Halloween New Orleans has played a vital role in the history of Project Lazarus. Begun in 1983, Halloween New Orleans was established as a private nonprofit organization, with the sole purpose of raising funds to support the mission of Project Lazarus. To date, over $4.6 million has been raised by the dedicated members of Halloween New Orleans for Project Lazarus.
The four-day event includes the famous Lazarus Ball on Thursday night, a dance club night on Friday, the main costume party on Saturday night and a Sunday brunch and French Quarter second line parade. This weekend of fun was originally started as a dinner party given by a few people to honor their friends and loved ones who had died from AIDS and has become the single largest cumulative donor to Project Lazarus since the agency’s inception.
You can visit their website page at www.halloweenneworleans.com
Halloween’s in New Orleans
There are little kids who eagerly await Halloween and the fun of dressing up, going trick-or-treating at night, and ending up with a bag full of goodies. Then there are big kids who eagerly await Halloween (and specifically Halloween in New Orleans, the U.S.’s premiere party city), and the fun of dressing up, looking for tricks and treats all night and every night, and ending up with a headfull of memories, a heart full of emotions, and a soul that is just plain full, if not overflowing.
What is now known as Halloween’s in New Orleans began in 1984, when 8 friends got together and invited their out-of-town friends to a private costume party at the Civic Theater in downtown New Orleans, a turn-of-the-century theater that had met an unceremonious closing following its conversion to a disco in the 1970s. These original hosts converted the raw space (vacant for many years) into a party with a style unique to New Orleans, and over 800 people from all over the country showed up – and costumed, as instructed.
Because of the success for the first event, the number of hosts doubled in the second year, and the party was again a smashing success, despite a hurricane that could not make up its mind where to go and a flash flood that created Lake Baronne around the Civic Theater. It was clear that another New Orleans tradition was coming to life.
As the focus of the event was to bring people to New Orleans from out-of-town, and as people were coming for the weekend, other events were added over the next few years. A Friday event became the official welcome party for the out-of-towners, and a jazz brunch on Sunday was added to give everyone a chance to trade stories about the night before and say goodbye. These events were both casual, with rather humble beginnings. The first Friday night event was held in the courtyard of an apartment building on Esplanade Avenue, and the first few Sunday brunches were held at private homes.
In these early years, there was no charge to attend the events. These were private parties. In August, the host would gather, each with their invitation list, and they would invite people personally. This early structure of “friends inviting friends” became a defining element of the organization, and also its greatest strength- to this day, Halloween’s in New Orleans is still composed of a group of friends (now numbering over 350 people) who host a weekend of parties for their friends (and their friends’ friends) from all over the country. While today the parties are open to the public, this personal touch remains and creates an atmosphere of friendliness, love and celebration that would be hard to find anywhere else.
Although it sometimes seems like ancient history, these early years were also years of overwhelming loss and sorrow in the gay community. In what was to become another defining moment for the organization, it was suggested that the main event could serve a dual purpose – to entertain, as it always had, but also to raise money for the ever growing AIDS crisis. In 1987, a non-profit organization (the official name is Halloween’s in New Orleans, Inc.) was created, and proceeds from the event would be dedicated to a home for people living with HIV and AIDS, Project Lazarus. That first year, a donation of $20.00 was requested, and the Saturday party raised over $15,000.00.
The last event was added to the line up in 1988 – it too would be a fundraiser – a black tie cocktail party and seated dinner with a fashion show, held for its first three years at The Westin hotel on the river at Canal Place.
Over the next few years, into the 1990s and the early 2000s, all the events continued to grow. The Friday event evolved into a much larger dance party, and the Sunday jazz brunch became a gospel brunch when it moved to the newly opened House of Blues in 1994. The Thursday event relaxed its formal dress code, discontinued the fashion show and added a wonderful silent auction. The centerpiece event, the Saturday costume party, became a dazzling spectacle, where the venues became secondary and the people in costumes became the primary visual element. Group costumes become common place, some with over 100 people. Competition for attention ran rampant. Excess and extravagance ruled. Surprise and fantasy reigned. Cleopatra was carried through the party by loyal and hunky subjects. Fireman pulled up in a fire truck. A group of Chalmette cheerleaders entered the party in a rented school bus. It was like going to a circus, where everything AT the circus WAS the circus. The Saturday event also found a home for many years at the Delta Queen Steamship Terminal – Robin Street Wharf, before it moved to the Municipal Auditorium, where it remained until 2005.
In 2005, Halloween’s in New Orleans, like all of New Orleans, felt the savage impact of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the city’s levee system. New Orleans was effectively shutdown on August 29, 2005, and its citizens were not allowed to return until October. In those dark days, the all-volunteer board that runs the organization seriously discussed cancelling the entire fundraiser as the hosts were scattered around the country, tourists could not come into the city, and there were no venues in which to stage an event. In spite of the challenges, however, it was decided Halloween must go on – the residents of Project Lazarus depended on it and, moreover, the spirit of the organization and of New Orleans simply could not accept quitting. Halloween XXII went on, albeit as a Saturday only event, essentially held at and around the W Hotel on Poydras Street with ruins left by Hurricane Katrina as a back drop. There was no mistaking that night that the friendship, love,and caring which forms the backbone of the organization had survived.
Since 2005, Halloween’s in New Orleans, like the city itself, has roared back, as old hosts have remained while new hosts have joined, infusing the organization with a dynamic vibrancy as it enters its 30th year. Yes, it’s hard to believe, but 2013 marks Halloween XXX! In those 30 years, the organization has raised over $4 million dollars for Project Lazarus and has become one of the largest HIV/AIDS fundraisers in the Gulf South. Total weekend attendance, which dropped from a pre-Katrina high of over 10,000 people, has now climbed back to over 5,000 people, and the events continue to have an economic impact in the city of millions of dollars.
The story of Halloween’s in New Orleans is a story of the New Orleans gay community – a community coming together to share their love and sense of family, a community celebrating its unique culture and love of showmanship, a community coming to the aid of its own in the dark days of the AIDS crisis, and a community triumphing over challenges with a resilient, joyful spirit.
If you’re a big kid, and you like to dress up for Halloween, there is no other place to be than New Orleans!