Endymion at 50: How Ed Muniz created Mardi Gras’ biggest parade

Long before he won elections or struck it rich in radio, Ed Muniz was a good Catholic boy from Gentilly who loved Mardi Gras enough to start his own parade. In need of a name, he flipped through a library book about mythology. A description of Endymion, the Greek god of eternal youth and fertility, caught his eye.

Muniz had once placed a winning $2 bet on a horse named Endymion. Otherwise, “I never would have stopped on Endymion,” he recalled recently. “That book had a lot of pages in it.”

Fifty years later, Muniz, now 75, is still the captain, heart and soul of the Krewe of Endymion, which stages Carnival’s biggest, brashest parade.

With more than 3,000 members, an hourslong procession of marching bands and elaborate, multiunit floats, and an annual operating budget of $7 million, it is a superkrewe in every sense. If the weather cooperates, hundreds of thousands of spectators will experience the 50th anniversary of Endymion on Saturday.

That it is the only major New Orleans parade not to follow the now-standard Uptown route — it starts at the border of Lakeview and Mid-City — reflects Muniz’s founding philosophy. His parade would value fun over formality, salt-of-the-earth types over scions of society.

It still does. The postparade Endymion Extravaganza at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is essentially a mass tailgate party for 20,000 people in formal wear. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and rapper Pitbull are this year’s headliners.

“Our whole existence is to have fun,” Muniz said. “We must be doing something right.”

On Saturday, he will ride at the head of an epic parade that includes the riverboat-themed “Poppa Joe’s S.S. Endymion.” Muniz named it for his late father, who died three days before the float made its debut in 1976.

Despite its size, Endymion is, at its core, a family affair. Muniz’s three daughters each have served as queen. This year, his youngest granddaughter, Jamie Hanzo, will reign. His son-in-law Darryl d’Aquin is the organization’s vice president. D’Aquin’s son is on the board, and his father leads the float committee.

The extended family pitches in; dinner table discussions sometimes involve potential parade themes and entertainers.

Muniz, the patriarch of it all, has lived for decades — and often held office — in Jefferson Parish. But he reshaped Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

“The transformation of Endymion from an ordinary neighborhood parade into an extraordinary superparade is the result of pure genius, the genius of one Edmond Muniz,” said Arthur Hardy, publisher of the annual Mardi Gras Guide. “It would not be an exaggeration to declare him one of the most significant figures in the history of Mardi Gras.”

Or, as d’Aquin put it, “It’s Ed’s world. We just live in it.”

‘Modest’ beginnings

On a cold afternoon in January, Muniz settled into a recliner in the cozy den of his split-level home in Kenner. A nearby curio cabinet was crammed with Endymion memorabilia: medallions, a queen’s tiara, a stuffed penguin throw. He didn’t assemble the collection. “I don’t keep anything,” he said.

Endymion Saturday was still more than two weeks away, but his phone rang constantly, and he loves to talk. A captain’s work, it seems, is never done.

Setting the phone aside, he queued up a highlight reel of Endymion’s recent coronation ball at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. “You might be able to tell a little difference between this and Rex,” he said.

Choreographed and stately, Endymion is not. In the coronation video, thousands of krewe members and their dates dance to Party on the Moon, a slick cover band from Atlanta.

The throng is overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, white and young. Muniz watched himself on screen in a sequined maroon tuxedo, swaying along to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” “Nobody sits down at this party,” he said with pride. “They dance all night.”

The party did pause for a bit of official business: the selection of Endymion’s king. Interested krewe members submitted their business cards for a random drawing by the queen. “A lot of members don’t want to be king,” Muniz said. “They want to throw beads.”

Jamie Hanzo pulled the card of Robert Hodgson, a medical equipment salesman from Prairieville in his third year as a bona fide Endymion member. Trembling with excitement, he made his way to the stage, where someone verified his identity, confirming that he wasn’t a prankster trying to steal the spotlight. The party resumed, culminating with a miniparade led by the St. Augustine High School Marching 100.

Sitting in his den, Muniz recounted how all this came to be.

He grew up around the Fair Grounds, a favorite haunt for various family members. As a kid, he was a self-described “parade nut,” testing his parents’ endurance. His grandfather worked at Gallier Hall and got him tickets to the Mardi Gras reviewing stand there.

As a young, single man, Muniz paid $45 to ride in Thoth. Marriage changed things, especially when his and his wife Peggy’s first daughter arrived “10 months and two days after we got married. I couldn’t afford to be in Carnival.”

