Houston’s Krewe of Olympus, once again set to celebrate the season of Mardi Gras, will hold their 50th-anniversary ball on February 1. The Krewe is well known for their rhinestones, sequins, and feathers—and also for their campy humor, friendly camaraderie, and community philanthropy.
The Krewe of Olympus was born in New Orleans in 1970, but moved to Houston in 1992. Every year for the past 49 years, the group has hosted an annual black-tie ball, and they are now in the final stages of preparation for their 2020 ball to celebrate five decades as a community organization.
The Mardi Gras Tradition
Mardi Gras (literally translated as “Fat Tuesday”) is now a festival season that begins on Epiphany, the twelfth
night after Christmas, and ends on Shrove Tuesday, the day before the beginning of Lent. It is a festive celebration before the 40-day Lenten period that leads up to Easter. During Lent, many Christians enter a period of fasting and giving up luxuries so that they might better understand the trials that Jesus faced before his death on Good Friday.
In Anglican and Catholic nations, Mardi Gras evolved into a season of celebration known as Carnival. Although Carnival originated with the faithful, the good times soon expanded to encompass neighbors and friends. Feasts like Shrove Tuesday eventually became public celebrations with various names and traditions throughout Europe and the Americas.
In 1857, the Krewe of Comus held the first New Orleans Mardi Gras ball. The balls soon became a New Orleans tradition as dozens of krewes sprang up. These balls were mostly reserved for the wealthy who could afford to organize such lavish events. The black-tie affairs eventually became a means for debutante daughters to be introduced to high society. New Orleans is now famous for its Mardi Gras parades and costume balls featuring Medieval outfits and mythological characters and animals.
Gay Men and Mardi Gras
In the 1950s, gay bars began to spring up in the bohemian French Quarter of New Orleans. Shrove Tuesday was the one day of the year that gay men could appear “in costume” on the street—and thus in drag—without being arrested. Gay men took advantage of this, dressing with irreverent flamboyance at costume parties in gay bars that usually spilled out onto the streets. Sadly, this public celebration abruptly ended in 1958 when a brutal gay-bashing incident stunned the community.
Gay men in New Orleans soon decided that it was safer to celebrate Mardi Gras in private homes. The Krewe of Yuga was formed that year, and they staged their first unofficial “KY” krewe ball. The group lasted for five years, and closed after a vice squad raided their annual ball. A group of younger gay men then formed the Krewe of Petronius, which became an official New Orleans Mardi Gras krewe. By 1970, seven gay krewes had been organized.
New Orleans’ straight society balls were grand but rather predictable events—no match for the ambitious creativity on display at the gay balls. The straight krewes tended to design a few themed outfits and dress everyone on stage with those designs in various colors.
Since gay krewes had no debutante daughters to feature at their balls, they focused instead on creating lavish costumes with rhinestones, sequins, and feathers. Gay men employed by department stores had window-dressing props and an array of designer apparel available to them. By the 1980s, invitations to the gay krewe balls had become social prizes, often scored when gay hairdressers invited a few lucky clients. New Orleans’ gay designers are now in great demand to provide costumes and props for straight balls and parade floats.
While Mardi Gras is usually associated with parades, only the largest krewes can afford to stage them. The majority of the krewes just have annual balls to celebrate Mardi Gras.
Most of the Mardi Gras balls are invitation-only affairs, and krewe members each get a specified number of ball invitations to distribute. Those who accept the invitations are expected to show up in black-tie evening wear.
For Houston’s Krewe of Olympus, the annual process starts with the officer elections in March. One of the elected officers is the ball captain who makes all of the major decisions about the upcoming ball—the theme, the choice of king and queen, and the presentation of theme-oriented costumes by the members. Groups of members are designated to perform the musical numbers in costume.
In a past example, Lawn Ornaments was the 1989 Olympus ball theme, so costume presentations included “Gazing Balls,” “White Trash,” “Curb Your Dog,” “Whirligigs,” “Chimes,” and “Flamingoes.” The ball with a Can’t Stop the Music theme featured songs ranging from Mitch Miller and Lawrence Welk to Cass Elliot, Vicki Sue Robinson, and Lady Gaga.No gallery template found!
The choice of king and queen is kept secret until the day of the ball. Olympus members have a special party before the ball, where the new king and queen are announced—a very emotional moment for the Olympus krewe.
The ball is a glittering production complete with colored spotlights sweeping the floor. Guests are taken through a fast-paced show that features a range of presentations and choruses. For a group of non-professional entertainers, the balls are amazingly entertaining and well executed. Members encourage guests not to “overthink” the ball themes as they sit back and enjoy the fun and the spectacle. Everything comes from hearts filled with love.
