For the people who were there to enjoy it, the Krewe of Virgilians are remembered as being in a class of their own. Dr. Emile A. Bertucci Sr., a man with a vision and a quest to provide local Carnival guests with “The Greatest Mardi Gras Show on Earth”, established the Krewe of Virgilians in 1939. The club grew always surpassed under his leadership. In 1960, when the flamboyant doctor died, his glittering coat was passed on to a new captain, attorney Charles E. Cabibi Sr., who carried on the glorious tradition. Krewe “shows” have grown bigger, more expensive, and more spectacular year after year, revolutionizing many aspects of carnival balls in New Orleans.
Virgilians was founded because Bertucci saw that many local communities did not accept Jews and Italians as members. So, using Italian-American society as a base, Virgilians was formed.
Endowed with the soul of an artist, Bertucci conceived, wrote, produced and directed the entire three- and four-hour extravaganzas. Nothing was spared, neither space nor money. The Municipal Auditorium, the traditional site of all Carnival balls, often held two events simultaneously, with different krewes praising the long and short sides of the facility. But the Virgilians often rented both sides and filled the 6,600-seat auditorium to capacity. According to author Carolyn Kolb’s 2013 book New Orleans Memories, “People would arrive at the City Auditorium before noon and wait at the front door for the best seats.”
During the organization’s heyday, prom invitations were in such high demand that counterfeits were printed. The krewe were not happy with a small group or a combo, as most krewe used it. It was not uncommon to see a full symphony orchestra, hydraulically rising from the cellar of the auditorium, under the direction of Dr. Bertucci.
For his inaugural ball, Dante’s Inferno, the good doctor was disguised as Satan. He rose amid the flames to define the style and individual flair that was to establish the Virgilians’ reputation for extravagance. The beautiful young opera diva, Marguerite Piazza, reigned supreme in this first performance.
What has made Virgilians an inspiration to all other carnival ball organizations is their absolute dedication to spectacle. Where most krewes have one or two tableaux (scenes illustrating the theme), the Virgilians often had more than a dozen. At most balls, debutante servants, dressed in pretty dresses or demure costumes, were escorted to the floor by their dukes dressed in evening costumes. Forget that, when you describe the Virgilians. Their maids were presented in fashions a la Erte and glamorous creations a la Ziegfield.
The Virgilians ignored mundane ballroom themes like gems, love, history, etc. They aimed higher with bold abandon. The themes performed by the krewe proved that the intentions of the Virgilians were to astonish and entertain. In 1960, Captain Cabibi, disguised as “the greatest Roman soldier of them all”, rode the auditorium floor in a golden chariot driven by two huge white horses.
It would be difficult to determine the amount of money that these spectacular balls cost. In a 1992 interview with Al Shea of WDSU, Larry Youngblood, one of Virgilians’ main clients, said, “Remember, the Virgilians had no parade…no floats to be part of a budget And yet, I bet some of those balls cost as much as it does today’s Bacchus parade. It was a designer’s dream to be told, “Import all the fabrics you you need. Money doesn’t matter.” Imagine! I could design whatever I wanted. Once, I created 162 costumes, all elaborate, all very, very expensive. Ah! Those were the days.
“Highlights of Enchantment”, a look back at the krewe’s first quarter-century, was the organization’s last extravaganza in 1964. The economy is responsible for the demise of the most admired carnival ball krewe, the most prodigious and imaginative in the city.
Cabibi said: “We gave up as champions. We could not continue to produce the type of spectacular high-level production achieved in the past, and we would not compromise our standards of beauty, culture and historical accuracy. .”
The Virgilians may be gone, but for people who appreciate the dazzling quality of carnival balls, it will never be forgotten.