Oh Captain, My Captain
Captain of the Krewe of Orpheus and Chairman of the Mayor’s Mardi Gras Advisory Committee, Sonny Borey is an integral part of New Orleans’ annual festivities.
When you talk about the big players of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Sonny Borey’s name inevitably comes up.
Borey has served as the captain of the Krewe of Orpheus since he founded it, together with musical superstar Harry Connick Jr., back in 1993.
As a captain of a parading krewe, Borey also serves on the Mayor’s Mardi Gras Advisory Committee – responsible for working with city fire, police and sanitation departments to ensure every festival season is the safest it can be.
Borey is currently the chairman of the 34-member committee, which is convenient since his day job since August 2014 has also been in the Mayor’s office – heading up special events and protocol for New Orleans.
Borey knows all about what it takes to put on a show. A 40-year veteran of the New Orleans theater scene, he spent 30 years as head of the speech and drama department at Jesuit High School, and a decade as executive/artistic director for Le Petit Theatre.
As we head toward Orpheus’ 22nd year (the krewe rolls Feb. 16), Biz caught up with Borey to discuss both the business side of operating a superkrewe and the collection of new rules the Mayor’s Advisory Committee is set to implement.
A collection of Carnival memorabilia sits on display at Borey’s Orpheus office. He co-founded the krewe with Harry Connick Jr. in 1993, and has served as captain ever since.
Biz: Let’s start with the new rules that we’re going to see go into effect this year.
SB: Yes, for about a year and a half to two years the committee has been meeting to update the rules for Mardi Gras. They haven’t been updated in many years.
Biz: Among the new rules is that the maximum number of parading krewes has been changed from 34 to 30.
SB: Yes, but I have to be clear that this is not an immediate change. All the krewes that participated last year are still invited to parade. All this means is that if a krewe drops out, their space will not be filled. This will happen year after year until we get to 30 krewes. The change will only be made by attrition.
Biz: Why the change?
SB: Like all the rules, this one is based on providing parade goers with the safest, most enjoyable experience possible. Working with local police, we learned that the time constraint involved for them with each parade is substantial, so we feel this is a positive move.
Biz: In the spring there was widespread reporting that, due to construction on Napoleon Avenue, some traditional parade routes would have to be changed. Is this true?
SB: We have met with the Corps of Engineers and they have assured us that we’ll still be able to use the traditional routes. Currently no changes are planned.
Biz: Let’s move over to your role with Orpheus. I read that you were Harry Connick Jr.’s drama teacher in high school. Is that true?
SB: (laughing) Yes, it is. He was actually one of my students. I first met him when he was in the eighth grade. Even back then, I knew he was going to go far. Over the years we kept in touch – like I have with a lot of my students. When you work in theater, it tends to be a tight knit group.
Biz: So when he decided to form his own krewe, he contacted you?
SB: Yes, he called me during lunch one day and asked to get together. We decided what we wanted the krewe to be, got some members together, put together a budget and called Kern Studios.
Biz: Although krewes are nonprofit organizations, would you say they’re run like a business?
SB: Definitely, and I do have some background there. I’ve owned a costume store with my mother on Canal Street called Broadway Bound Costumes since 1987. My family has been involved with Mardi Gras for decades. In fact, my mother, Helen Koenig, is a familiar face with just about every Mardi Gras Indian. She sells them the supplies to make their costumes.
Biz: The Krewe of Bacchus was the first to have a celebrity king – Danny Kaye in 1969. Now Orpheus has become known for its celebrity riders. Would you say you’ve taken Bacchus’ idea and run with it?
SB: Yes, I’d say we’ve gotten a lot of what we do from Bacchus, and from all the other krewes. I respect them all. The fact that we have all these celebrities each year is just our way of adding to what New Orleans can show the world. It creates this additional excitement. Of course Harry helps a lot in getting the stars in, but we also have a committee that works hard all year on that front.
Biz: What goes into successfully running a superkrewe?
SB: You definitely have to run it as a business – we have a staff of three full-time [employees] solely devoted to running Orpheus. As the captain, along with all the other captains, all the work I do is unpaid. All the nights and weekends are more than paid for, though, by the excitement inherent in what you’re doing. The way I look at a parade is that it’s nothing more than theatre on wheels. You put on a show and you put it on the street.
Biz: Can you talk a bit about financials?
SB: All of our money comes from our membership, and we’ve tried to keep that steady at about 1,250 to 1,300 members. I think that’s important to ensure our members are all given the time and attention they deserve. Our membership is about $1,000 a year, which doesn’t include throws. I’d say the average spent on those is over $1,500.
Our major costs could be broken down into two categories – the parade itself, and our annual ball – Orpheuscapade, which always features a big celebrity act. The floats, of course, aren’t cheap. Every time we add another float I always say it’s like buying a house. Our Smokey Mary float is actually eight cars long – more than a city block.
Biz: What can we look forward to seeing from Orpheus this year?
SB: Well, back in 1997 we debuted the first float to use fiber optic lighting – Leviathan. This year we’re excited to be updating that float with even more fiber optics and other kinds of lighting.
Orpheuscapade will feature country music star Dierks Bentley, so we’re excited about that. There will also be a special event with a new technical device. That’s all I can say about that.
Biz: With costs going up – as everything grows bigger and better – but your desire to keep membership levels about the same, how do you cover the difference?
SB: We raise membership costs. We’ve also fluctuated in our membership levels, I’d say by about 100 back and forth. I won’t say I’ll never give in and raise the number of members by more than that, but right now I’m satisfied with what we’re doing.
Biz: Speaking of costs, the city costs involved with Mardi Gras have again come to public attention.
SB: Yes. The fact is that the parades do cost a lot of money, but, based on a study we commissioned with Tulane in 2011, we can say that for every $1 that’s spent on Mardi Gras, the return on investment for the city is about $8.55.
We’re doing another one of these studies for 2014, again with Tulane. We feel they provide citizens with a more complete story and show the financial benefit of Mardi Gras. But then, of course, there’s always all the benefits that can’t be quantified, including all the positive attention it brings our city. There’s just nothing like it.
The Krewe of Orpheus debuted Leviathan – the first float to use fiber optic lighting – in 1997. This year the signature float will be updated with more fiber optics and additional kinds of lighting.