On Shrove Tuesday, Rex, king of the carnival, rides a golden float to greet his jubilant subjects. Everybody knows it.
What most people don’t know is that the imaginary monarch that the crowds will cheer on this Tuesday is a real hero.
This is James J. Reiss III, a banking executive who, in a past life as a Marine Corps helicopter pilot, received the Distinguished Flying Cross – the nation’s fourth highest military honor – for this which the award citation calls “superb airmanship, inspiring courage and loyal devotion to duty in the face of dangerous flight conditions.
Friends said Reiss rarely brings up the August 2004 incident, which occurred when he was called in to respond to an attack on a checkpoint near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
According to the quote, Reiss dodged rocket-propelled grenades and volleys of automatic weapons and small arms to launch “devastating machine gun and rocket fire into the enemy compound.” Thanks to his decisive and courageous actions, the enemy was decimated and the border checkpoint was saved.
“He doesn’t talk about that kind of stuff. He just doesn’t,” Rex organization spokesman Ben Dupuy said. “He connects with people and has tremendous confidence, but he doesn’t brag.”
As Rex, Reiss will lead a parade of 26 floats through the streets of New Orleans with the title “School of Design Sesquicentennial,” a theme that celebrates the krewe’s 150th anniversary. He recently opened up about his upcoming reign, sitting with his wife, Erica Ballard Reiss, in their well-appointed Uptown living room. The couple have three children. At 50, Reiss is one of the youngest Rex monarchs in modern history.
Nearby were statuettes of Rex pages flanking a robed Rex official on horseback, and an array of krewe doubloons on a nearby table. One of these duplicates dates back to 1968, when Reiss’ grandmother, Alice Peak Reiss, retired after 14 years as a tank and costume designer for the Rex organization.
As Co-Chair of the Mardi Gras Mayor’s Advisory Council, James Reiss has served on the boards of Lighthouse Louisiana (formerly Lighthouse for the Blind), Audubon Charter School, and the Military Order of Foreign Wars, and he was a founding member of the board of directors of the Military and Maritime Academy of New Orleans.
A graduate of the University of Mississippi who ended his 14-year career in the Marine Corps as a captain in 2005, Reiss is executive vice president of First Horizon Bank’s wealth advisory division. Within the Rex organization, he was a senior official and board member of the Pro Bono Publico Foundation, which the krewe formed after Hurricane Katrina to support local schools and students.
Pro Bono Publico, which in Latin means “for the public good”, is the motto of the krewe. With its latest round of grants totaling $1.5 million, the foundation has awarded more than $10 million in grants since its inception in 2006.
Last October, Reiss was busy planning this year’s parade and ball when he was called into a meeting where he was told he had been chosen to be this year’s king.
“I was completely blindsided and thrilled to death,” he said. “I was blown away by this honor and still am. … I always thought I was a possibility, but much later in my tenure with the Rex organization.
Reiss grew up watching Rex on St. Charles Avenue after he ran up Jackson Avenue from his home on Prytania Street to watch the Zulu parade. For 10 years he wore the same Evel Knievel costume.
On Tuesday, he will be more elegantly dressed, in a tunic, tights and wig, topped with a crown. The 150th anniversary parade will feature additions that will include the return of walking figures inspired by designs from Viareggio, Italy, and a riderless chariot pulled by mules. On this tank inspired by an 1892 creation, Hercules and Zeus support the coat of arms of the krewe.
The anniversary of the krewe got Reiss thinking about its creation, which happened during Reconstruction.
“The men who organized Rex did it to give back to the city at a time when it really, really needed it,” he said. “Here we are, 150 years later, and we find ourselves in an almost identical situation – difficult economic times due to the COVID pandemic and a very divided world in which we live politically. I think Rex gives people something to gather around and celebrate together.
Reiss will drive through a city whose residents are eager to take to the streets to enjoy the parades after a parade-free 2021. The crowds at the first parades confirmed this.
“Everyone I spoke to said the same thing, that the pent-up demand among runners, tourists and locals is out of this world, which I find wonderful,” said Reiss, who is determined to be in that number, if only for a day.
“Erica made sure I try to remember that it’s really about having fun and that I’m a fake king for the day,” he said. “You have to throw yourself into this kind of fantasy world for a day. If I’m having fun and enjoying the whimsical fantasy of it all, I hope it rubs off on people watching the parade and enjoying the day.
And at the end of his reign, Reiss said he would be ready for that too.
“Every (Ash) Wednesday morning, I tend to be in the office first,” he said. “I don’t know if that will be the case this year, but I feel like when I wake up on Wednesday morning, reality is going to set in pretty quickly, and I’m going to have to put my reality hat back on.”