by Keith Weldon Medley
Established in 1917, the Bunch Club is one of New Orleans oldest Carnival clubs. While primarily a fraternal organization, it is best known for the Bunch Club Carnival Dance. On the Friday before Mardi Gras, the members of the Bunch Club and their 1500 guests celebrate the carnival season with music, dancing, refreshments, and revelry. At the stroke of midnight, they escort their wives or sweethearts in a Grand March. Clad in tuxedos, crimson capes, plumed hats, white gloves, and club medallions, the Bunch Club’s members reenact a Mardi Gras tradition that has lasted nearly a century. The music and libation starts promptly at 10:00 pm and lasts well into the morning. This year’s dance was held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
The club members represent educators, university presidents, bankers, government workers, notable attorneys, doctors, writers and entrepreneurs whose professions keep them involved in the well-being of the city. The Bunch Club was among the first clubs to boycott Mardi Gras during the integration crisis of the 1960s. Unlike many other Mardi Gras affairs, the Bunch Club does not present debutantes.
As the club’s 100th anniversary approaches in 2017, club president Dr. Ed Helm foresees a bright future.
“We will continue to enhance our ability to serve the needs of our outstanding membership”, Dr. Helm says. “The Bunch Club continues to attract men of good standing in the community, many of whom continue to be leaders in their chosen careers.”
The Pythian Temple
A Louisiana Weekly report shed light on the Bunch Club during the Roaring Twenties. In years past during the 1920’s and 1930’s, the dances took place at the Pythian Temple – a building that still stands at what is now 234 Loyola Avenue. The Pythian Temple was an office building built by and for African-Americans in 1909. Louis Armstrong and other New Orleans musicians played at this venue. On the top floor of the building was a roof garden suitable for parties and other functions. In 1926, the Bunch Club hosted nearly 500 guests who gathered in formal attire and swayed to lively musical bands until 2 a.m. on Saturday morning. Mr. John Palfrey served as president that year. The Louisiana Weekly described the colorful event:
“Upon the door leading into the spacious hall, the eyes of all guests were immediately met by a pleasing scene, for the hall is bedecked in roses and Southern Smilax. The artificial roses were made to look real through the skillful way in which they were arranged… Each stairway was draped in bunting [at] intervals with artificial roses of red and pink. Baskets of roses and smilax were hung below the balcony all the way round, thus the whole place bore striking resemblance to a real garden.
The motto of the evening appeared to have been music, more music and still more music…The music was continuous. During the entire evening refreshments were served in abundance. Because of the rapidity with which the dances were played by the two bands the refreshments were more that welcome.”
A Bunch Lady
Imagine a Bunch Club Carnival Dance in the early 1930’s. Before she passed away in 1999, I had the opportunity to interview Mrs. Eva Prevost who was the wife of deceased member Maurice Prevost. Though the Bunch Club never presented debutantes, they invited debutantes from the Original Illinois and the Young Men of Illinois organizations to their dance including a young Eva. The dance was held at Piron’s Garden of Joy in the Pythian Temple building.
A number of faculty and staff from the McDonogh #35 High School were active in the Bunch. For the 1931 dance, Bunch member and McDonogh #35 teacher E. Belfield Spriggins and a group of students constructed a white picket fence covered with crepe paper roses for the stage. Multi-colored twinkling lights from a balcony accented the effect as Sidney Desvignes’s Southern Syncopators provided the music until midnight.
In 1931, J. O. Richards became the president. At midnight, he along with past presidents Dr. B. F. Easter and H. C. Gonzales followed Grand March leader E. Belfield Spriggins as he led the members and their special guests with twists and turns designed to show off elegant flowing gowns – silky taffetas and georgettes, sheer chiffons, and luxurious crepe back satins. Eva and her fellow debutantes followed behind the march as guests reached out for souvenirs and favors handed out by club members. At 1 a.m., Fate Marable’s Cotton Pickers arrived from a pleasure boat named the Steamer Capitol to take the stage. They entertained the guests until 3:00 that morning.
Mrs. Prevost recalled the allure of the Bunch dance, particularly for the wives or girlfriends.
“At the Bunch dance, the husbands come out and bow to you. It’s like you’re always making your debut. You are always the center of attraction.”
Steeped in Tradition
The Bunch Club has always honored its tradition and rituals. For the dance, each member wears a cape, plumed hat, and white gloves as a sign of club unity. The Grand March is the only time these garments are worn. Another formal Bunch function is the Champagne Sip traditionally held the weekend before Twelfth Night. At the sip, members rehearse the Grand March with their special guest. The Bunch Club medallion displays the 1917 date of the club’s founding along with the words “pays”, bienfaisance”, and “famille”, that is, “country”, “fellowship”, and “family” which are tenets of the Bunch credo. The center of the medallion portrays the tragedy/comedy masks united to form a heart. Seven gold fleur de lis on the medallion represent the Bunch Club’s bond to the city of New Orleans. A chain that circles the medallion’s periphery promotes the Bunchmen’s bond with each other.
In the thirties, forties, and fifties, the Bunch Club met at members’ homes. Card games were popular during those meetings. In 1940, a picture of the Bunch Dance appeared in The Louisiana Weekly with E. Belfield Spriggins once again leading the Grand March followed by club president Edgar Harney, Dr. Raymond Baranco, Archie Arnaud, the members and their wives and sweethearts.
At Xavier University
In 1950, the dance moved to Xavier University. Utilizing artists, woodworkers and painters from Xavier’s student body and club members, Victor Labat coordinated the construction of walls within Xavier’s gymnasium to produce a more intimate setting. New props constructed each year reflected dance themes such as Gift of The Nile, An Evening in the Old French Opera House, Sweethearts on Parade, and Friday The 13th. Invitations were designed and drawn by Xavier artists. At the 1954 dance, the theme was Carnival Reflections where guests entered through two large wooden clowns standing by the doorway. In front of the stage were two foot high letters on an orange cloth which said “Bunch Club”. Palms were placed around the wall to present a floral effect. Suspended from the stage was a large mirrored ball. Spotlights from the stage shined on the members and their guests as they danced to the music of Herbert Leary’s Merry Makers.
In the sixties and seventies, the Bunch moved to downtown hotels. Because of the logistics, the elaborate decorations and themes were discontinued. Nowadays, instead of meeting at members’ homes, Bunch holds its monthly meetings at Dooky Chase. And the marches at the dance are not as long and winding as in the days of E. Belfield Spriggins.
Dr. Helm relishes the traditions. “Our future is bright and challenging,” he stated. “We continue to embrace our organization’s purpose to create among its members a spirit of congeniality, friendliness, camaraderie and to provide entertainment for the membership, their families and their friends.”