Super Lights

Photo by Tom Pumphret on Flickr, Creative Commons license

The pageantry of New Orleans is on display for all the world as the Super Bowl returns to the Big Easy for the tenth time–tying the city with Miami as the most frequent host–and the first time since Hurricane Katrina. This year, with the game coinciding with the official twelve-day Carnival celebration (hence the nickname “Super Gras”), the city has pulled out all the stops in its savvy marketing of the New Orleans brand. The big show may be about the Ravens, the 49ers, and Beyonce’s halftime extravaganza, but tourism promoters have assured that the city will shine through it all and leave lasting impressions.

To an even greater degree than on the eve of the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, Super Bowl XLVII preparations have exerted a tremendous stimulus in New Orleans, catalyzing hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements and frantic efforts to complete an overhaul of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport terminal in time to roll out the red carpet for Super Bowl visitors. On their arrival, football fans found an airport filled with soulful serenades as bands filled the concourses and baggage claim areas with jazz and blues. The same firm that produces the city’s annual Jazz Fest has also transformed the French Quarter riverfront into the Verizon Super Bowl Boulevard, another musically driven venue. And the company that builds most of the city’s Mardi Gras floats has built the longest one ever just for the occasion. Indeed, the entire city is flush with opportunities to imbibe New Orleans culture.

The Super Gras scene represents a logical progression from the city’s longtime experience at wringing tourist dollars out of football’s biggest prize.   At one time, the Crescent City’s music took center stage at local football games.  In 1967, at the inaugural game of the city’s new Saints team, New Orleans’ Olympia Brass Band, one of its most important cultural ambassadors, high-stepped into Tulane Stadium (the Sugar Bowl), where it starred in the “Sights and Sounds of New Orleans” halftime show.  The brassy show, complete with umbrella-toting second-liners, conjured visions of Mardi Gras for spectators.  Staged just one year after Disneyland opened its miniaturized version of the New Orleans French Quarter, the show reflected the imagination of producer Tommy Walker, who had just left his post as entertainment director for Disneyland to produce nationally televised events.

New Orleans hosted Super Bowl IV–its first– in 1970.  Also played in Tulane Stadium, the game featured another Tommy Walker-produced halftime show titled “Way Down Yonder” and featured a mix of local and national musicians ranging from Al Hirt to Doc Severinson.  The show culminated with cavalry and cannon in a reenactment of the Battle of New Orleans, after which the Olympia Brass Band staged a mock jazz funeral.

Tonight’s buzz may be about Beyonce, Super Bowl commercials, and, yes, the Ravens vs. 49ers matchup, but New Orleans will make its most critical post-Katrina debut on the national stage.  With the city in the midst of an ambitious (and controversial) push to nearly double the number of annual visitors by its tricentennial in 2018, it is a reminder that the so-called “City That Care Forgot” has not forgotten how much it cares about attracting tourists.