If you’re in the French Quarter on the Friday before Mardi Gras (this year that’s February 9), you might notice a group gathering outside the Royal Sonesta New Orleans hotel around breakfast time. That group grows and grows until it numbers more than a thousand, most folks clad in costumes and wearing beads, many popping champagne.
Then you’ll notice the buckets of grease arrive.
These little vats of Vasoline are all part of the fun (and functionality) of the annual Greasing of the Poles, a Mardi Gras kickoff event marking fifty-four years in 2024. What began as an ingenious method to deter street-level revelers from shimmying up to the balconies has grown into a beloved block party and street performance.
We caught up with Royal Sonesta’s general manager, Al Groos, and Trixie Minx, arguably the city’s most celebrated burlesque performer, to discuss something so strange, it could only happen in New Orleans.
How did the Greasing of the Poles originate?
Al Groos: It truly is a gathering born of necessity. At some point in the mid 1970s, we began having an issue at the Royal Sonesta. People celebrating out in the streets would try and climb up the gallery support poles to get on the second and third-floor balconies of the hotel. Sometimes, the people on the balconies were encouraging them and wanted them to climb up. More often, it was unwanted. On top of that, it’s just very dangerous. People could fall. So our engineering department suggested we grease the balcony support poles.
We began to grease them on Friday, which is really the start of Mardi Gras in the French Quarter. That’s when the parties kick off and then they roll all the way to Fat Tuesday. We need to grease our poles again on Sunday, because the grease wears off.
When did this evolve from a hotel safety precaution to a well-attended annual tradition?
Groos: It was in the mid 1990s that we began to have some fun with it. We’d noticed people gathering around on our block of Bourbon, between Conti and Bienville Streets, to watch us grease the poles. We first had a waiter, in a tuxedo, bring out the bucket of Vasoline on a tray. After Katrina, the news stations began doing stories about it. By 2006, we had a small stage, and we were gradually making it more of a production.
And what is it like today?
Groos: It’s evolved into a huge event and truly is the official start to Mardi Gras weekend. It’s possibly our biggest day for sales at the hotel in terms of food and beverage. We get city permits and block off the entire street.
Tell us about the competition?
Groos: We host a contest with three to five contestants and a panel of local celebrity judges. The competitors get really dressed up in funny costumes and climb the ladders. They get two opportunities to grease their specific pole. The first is an individual performance and the second time, everyone is greasing at the same time. We like to think of it as ‘naughty’ but never ‘nasty.’ So you could bring your kids. It’s bawdy, for sure.
Our judges declare an Overall Champion and a People’s Choice winner. The winners get bragging rights and an engraved bottle from our sponsor, Moet Hennessey Champagne. Moet also sponsors a VIP breakfast inside the Jazz Playhouse before the event.
Burlesque star Trixie Minx is the unofficial grand dame of the Greasing of the Poles. Over the years, Minx has been both a contestant (winning the whole thing in 2016) and a judge. Now you will find her whipping the crowd into a frenzy, tossing the event’s custom beads and cups. She’s also the resident burlesque performer for the Royal Sonesta, hosting her popular Burlesque Ballroom shows every Friday evening in the Jazz Playhouse.
How much effort do contestants put into the event?
Trixie Minx: I have coached contestants in the past, and people get really into it. The year I won, the theme was Let Them Eat Cake, and I was in a full Marie Antoinette costume. Each year, I’ve been shocked at how much it has leveled up.
What’s one wild costume you recall?
Minx: Last year, Scot [Pilié] of the Weather Channel came dressed as an entire King Cake Box, which he emerged from to grease.
What’s a good tip for someone looking to attend?
Minx: Get there early! By 10:00 a.m. the block is filled end-to-end with people. Get there at 9:00 a.m., bring a little coffee or a croissant, and stake your claim. [WGNO News also live-streams the event each year.]
Will we ever see you climb a ladder to grease again?
Minx: I don’t think so. I feel like being a burlesque performer, maybe it’s an unfair advantage [laughs]. I have my trophy from winning, and I’m satisfied. I would find a lot of peace with just being named the Patron Saint of the Poles. How about that? Make it happen, Royal Sonesta!