Balls typically begin with the returning king and queen being presented, and they preside over the events of the evening. The ball captain is presented, and then members make their costumed appearances. The lavish and campy costumes reveal how much hard work goes in to the annual events. For the 2009 ball with a Wings theme, one member wore a huge costume that was a Tiki Room bar complete with parrots singing in unison.
Chorus numbers fill the interludes between the costume presentations, and range from The Sound of Music’s Von Trapp children to a marching band playing “Seventy-Six Trombones” from The Music Man. Because there is no charge for admission, Olympus krewe members perform a special fundraising chorus in costume while walking into the audience to collect donations for the beneficiaries of the ball. At other points in the evening, members come out to the floor and throw beads.
The climax of the ball is the announcement and presentation of the new king and queen, who enter the stage wearing grand outfits with huge trains. Representatives from other community organizations are announced as they enter bearing gifts for the new royalty. An open call then allows any guest to come forward and greet the new royal couple.
Since all krewe members are backstage or onstage during the entire ball, a video of the event is made so that members can have a special party to watch the video and enjoy the show from the guests’ perspective.
Krewe of Olympus members stay busy throughout the year preparing for their annual balls. The organization also holds numerous social events, often to raise operating funds for the next ball. Twelfth Night and Fais Do Do events are now regular annual fundraisers. The Pride festival and parade are also regular events for the prize-winning Olympus krewe. Their Pride parade float features the reigning King and Queen Olympus.
The story of the Krewe of Olympus’ founding is told by author Howard Philips in his 2017 book Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans. The first decade of Olympus history is one of boldness and grand balls.
Philips notes that by 1970, some members of the established House of Petronius became restless and started the Krewe of Olympus as a competing gay krewe. The men organized the first Olympus ball in 1971.
Olympus was started by Lou Bernard, George Wilson, and Nick Donovan. Their goal was to embody a new type of high-quality krewe with great theatricality and professionalism. A small meeting was held at Tony Moran’s restaurant on Bourbon Street, and from that meeting the Krewe of Olympus emerged. Many of the first Olympus members were window dressers and others who worked in the creative arts.
The organization was made up of about twenty gay men. The first officers elected were Pat Hamberg as president, Gene Cheatam as secretary, and George Wilson as lieutenant. Jamie Greenleaf agreed to serve as ball captain for the first ball. Greenleaf once said, “If something is worth being done, it is worth being overdone.” After announcing at the age of twelve that he wanted to become a costume designer, Greenleaf’s mother eventually sent him to Paris to study under the legendary designer Erté.
The Olympus name refers to the fabled mountain of the Greek gods, and is also a nod to the fictional name of the New Orleans Carnival ball in the 1938 Bette Davis film Jezebel. In the film, Davis’ character wears a red dress to the ball at a time when proper unmarried women were expected to wear white.
For their first ball in 1971, the Krewe of Olympus chose the large auditorium in Saint Bernard Parish where the manager was a closeted gay man. The ball had a Camelot theme based on the Broadway play. Apollo King I was Nick Donovan, and Apollo Queen I was Gene Cheatam.
The evening set a new standard for New Orleans’ gay krewes. Philips says that guests described the night as “sheer magic—a splendid moment that took your breath away.” When guests entered the auditorium, they saw a magical forest ahead of them. When the program began, Greenleaf (dressed as Merlin the magician) split the forest in half, revealing a storybook castle that stretched across the stage. The outfit worn by Queen Olympus I is estimated to have weighed 80 pounds, mostly because of its glass jewels.
The 1972 ball theme was Red, White and Blue. That same year, Ben Jones moved from Houston to New Orleans and became general manager of the Bourbon Pub, a gay bar on Bourbon Street.
George Wilson captained the 1973 ball titled An Evening of Enchantment. Queen Olympus III Rodney Dugas is featured on the cover of Philips’ book.
In 1974, Jones joined the Olympus krewe. By 1977, he had been selected as Queen Olympus VII. In 1978 he met Bill Walters, a title clerk at an automobile agency, who joined the krewe after moving from Mississippi to live with Jones in New Orleans. The two have been life partners ever since, and continued as members of Olympus through the past five decades. They now use the last name Jones-Walters.
In 1975, the Olympus king and queen outfits patterned after the Court of Louis XIV were later displayed at D.H. Holmes Department store, where one of the Krewe members worked.
The Jones-Walters team remembers the New Orleans social climate in 1970, when being gay was still illegal and bar raids were a regular occurance. “[In spite of all the danger], a group of people decided to create and present a gay Mardi Gras ball that was glamorous and upscale. They even had the nerve to present the first ball at what was then the St. Bernard Civic Center in Chalmette, a suburb east of New Orleans that, at least then, was not gay-friendly.