But he still attended parades regularly. The demise of the all-female Krewe of Adonis had left a void downtown on the Saturday night before Fat Tuesday. Muniz resolved to fill it, despite his utter lack of old-line Carnival pedigree.

“I wasn’t well known or a big shot,” Muniz said. “I didn’t come from a Garden District family. I came from the Fair Grounds. Peggy came from Chalmette.”

‘Carrollton of Gentilly’

Parades still rolled through different neighborhoods back then, including the Krewe of Carrollton. Muniz “wanted to be the Carrollton of Gentilly. That was my ambition in those days.”

He met with John Ackermann, Carrollton’s captain. “I said, ‘Mr. Ackermann, I’d really like to start a parade, but I don’t know what I’m doing.’ ”

Ackermann volunteered to help. He’d previously rented Carrollton’s 16 floats to Adonis for $5,000; he offered Muniz the same deal.

Muniz incorporated his nonprofit krewe as the Gentilly Carnival Club. He was confident his City Hall connections would yield a parade permit for the coveted Saturday night slot; Mayor Victor Schiro obliged. The parade would start near the Fair Grounds, at Trafalgar Street and De Saix Boulevard.

Before settling on the name Endymion, he considered several others — including, he said, Bacchus, which was unclaimed at the time. Endymion won out, for both the equine connection and the Greek god’s reputation.

“He was fertile — he had 50 daughters and four sons,” Muniz said. “He was the most handsome of all the gods. I wanted it to be a young krewe, so what could be any better than this guy?”

One problem: “People couldn’t pronounce it, other than the ones that went to the racetrack — because they knew the horse.”

The first Endymion parade, with the theme “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” rolled on Feb. 4, 1967, several months before the newly minted Saints franchise’s first game. The 150 or so members were mostly from the neighborhood. Nobody wanted to be king. “We struggled that first year, but we made it. We started off very modest.”

Within a few years, Endymion had more riders than the 16 rented Carrollton floats could accommodate. Muniz leased more from float designer and builder Blaine Kern.

Some years, the budget was lean. “There were times we would roll on bad tires, because we didn’t have the money” to replace them, Muniz said. “That bit us on the ass a few times.”

(Breakdowns are far less common now that Endymion uses solid rubber tires and heavy-duty chassis capable of supporting 30 tons.)

Bye-bye to ‘boring’

In 1973, Kern invited the Munizes to the Krewe of Bacchus postparade bash, the Bacchus Rendezvous, at the now-demolished Rivergate Convention Center.

Founded in 1969 as an Uptown superkrewe by members of the Brennan restaurant family, Bacchus had pioneered the use of celebrity monarchs. When Bacchus V, entertainer Bob Hope, rode into the Rivergate, the Harry James Big Band struck up “Thanks for the Memory,” Hope’s theme song.

“It was magical,” Muniz recalled. “I was impressed. I told Blaine, ‘I really like what they’re doing.’ ”

Muniz had thought Endymion’s first six more-traditional balls at the Jung Hotel and the Municipal Auditorium were “boring.” Rolling the parade into the Rivergate would not be.

Duly inspired, he approached Doc Severinsen, famed leader of “The Tonight Show” band, backstage at a Loyola Field House concert. Severinsen’s fee for the 1974 Endymion Extravaganza was $7,500 — approximately 2 percent of the $500,000 Pitbull and Tyler each will make this year.

In 1976, WTIX-FM helped recruit rocker Alice Cooper as Endymion’s grand marshal. “That was a big deal,” Muniz said. “That was the first time Endymion went super.”

Hap Glaudi, the famed WWL-TV sportscaster, joined the krewe and sang its praises on the air.

“Hap was the most inarticulate man you ever heard on television, but he was so popular because he was New Orleans,” Muniz said. “And that’s why Endymion is popular — because we are New Orleans.”

When crowds grew too large for Endymion’s original route, Muniz didn’t know if they would follow the parade to a new starting point on Orleans Avenue. To generate excitement, the krewe staged a preparade festival, Samedi Gras, on the neutral ground.

“Look at it today. It’s packed. It makes you feel real good,” Muniz said.

The move to Orleans Avenue paid off for Endymion. So did Muniz’s move to Kenner.

Making moves

In 1975, Muniz and his expanding family were still squeezed into a two-bedroom home on De Saix Boulevard. One day, he and Peggy took a break from their hospital vigil for Muniz’s terminally ill father. On a whim, they followed Parade of Homes signs to a new development in Kenner, Chateau Estates.

