While in town to lead an extravagant ribbon-cutting ceremony for his new $80 million Virgin Hotels New Orleans, billionaire Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson came decked out in a uniform familiar to most New Orleanians — but the sight didn’t sit well with some.
As part of the festivities, New Orleans’s iconic St. Augustine High School Marching 100 performed — the Marching 100 is an elite marching band from the all-boys Black Catholic school St. Augustine, a group that’s performed for Pope John Paul II, U.S. presidents, in Super Bowls, and in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day. Apparently, someone on Branson’s team thought it was a good idea to request a drum major uniform for Branson to don for the ceremony, prompting intense local commentary and backlash for the school, leading to a response by the high school’s president acknowledging the controversy, as first reported by NOLA.com.
In the letter published over the weekend, St. Augustine High School president Aulston G. Taylor says that while some supporters and alumni viewed it an “honor” for Branson to wear the uniform, “Many of you expressed your displeasure and belief that no one should have the honor to wear the distinct drum major uniform without earning it as a student of St. Augustine.” Taylor clarifies that it was a request from Branson’s team, and says that “in the end, it was a good day of cheer,” but notes that feelings of discomfort are valid “and will not be discredited.” Still, he says, news about Friday’s event led to contributions from new donors, and that the hope for the relationship with Branson is a “long-term partnership … and one that goes beyond an initial gift to the school.”
Virgin Hotels New Orleans debuted Wednesday, August 18, along with the hotel’s restaurant, Commons Club; it opened during a summer that saw the opening of a number of big-deal hotels in New Orleans. The $80 million Warehouse District hotel, a few years in the making, has 238 guestrooms, a rooftop pool and lounge, a coffee shop, something called a Shag Room, and a food and beverage program from Alex Harrell, a well-known local chef who’s led the kitchen at Sylvain, Angeline, and most recently, Hotel Peter and Paul. The restaurant, Commons Club, shares the same name as the restaurants at Virgin properties in Nashville, Chicago, and Dallas.
While feelings may have been mixed about Branson’s appearance here in New Orleans, for his part, Branson seemed to have a hoot. On his blog published Friday, October 8, he wrote, “I’ve had quite a few exciting experiences in my time, but I’ve never got [a] chance to lead a marching band before — let alone the best marching band in the world.”
“I loved strapping on the iconic outfit, complete with whistle and baton,” Branson said, adding, “I had no idea how hard it was though – what a workout keeping up with the kids!” Later, he invoked the dreaded “resilience” word — a descriptor many storm-weary Louisianans have grown to loathe — writing: “Like all of New Orleans, St. Augustine has shown great resilience in the wake of the hurricane earlier this year, and we were humbled to offer our support to the school in its recovery.”
Branson also posted a video from the day to Instagram, demonstrating — unintentionally — why such intensive training, auditions, and rehearsals are required of the Marching 100 to don the uniform.