Queens, kings and duchesses all are part of the Mardi Gras tradition
Galveston Mardi Gras is a lot of things — magical, musical and steeped in history.
It’s also plucky. And resilient, much like the Knights of Momus queen in the 1980s who flipped her train over her shoulder and hoofed it in the rain when the car taking her to the coronation broke down just short of The Tremont House. And the one a few years later who jumped on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle to catch up with the float that forgot her when she hopped off during a stop to take a bathroom break.
That scrappiness is an apt reflection of the tireless work of a committed group of volunteers who were determined to revive Mardi Gras and return Galveston back to its place as home of one of the greatest street festivals in the United States.
The histories of Momus and Mardi Gras are inextricably linked. Marking the traditional pre-Lenten season of feasting and merrymaking, the first Mardi Gras in Texas took place in Galveston in 1867. Knights of Momus was born a few years later, and Mardi Gras continued as an annual event.
Before its demise during World War II, the celebration grew more elaborate each year, featuring torch-lit night parades, royal balls and stunning costumes. Mardi Gras royalty also became a thing, with young ladies “of family” from across the state vying to become duchesses in the hope of taking their queenly place beside the year’s chosen King Frivolous.
In the early 1980s, when efforts began to revive Mardi Gras, the plan was to resurrect the spirit of its origins as closely as possible.
“The goal in reestablishing Mardi Gras was to look at the historical map of activities and do our best to re-create that — not to start a whole new era of Mardi Gras without any reference to its past,” said Dancie Ware, founding trustee of the Knights of Momus Royalty Committee.
And what would Mardi Gras be without royalty? So, in 1984, Momus crowned the new generation of Mardi Gras’ first King Frivolous and his queen.
The royalty revival started with five duchesses and a quickly chosen queen who appeared in a borrowed gown and rode to events in a truck that was part of an antique car parade, said Joan McLeod, Knights of Momus Royalty trustee.
Today, about 25 duchesses are presented annually by the all-male members of Momus. They are 18 to 25 years old and, for the most part, are the daughters, granddaughters and nieces of the members who present them. Family friends can become duchesses, as well, but they must be presented by a Momus member.
Once the nominations are in, McLeod screens them. But that’s more of a formality, she said.
“It’s not like a sorority,” McLeod said. “No one is ever blackballed. It’s not very discriminatory.”
It’s also not free. Along with the dues the fathers and uncles and grandfathers pay to be Momus members, nominating a duchess costs $7,500. That pays for the duchess’ gown and for admission to events such as the coronation presentation at The Grand 1894 Opera House and the coronation ball at the Galveston Island Convention Center at the San Luis Resort for the young woman and her parents.
“The mothers sit in box seats at the opera house, and their daughters bow to them,” McLeod said. “The fathers present their daughters on stage, in white tie and tails with their Momus medal on around their necks.
Most of the girls have done a lot of practicing in ball gowns for the famous Texas bow, she said.
That famous Texas bow also is known as the Texas Dip, an impossible-looking deep curtsy that begins with a duchess holding her arms out at her sides and ends with her slowly lowering her forehead to the floor by crossing her ankles, then bending her knees and sinking.
The $7,500 fee is much lower than that of other coming-out events for young women, some of which run as much as $30,000, McLeod said.
“We wanted to keep it low to make it affordable and not limit it to just ‘monied people,’” McLeod said.
The presentation of the duchesses to the king is another formality, said V.J. Tramonte, a founding member of the Knights of Momus krewe. The king is chosen by the Momus board well before the coronation, and the board also chooses a queen from among the duchesses. Everything is kept quite hush-hush until the actual coronation, Tramonte said.
Although krewes choose their royalty in different ways, Momus makes its choices based on the level of involvement in the krewe by the potential young royals’ families. There’s no competition, per se, as in a beauty pageant. And there’s nothing a duchess can do to secure her queendom once she’s been nominated and presented.
Kings and queens are chosen primarily as a way of honoring the family who presents them, Tramonte said.
“The deciding factor is who the presenter is, their activity, what they have done over the years,” he said.
Momus is unique in that it’s the only one of the Galveston krewes that recruits young women as duchesses, McLeod said. Recruitment is an ongoing activity that is essential in keeping the duchess tradition alive, she said.
The krewe hosts recruitment events around the county and in Houston, from where a majority of the duchesses in any given year come, she said.
“The fact that we recruit the girls, in that respect it is still exclusive,” McLeod said. “You can’t just sign up in a grocery store. If you could, people wouldn’t enjoy it as much. This is friends of Momus and friends of friends.”
And now that the original duchesses — from the 1980s, not the 1800s, of course — have become mothers and grandmothers, Momus is seeing more legacy duchess nominations, which is a boon to the sustainability of the program.
Although the duchess program isn’t without some small rifts, such as families who refuse to let younger daughters participate because they felt snubbed when their older daughters weren’t crowned queen, it’s a cherished part of the Momus/Mardi Gras tradition, McLeod said.
And it’s just good for Galveston.
“It does have its altruistic points,” McLeod said. “The girls are an important part of the parades, and the parades attract people from all over the county.”
Mardi Gras is not only good for tourism while it’s taking place, but it makes people aware of Galveston and brings them back time and again, McLeod said.
“It’s profitable for the city,” she said.