By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
The "play" in question is intended to be a cathartic comedy, a kind of mischievous affront to the soul-crushing dreariness that tends to seep into these parts during the darkest depths of winter. Given their fun-loving, mutinous personas, the Vulcans are unquestionably the most popular functionaries of the Winter Carnival (children seem particularly enamored of their theatrics).
But the men in red are also the most controversial—so controversial that in 2004, Rev. Robertson's association with the Krewe cost him his job. Running around with tax collectors and wine guzzlers was too un-Christlike for a few in Robertson's flock at Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church.
"I should have done a better job informing my congregants of what I was doing and who the Vulcans were," says Robertson. "So I take responsibility for that. But I also believe that before you make a judgment on what organizations someone belongs to, you should really find out who they are and what they are actually doing."
The St. Paul Winter Carnival has featured a winter-battling, spring-beckoning Fire King since its inception in 1886, but it wasn't until more than a half-century later, in 1940, that the Vulcans as we know them made their debut.
Ernie Reiff, an artsy Prussian-American and president of the St. Paul Casualty Company, was that year's Fire King (a designation that now goes by Vulcanus Rex). Drawing inspiration from New Orleans's Mardi Gras motifs and legends, Reiff devised for his minions a demonic aesthetic: Uniforms consisted of a red rooster cap, red running suit, cape, goggles, and black greasepaint, usually applied to mimic a devilish goatee.
With their outlandish appearance and not-so-subtle mode of transportation (fire trucks), the Vulcans quickly became the most notorious and visible fixtures of the Winter Carnival. But it was their freewheeling antics, and one tradition in particular, that made them recognizable—and eventually controversial—to the general public.
In a move that symbolized the recipient's allegiance to the Vulcans (and, in turn, opposition to King Boreas, the personification of winter in carnival lore), Krewe members would "mark" women with their greasepaint. Of course, the greasepaint originated from the Vulcans' faces, hence the rampant "smooching" that broke out whenever and wherever Krewe members, women, and booze mixed. (This is probably a good time to remind ourselves that social mores were, let's say, different in the 1940s).
"You could do anything you wanted," recalls Dick O'Toole, who was the youngest Vulcan in 1946 at the age of 22; today he's the eldest at 85. "I was a Merchant Marine in the North Atlantic during the Second World War. I remember thinking to myself, 'If I ever get back, boy, I want to be on that Vulcan Krewe.'"
Vulcans of that era would frequently chase female revelers, trap them in offices or women's restrooms, and administer mass greasepaint smudgings. They dubbed this herding strategy "bunchin'."
"You can't do that stuff any more," says the wiry O'Toole at a mid-carnival Vulcan get-together, clasping his cane with one hand and holding a fork and picking at his spaghetti with the other. "The first big negative publicity we got was in, I want to say, 1970. We bunched some girls in Midway Center on University and Snelling. You have to remember that this was all in good fun, and the girls enjoyed it. One gal in there, though, was five feet tall and about 300 pounds. She was ignored by all the Vulcans. Afterwards, she started making a fuss, saying we had done all sorts of inappropriate stuff."
In November 1971, Joseph Vavrosky, the Vulcans' new head, and Ralph Nardini, the outgoing head, called a meeting. It was time, they decided, for the Vulcans to adopt a new, less creepy image. They appeared in the St. Paul dailies touting their volunteerism and charity work, downplaying the hell-raising.
In 1976, the Winter Carnival adopted a policy that banned smooching as a means of marking; it would now have to be done by hand, administered to the forehead or cheek, and only after consent was given.
But the following year, a coalition of feminist groups, which included NOW, complained that the Vulcans were still stealing kisses. In a letter to the Winter Carnival board of directors, the feminists demanded that the board keep a tighter leash on the alleged horndogs.
"In the past, only women have been singled out for smudging," reads the letter. "We object to the entire process of smudging. If smudging is to be continued, your guidelines should include a policy that both men and women will be subjected to smudging."
The Vulcans' antics continued to make for less-than-flattering, semi-accusatory headlines throughout the 1980s, i.e. "Vulcans' Behavior on the Streets Questioned," Pioneer Press, January 31, 1987. Where they were once out-of-step amid women's lib and an anti-misogyny backlash in the '70s, the '80s saw the Vulcans adopt a lower profile more in keeping with the reigning social conservatism of the day—in 1987, even an ice sculpture depicting a "devil's mask" was considered controversial.
Starting in 1990, applicants were subjected to a background check. The next year, a group of women formed the Vulcanettes, which dispensed lipstick smudes in lieu of greasepaint. But the female group was barred from official events by the Winter Carnival, and flickered out within a year.