“The [production numbers at the] first few balls had to be filmed at dress rehearsal the night before the ball. If someone in the audience had been seen at a gay ball, even in a recording, they would have been fired from their job.
“This venue was built to present straight Mardi Gras balls and other public events. It seats over 2,500, and we filled it each year. Most gay krewes followed Olympus to the venue, due to it being so perfect for a Mardi Gras ball.
“Olympus started by presenting costumes of feathers and rhinestones, which surpassed most other balls. Olympus also entertained the guests with the costume presentations. The norm in straight balls is that a costume comes out and walks around and goes to the side to stand. Then another one, looking much the same, comes out and does the same thing. Olympus brought out costumes with dancing, and entertained the audience.
“This took a lot of work. Many work sessions and dance rehearsals were involved. One important factor was that the entire membership gathered to work on costumes. Everybody worked on everybody’s costume. It made for great camaraderie and friendships. We had members who were professional costumers and dancers. This made for fantastic costume presentations, and we all learned a lot.”
All of the Olympus balls were held at the St. Bernard Civic Center. For a krewe with only around 35 members, it is notable that they could pack the venue with 2,500 attendees for several years.
While the second decade began with enthusiasm for even more spectacular Olympus balls, the organization was severely impacted as AIDS began to devastate the gay community. The involvement of the krewe’s Houston members kept the organization alive during those difficult years. Ball attendance at the St. Bernard Civic Center dropped throughout the decade, averaging around 2,000 guests.
In 1980, the Jones-Walters moved to Houston but also kept an apartment in New Orleans for several years. The two introduced several people in Houston to the Krewe of Olympus. Many people were interested in joining because Houston had no gay Mardi Gras krewes.
The 1980 ball was themed Anniversary Retrospective, and was staged in both New Orleans and Houston.
“The first half of the 1980s was much the same as the1970s,” the Jones-Walters recall. “The second half had some changes. One was that we had the first out-of-town captains. The first such captain was Bill Walters, who by then was living in Houston. He organized Olympus XVI with a World War II theme. While people from Houston had attended and supported the Krewe as guests all along, this was the beginning of Houston being involved in the Krewe.
“As the decade progressed, Olympus was losing members to AIDS. We lost a lot of good people. This was when gay krewes first started collecting for various charities to help with the crisis.
“Another change in the ’80s was gender. Many members believed gender didn’t matter, and that an interest in presenting a gay ball was the thing. So we voluntarily opened the door to women. Olympus has had members of all races since the beginning, [so race] has never been of any consequence.”
Rebuilding in the 1990s
The third decade for Olympus found the group with only three members left after the ravages of AIDS—the Jones-Walters, and one other member from Houston. A decision was made to move Olympus to Houston in an effort to save it. “The Krewe had lost so many members both to AIDS and a slow economy that the end was inevitable,” the Jones-Walters explain. They had already been living in Houston for many years, and talked to people here about reestablishing the Krewe of Olympus in Houston.
In 1991, the theme for Olympus XXI was “Olympus Goes West,” signaling the planned move from New Orleans to Houston. “The royalty for the last ball were the Yellow Roses of Texas, and at the very end of the ball it was announced that the Krewe was moving.”
After the Olympus Krewe relocated to Houston, many new people from the Houston community joined up, helping to repopulate the organization. 1992 was the first year that the Krewe of Olympus held its annual ball in Houston. The venue was the Ramada Inn-Pinemont, and the Mardi Gras theme was chosen as a way to educate Houston guests about Mardi Gras traditions. Legend has it that a group of goat-ropers in an adjoining room became more interested in the spectacular Olympus costumes than they were in their own event.
In 1993, the ball moved downtown to a health club’s basketball court in the 601 Travis Street building. In 1994, the Krewe used the Tower Theater in the heart of Montrose. In 1995, Olympus began a long sweep of years using the Hornberger Conference Center as its ball location.
Judy Reeves, curator of the Gulf Coast Archive & Museum of GLBT History (GCAM), remembers designing the artwork for the 1997 Pride and Prejudice ball. “That was exciting! To walk into that ballroom and see my personal artwork covering the whole wall was awesome—on the cups and doubloons, too! I was the Statue of Liberty in that ball, complete with a pedestal that pulled around the floor, and then opened so I could come down the steps and walk around throwing Barbie-type dolls that looked like the statue. That was my favorite costume ever—or maybe it was in 1998 when I walked out of a pyramid wearing my headpiece of lighted crystals for a new-age religion.”
