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The Maven of Mardi Gras 

click to enlarge Vices and Virtues founder Luann Denten is Mardi Gras royalty.

THEO WELLING

Vices and Virtues founder Luann Denten is Mardi Gras royalty.

So much of my social time is spent in Soulard that it has begun to feel like the center of gravity. It's to the point I feel like Tower Grove South, where I reside, is a far-flung Soulard suburb, and I'm honored when Soulardians leave "the island" to visit, as several did for my New Year's Eve soiree. Chief among them was "Maven of Mardi Gras" Luann Denten, founder of the risqué Vices and Virtues Ball. My New Year's Eve theme was "bling," and she wowed guests with her glittery, silky ensemble.

I was pouring champagne for the toast, using tasteful but inexpensive flutes due to the number of drunks I was entertaining, but when told by a mutual friend that she was retrieving champagne for the Dentens, I stepped over to the credenza and returned. "This is my finest crystal," I said.

"Yes, yes, that's how they should be presented to Luann!" the friend said, her face illuminated with excitement that I understood I was entertaining royalty.

The Interview

A few days later, I arrive at Denten's historic home to interview her about the increasingly vibrant Mardi Gras ball scene. She asks what I want to drink, and then begins looking for a specific bottle. In classic Soulard fashion she says, "We have four liquor cabinets, and one in the basement."

Once we settle into her intimate parlor, she explains the inspiration for Vices and Virtues: a 2014 trip to Venice for Carnival. "I attended a series of beautiful events, teas; it's all about pageantry, all about costuming, posing and having a good time," she says.

"Back in the '90s and even later, many of the Soulard krewes had their own balls. There was the Subterranean Ball, Knights of the Purple Haze, Banana Bike Brigade." But over the years, she says, they faded away, leaving only the tony Mayor's Ball — where for $125 a head you can hobnob with our fair city's elites. (Editor's note: Members of the Banana Bike Brigade contacted the RFT after publication to report they are back in action and will host their BLUE Ball on February 15.)

Denten describes the black-tie Mayor's Ball, which she normally attends, as a status event. "There's a parade of dignitaries, open bars, wonderful buffets and fantastic performances," she says.

Fabulous as the Mayor's Ball is, it was that trip to Venice that reminded her of how many more events used to complement it, and inspired her to revive that scene in grand fashion.

Vices and Virtues Ball

"It's very adult. Very high class. Very hedonistic," she says, acknowledging that all that can make it difficult to get past the powers that be. Some of her ideas get shot down, like having a buffet served atop the flesh of a beautiful model.

"It's fun. It's a matter of principle that there is something for everyone. High-energy entertainment, black tie or full costume — must be wearing a mask." Instantly my mind goes to Stanley Kubrick's 1999 erotic psychological drama Eyes Wide Shut. While this year's ball will not feature the masked orgies that made that film famous, hedonism is the guiding principle. "Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure, it's self indulgence," Denten says. "Saliem is our incredible burlesque performer, we'll have Robyn Hearts — who does an exceptional Tina Turner. Our headliner is pole-dancing champion Brian Lynch, and of course our emcee is the beautiful Jade Sinclair."

Decadent food offerings are provided by Molly's in Soulard and the Sweet Divine.

Past silent auction items have been quite indulgent as well, from bottles of Dom Perignon to a mink cape.

The event, going on its sixth year and drawing more than 300 revelers, outgrew Soulard's Mad Art Gallery and moved in 2018 to Cherokee Street's Casa Loma Ballroom. "There's no place in Soulard big enough for us," Denten says, "but we do have shuttles to and from Soulard, and then there's the after party at Four Strings."

Pillar of Soulard Society

I return to Denten's home a second time for another interview, and to see her wardrobe ideas for the upcoming photo shoot for this story. We climb to the third floor, which has the feel of a costume shop, complete with retail-style racks filled with her creations, along with hats, masks and wigs lining the walls. She has me try on a silky, beaded, cream-colored ensemble and then generously offers to loan it to me for the ball. "Isn't playing dress-up fun?" she asks.

A native of Hardin, Illinois, which she notes lies in the only Illinois county (Calhoun) without railroad tracks on account of it being a peninsula, Denten eventually landed in west St. Louis County, where she raised her children. When her youngest was a sophomore in high school, the Dentens began searching for a more suitable place to live. They cast a wide net, looking at houses in Maplewood, Kirkwood, Webster and the Central West End before viewing a few Soulard homes during a thunderstorm where at one point they had to step over a live fallen power line. They fell in love. "Soulard is just magic," Denten says. "It's a place where everyone is accepted just as they are."

Denten keeps busy planning neighborhood activities as part of her role with Soulard Restoration Group, activities which include the Bastille Day celebrations where new royals are crowned and the old ones head to the guillotine. Inspired by two (now deceased) lesbian aunts, she is also an active ally and event organizer in the LGBTQIA community. That led to her Soulard golf cart entry in the Pride parade (golf carts are ubiquitous in Soulard, and over 40 neighborhood residents adorned theirs for the occasion), and her spearheading the first-ever Soulard Pride.

"Luann makes amazing things happen," says friend Rick Schneider, who has worked with Denten on many projects. "Six years of working closely with her showed me just how devoted she is to elevating not just Soulard, but the LGBTQ+ community as well. Love her or hate her, do yourself a favor and get on board with her shenanigans; it's a fabulous ride!"

Walking me to the door, seeming to bask in the afterglow of playing dress-up, Denten follows her goodbye with what I've come to learn is her signature line, delivered with a joyful, Zen-like clarity: "Life is good."

The Vices and Virtues Ball will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday, February 8, at Casa Loma Ballroom. Admission is $85 and up.

The Banana Bike Brigade’s BLUE Ball (revived in 2019) will be held at 8 p.m., Saturday, February 15, at Lemp’s Grand Hall. Admission is $25 and up.

The Mayor’s Mardi Gras Ball will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, February 21, at City Hall. Admission is $125 and up.

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