The Carnival ball is a formal party given by a krewe for its members and their guests. It consists of a royal court with king and queen, dukes and duchesses and the like, who are presented in lavish costumes to an audience of invited guests.

The more traditional balls present tableaux, which are staged pageants that depict stories, usually from mythology or history. A queen's supper, which might be a dinner dance or informal party, often is held after the ball. Sometimes balls are also cotillions.

The Original Illinois Club, for example, has an annual ball and debutante cotillion. That's because Carnival courts often are made up of debutantes.

The first ball:

ACCORDING to Arthur Burton LaCour's "New Orleans Masquerade," it was held in 1857 by Comus at the Gaiety Theatre (later called the Varieties Theatre) on Gravier Street between Baronne and Carondelet. There's a parking garage there today.

After that:

COMUS held its ball at the Gaiety/Varieties until 1868, when the celebration was moved to the new Varieties Theatre (later called the Grand Opera House) on Canal Street next to the present Maison Blanche building. The Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanov Aleksan-Drovich attended the Comus ball there in 1872 ‹ after having watched the first Rex parade that day from City (Gallier) Hall.

Speaking of Rex:

THE first Rex balls, from 1873 to 1906, were held in Exposition Hall (later called the Washington Artillery) on St. Charles Avenue. From 1907 to 1929, Rex held its ball at The Athenaeum on St. Charles , where legendary tenor Enrico Caruso made his only New Orleans appearance in June 1920.

Historic meeting:

IN the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Comus held its balls at the French Opera House on Bourbon and Toulouse streets. In 1882, Rex and his court paid a visit near midnight to Comus, a custom that has prevailed to this day.

Who has balls now?

AN informal count a couple of years ago turned up 137 local Carnival balls. The first is always the Twelfth Night Ball, held on Jan. 6, or Kings' Day, by the Twelfth Night Revelers. This signals the start of the Carnival season. Traditional balls are still by far the most popular, with 87 organizations favoring them. Another 23 groups present tableaux, followed by balls or supper dances. Eighteen krewes have changed to supper dances alone, while seven stage balls followed by dances.

Where to find 'em:

ANYWHERE from high-school auditoriums to grand ballrooms. Some of the more popular sites include the Theatre of the Performing Arts, the Pontchartrain Center, St. Bernard Cultural Center, Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, Slidell Municipal Auditorium and hotel ballrooms.

Can I go, too?

MOST balls are private, but a very few sell tickets.