Membership increased to around 30 during the ’90s, and ball attendance was around 300.
The fourth decade saw the Olympus krewe building up an active membership of Houstonians and producing many great ball themes. “There were no major changes—the Krewe maintained a large membership and had fun,” the Jones-Walters recall.
Bob Briddick says his favorite moment was being crowned King Olympus XXX at the Fairy Tales ball in 2000. His royal outfit was later displayed in 2015 at the ThroughOut Houston exhibit at the Houston Historical Society.
Andrew Eversole vividly recalls attending his first Krewe ball in 2004. “The theme was Olympus Goes Hollywood, and Clint Harwell played Linda Blair in The Exorcist, complete with pea soup. I have nightmares to this day.”
Ray Kroulik says his special memory is of being crowned King Olympus XXXIX in 2009. “It was a wonderful event. The reigning royalty represents the Krewe at dozens of events of other organizations for the year, sometimes having to appear at three or four events each weekend and traveling to events out of town. A lot of work, but it’s the highest honor the Krewe can bestow on a member.”
The balls continued to be held at the Hornberger Conference Center in 2000 and 2001. Then they moved to the George Bush Ballroom in the George R. Brown Convention Center from 2002 until 2007. In 2008 and 2009, the balls were held at the Reliant Center. Membership peaked at about 60, and ball attendance averaged 1,000 guests.
The fifth decade saw the Krewe of Olympus deeply involved in Houston’s LGBTQ community, building a reputation for spectacular balls and generous contributions to community organizations. “We continued to stage fabulous presentations, bigger costumes, and have a lot of fun,” the Jones-Walters remember.
Clint Harwell says his favorite memories are the different costumes he has presented at various balls, especially Bloody Mary from Mythology (2012) and Banjo from Music (2013). “The audience response from those presentations has stuck with me,” he says. For his Banjo presentation, Harwell wore a skirt and headdress made of banjos while he dazzled the audience with some snappy tap dancing.
Bill Henry says he smiles at the memories of Krewe members ending various production numbers by successfully surprising the ball captain with a group “moon.”
From 2010 through 2013, the balls were once again staged downtown in the George Bush Ballroom at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Since 2014, the Olympus ball venue has been the NRG Center near the Astrodome. Membership now stands at about 35, with ball attendance averaging 800.
While most of the productions come off perfectly, members know the Olympus motto is “If you lay an egg, stand back and admire it.” Sometimes loose back braces have thrown members off-balance, costume balloons have popped before the presentation, and headdresses have wobbled. Members have their own custom-fitted skullcaps that serve as the foundation for their headdresses. They never use chin straps, so the skullcaps must have a tight fit.
Olympus members make their own costumes, using lots of cardboard and PVC pipe. Sequins and rhinestones are recycled from previous costumes, and each member has their own multi-colored collection of feathers that they often trade with each other. The most important technological advance in the last fifty years for them has been the glue gun, which greatly speeds up the construction process.
Costumes are usually built in sections so they can be transported easily and assembled backstage. The members start working at the ball venue the day before the event, with the stage manager keeping everything organized so the presentations appear seamless to the audience.
Looking Back and Looking Ahead
Krewe of Olympus members have decades of memories that they recall fondly. Over the past few decades, Houston’s Olympus krewe has donated nearly a million dollars to local LGBTQ organizations. Past beneficiaries include the Hatch/PFLAG Scholarship, Pet Patrol, PWA Holiday Charities, Q-Patrol, Omega House, and many more. The 2020 beneficiaries will be Texas United Charities, Bering Open Gate, and the Gulf Coast Archive & Museum of GLBT History.
In 2018, the community showed their admiration for the Krewe of Olympus by awarding them two OutSmart Gayest & Greatest awards: Favorite LGBTQ Social Organization, and Favorite Local LGBTQ Community Organization.
The 2020 ball theme is Illusions of a Future Past. Fittingly, the Jones-Walters are co-captains of the 50th-anniversary celebration, which will be held in Hall D at the NRG Center. To celebrate the organization’s anniversary, the men are also putting together a special Olympus history display for the event.
Although invitations are required to attend the 2020 Krewe of Olympus Ball, the group says that anyone who would like to attend can receive a free invitation by contacting the organization at [email protected] All that is required is that guests observe the black-tie dress code.
The Jones-Walters say that things are going well for the Krewe of Olympus. “We shall see how history unveils itself. The biggest issue as we face our future is getting new and younger members. We’re not hurting in membership, but it would be great to find younger and more active members to take on what has already been started and carry us through the next fifty years.”
Laissez les bon temps rouler!
This article appears in the January 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.