“When you live on De Saix Boulevard and you come to Kenner,” Muniz said, “you think you’re in Baton Rouge.”

But they liked what they saw and bought a house. “I no more thought I’d buy a house in Kenner that day than the man on the moon,” Muniz said. Within a few years, they’d purchased a nearby home from a member of Endymion; it is where the couple still lives.

As good as he was at building a parade, Muniz was equally adept at building revenue for radio stations. He progressed from selling advertising to owning small-market stations throughout the Gulf Coast region.

He eventually grew weary of commuting, so he and his partners sold their stations. Muniz kept two in New Orleans, building them into local powerhouses Lite 105 and Kool 95.7.

Deregulation in the 1990s allowed national media companies to expand their holdings. Muniz at first turned down lucrative offers for his stations. In 2000, he finally cashed out to the tune of several million dollars.

His fortune now rivaled that of Uptown Carnival royalty, but his frugal lifestyle didn’t change. He still favors jeans, tennis shoes, flannel shirts and the house he bought long ago.

“If you gave me the White House, I wouldn’t go,” he said. “I love this house.”

Muniz launched a side career in Jefferson Parish politics in 1980, which turned out to span seven years on the Kenner City Council, followed by 17 more on the Jefferson Parish Council.

In 2006, he came out of retirement to leap into the Kenner mayoral race at the last minute. He beat incumbent Phil Capitano in a runoff. More than once, he heard, “We voted for you because we love your parade.”

Frustrated by executive branch limitations and aggravations, he declined to seek a second term as mayor of Kenner — which gave him more time to be mayor of Endymion.

Keep on rolling

On a Saturday morning in January, hundreds of krewe members and their families milled about the Endymion den off Howard Avenue, previewing the 2016 floats for the first time. The 50th anniversary theme is “Endymion Through the Years”; the floats illustrate themes from past parades.

Clowns, hot dogs and performances by the St. Augustine and Brother Martin high school marching bands gave the preview party a festive air. Muniz, wearing a purple, green and gold scarf, moved among the floats and riders like he was working a campaign rally. “I’m the Wal-Mart greeter,” he joked.

He posed for pictures, shook hands and moved on. He knows his popularity will expire with Mardi Gras: “On Ash Wednesday, they’ll give me a ticket for jaywalking.”

Muniz found granddaughter and queen Jamie Hanzo, a junior at Archbishop Chapelle High School who is also a Brother Martin cheerleader. She joined her fellow cheerleaders for a routine, still wearing her queen’s tiara.

Hanzo follows in the royal footsteps of older sister Tori Hanzo and cousin Erica d’Aquin. Her grandfather “knows what he’s doing by now,” she said with a smile.

Al Silva, an eight-year Endymion veteran, agreed. He credits Muniz’s stewardship for the parade’s success. “He’s not afraid to take chances,” Silva said. “He’s always looking to make it better.”

Silva said the family and friends he rides with represent Endymion’s unpretentious diversity. “I sell plumbing supplies,” he said. “My son is in plumbing sales. My brother-in-law works for the maintenance department at Tulane University. My nephew is a cop in Arizona. My friend is a chef in Natchez, Mississippi.”

Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse often rides anonymously. This year, so will seven Catholic priests. “When you have more than 3,000 members, you have a lot of everybody,” Muniz said. “We are what we are. No pretense.”

To that point, he pays the same $1,000 annual dues as everyone else.

Run by volunteers

The organization is run by volunteers. Muniz is happy to delegate the more complex logistics. On the morning of the parade, longtime Endymion President Dan Kelly supervises the six-hour process of steering floats out of the den. After years of procuring throws for Endymion, Kelly launched his own business, Beads by the Dozen, now a major supplier for all of Carnival.

“Dan Kelly works his ass off,” Muniz said. “If Dan Kelly tells me today is Christmas, I’m gonna hang a tree up.”

During Tuesday’s membership meeting, soon-to-retire WVUE Fox 8 weathercaster Bob Breck will deliver his last-minute parade forecast. They’ll all hope for no rain, minimal wind and mild temperatures.

On Saturday morning, the krewe will assemble at the Superdome for a preparade Mass led by Archbishop Gregory Aymond.

Over the years, rain, a police strike and Hurricane Katrina all have forced Endymion to temporarily relocate. Muniz always returned it home to Mid-City.

Neither he nor his parade is as young as they were 50 years ago. But his enthusiasm is undiminished. “There’s three things I’ve done in my life,” he said. “Politics, radio and Carnival.”

He’s finished with radio and politics. But for Ed Muniz, Carnival is forever.

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