the “king” or “lord” was chosen. A fancy bread or cake was baked, and all the eligible men in the village would get a piece. In one of those pieces would be a gold or silver bean. Whoever got the bean became king or lord. In turn, they were required to bake a cake or dessert for the next big celebration.
The notion — that a commoner could rule, however briefly — was part of the Twelfth Night tradition of turning things upside-down.
There are numerous literary references to Epiphany celebrations, the most famous being Shakespeare’s play, “Twelfth Night.” The Celtic tradition continued in Britain, Ireland, France, and Spain — and eventually New Orleans — with variations reflecting the culture and cuisine of each region.
Establishing Twelfth Night Traditions in NOLA
Program for the first bal masque of the Twelfth Night Revelers, 1870. (Courtesy NOPL)
After the Mystick Krewe of Comus revived public celebration of Mardi Gras with their parade in 1857, another group of New Orleanians followed. The Twelfth Night Revelers (TNR) added English-rooted traditions to their celebrations, naming their king the “Lord of Misrule.” Twelfth Night Reveling happened behind the closed doors of the French Opera House.
TNR first paraded through the streets of New Orleans in 1870, ending their evening with a tableau bal masque. At their ball, TNR brought out a large king cake with a gold bean inside that was sliced up and served to the ladies in attendance. Twelfth Night Reveling focused on the society folks.
The krewe lost the bean that first year. They kept a closer eye on it in future years. TNR paraded until 1878. Now, the krewe just holds a bal masque. TNR re-organized a couple of times in the 1880s. They settled the structure in the 1890s. Nowadays, the king cake is a wooden model. The “bakers” (members of the crew) and “junior cooks” (their sons and grandsons) wheel out the “cake.” Single ladies open drawers in the “cake.” They retrieve the gold and silver beans. With that revelation, Carnival season is formally opened.
Modern Twelfth Night Reveling: Parades and King Cakes
King Cake from Haydel’s Bakery. (Infrogmation photo)
While the members of TNR and their ladies share an Epiphany feast at Antoine’s, members of the Phunny Phorty Phellows ride the streetcars. They roll from Carrollton Station, down St. Charles Avenue. Krewe members on the streetcars announce to one and all that Carnival has begun. In the French Quarter, the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc parades to commemorate Joan of Arc’s birthday and Twelfth night all at once. Krewe de Champs d’Elysee ride streetcars on the Rampart Street spur. They roll to Elysian Fields Avenue, announcing Carnival to the downtown folks. Other parades start 2-3 weeks before Fat Tuesday.
Twelfth Night Reveling for rest of us? We eat cake. King Cake, that is.
The New Orleans king cake “commercialized” in the 1930s. A number of bakeries sold the treats, including a bean. In the late 1940s and 1950s, after the Great Depression and WWII, celebrations expanded. Many families held “king cake parties” for their children and their friends. Get the bean, have the next party. This tradition harked back to the earliest Twelfth Night celebrations. If you get the bean or the baby in your slice, you’re on the hook for the next king cake.
Haydel’s Bakery and McKenzie Pastry Shoppes replaced the bean with a ceramic baby doll. So, bakeries replaced ceramic with plastic in 1960s. Bakeries make thousands of king cakes every year. They ship them all over the world. It seems like almost every grocery store bakery department does king cakes, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Twelfth Night kicks off Carnival
Broadside announcing the first bal masque of the Twelfth Night Revelers (courtesy the Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane University)
It’s the start of Carnival season. We’ve done a podcast on Twelfth Night that you’ll enjoy listening to. The roots of the Feast of the Epiphany are deep. So much of European Catholicism involves co-opting older traditions. Celebrating King’s Day is one of those co-opts. Rather than human sacrifice, the priests shifted the focus to baby Jesus. What’s important is to allow the people to continue celebrating. And celebrate they did.
Twelfth Night Revelers
The first formal Twelfth Night celebration in New Orleans happened in 1870, when the Twelfth Night Revelers TNR held their first bal masque. TNR appeared on the Carnival scene thirteen years after Comus (1857). TNR chose the first day of Carnival for their celebration, rather than the last. Because their ball opened the season, it evolved into an important event in the debutante season.
Phunny Phorty Phellows
The Storyville Stompers play the 2009 ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows (courtesy Bart Everson)
The Phunny Phorty Phellows (PPP) continued their tradition of announcing the start of the Carnival season last night. While the original PPP rode on horseback, the current incarnation rides streetcars. The PPP ride the traditional “party car” route. View Richard Vallon’s video of the PPP rolling out last night.
They start at Carrollton Station, then ride down S. Carrollton and St. Charles Avenues. At Tivoli Circus, the streetcars make the entire circle, returning to the streetcar barn the way they rode out. Because PPP started when only the St. Charles Line (with its 35 1923-vintage arch roofs) existed, they had no other options.
More Streetcar Parades
A second streetcar celebration followed the PPP last night, the Funky Uptown Krewe (FUK. Yes, we’ll abbreviate it that way, too.) A much-younger group boarded a streetcar after the PPP’s departure from Carrollton Station. It doesn’t get any better. Additionally, the La Société Pas Si Secrète Des Champs-Élysées (Not So Secret Society of Elysian Fields) rides Von Dullen streetcars along the Canal and N. Rampart lines.
Orleans Image Consulting
The video of last night’s PPP ride is courtesy of Richard Vallon and Orleans Image Consulting. Thanks, Richard!