In deference to the seriousness that pervades our beloved Crescent City and surrounding environs in the wake of those two most unwelcome intruders, Katrina and Rita, and in recognition of the Herculean efforts undertaken by those captains courageous and their stalwart lieutenants and krewe members, all of whom placed Mardi Gras tradition ahead of national public opinion, I, Rex Duke, the world's first and foremost Mardi Gras parade critic, have decided this year to forego my annual custom of critiquing parades and grading each with one to five crowns. Indeed, it would be heartless of anyone to "review" such valiant efforts in the midst of so much loss and human misery. The fact that any krewe could muster the strength and the resources to present its annual pageant is worthy of only bouquets, not criticism. That so many chose to do so inspires us all to endure the slings and arrows of life after Katrina.
And so, before the ashes fall from my forehead and I plunge headlong into the austerity of the Lenten season and the drudgery of recovery, before I lower myself to write another letter to FEMA or call my -- gasp! -- insurance adjuster one more time, I take quill in hand once more to record my favorite contemporaneous reflections of the season just ended, and I herewith present my own cavalcade of compliments, gleaned from the galaxy of glitter and glow, from Metairie to Uptown to the West Bank, offering each with a heartfelt thanks to one and all.
Sign of the Times
There were no streetcars on St. Charles Avenue for the first Mardi Gras after Katrina. But there were signs along the route promising relief for parade spectators at a nearby Episcopal church. "Gotta Go? St. George's Church, 4600 St. Charles Ave. Bathrooms, food, music." The rest rooms were free and open to the public. Sales of burgers, beer and other concessions were brisk, and the lines were long inside the church basement.
A U.S. Coast Guard float in the Rex parade received more applause than cries for throws, even though the riders were tossing beads and baubles to the crowds gathered at St. Charles and Napoleon avenues. Coast Guard helicopters and rescue boats pulled thousands of New Orleanians to safety after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city. The Coast Guard float featured an inflated model of an orange helicopter atop a helipad.
Tired of Katrina?
Sure, we loved all those parodies of local, state and national politicians. But it also was nice to see traditional (i.e., classical) themes from some of the traditional krewes. A great example of this was Hermes, which presented "The Voyage of Ulysses" as its theme. Hermes seems to get better each year in terms of creative, artistic floats. This year, we particularly liked "Land of the Lotus Eaters" and "Ulysses Kills the Cyclops." We also enjoyed the marching bands, particularly the MAX Band (St. Mary's, St. Aug and Xavier Prep high schools).
Lions & Tigers & Queens -- Oh, My!
Lots of parades feature men dressing up badly as women, but Bacchus took it a step further with a whole float of burly guys dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. In a town famous for its cross-dressers and drag queens, having an entire float of men dressing up as a Judy Garland character -- complete with pigtails and gingham blue-and-white pinafores -- was indeed hilarious. It all made sense, of course, because Bacchus' theme was "Bacchus Follows the Yellow Brick Road," a familiar theme, but nonetheless one that was executed superbly. We also love the perennial favorites ("Bacchigator" and "Bacchasaurus" among them), and actor Michael Keaton made a wonderful monarch.
Our favorite family krewe is Mid-City, which this year turned up the laugh meter with its theme of "Rode Hard and Put Up Wet." The aluminum floats were indeed "put up wet" after Katrina, so the krewe made the best of it. One of the catchiest Katrina-related floats of the year was "Drove My Chevy to the Levee But the Levee Was Gone." We also loved the use of blue tarps on many of the floats.
Another d'état Coup
Le Krewe d'état once again brought forth its version of a parade bulletin, with skeletal marchers at the head of the parade passing out beautifully appointed copies of a tabloid showcasing the floats and theme -- and explaining the inspiration for each float. There was so much parody on the floats this year, we needed the bulletin to keep up with all the humor. We also liked the fact that the floats this year conveyed the theme from front to back -- each was chock full of visual and literal references to the selected topic.
Excalibur Captain Diane Barrileaux was a little apprehensive about parading this year -- until she talked to one of her float lieutenants, who had lost her home to Katrina. When Barrileaux first saw the lieutenant after the storm, she threw arms around her and asked if there was anything she could do. "The first words out of her mouth were, 'Please tell me we're parading,'" Barrileaux says. She promised Excalibur would roll, and indeed it was the first krewe to parade in Metairie this year. Barrileaux says she has never seen bigger crowds than that night. "I think people thought it was about time we had a day of pleasure. People needed to forget about the past few months, if only for a day."
To the MAX
How about that MAX Band? Special kudos to the hybrid high school marching band -- consisting of members from St. Mary's Academy, St. Augustine and Xavier Prep, all led by Lester Wilson -- for their ability to pull themselves together as a new unit so quickly and to perform as though they've been together for years. From the high-stepping drumline to the sashaying dance teams to the truly amped musicians, the yellow-and-white team never failed to please the crowds.
What Are the Odds?
Only in New Orleans could you see the image of a deceased sports-radio personality mounted atop the cab of a truck and paraded along a major thoroughfare amid cheering crowds. The rolling tribute to the late "Buddy D" Diliberto appeared during the Thoth parade. A sign accompanying the sportscaster's picture read: "Buddy D, you will be missed, my friend." The float unit was titled "Abdul," and featured The Tentmakers, a live band in tow. The float title's reference to "Abdul," recalled one of the colorful oddsmakers who regularly phoned Diliberto on his live sports-radio talk shows.
Celebrating New Orleans
Rex always seems to hit high notes, but never more so than when it ties its artistic themes to the city it loves and serves so well. This year Rex paid tribute to New Orleans artists, sculptors and writers by dedicating floats to the likes of Tennessee Williams, John James Audubon, Enrique Alfrez and others. Our favorite was the float depicting the late John Kennedy Toole and featuring a huge Ignatius J. Reilly III up front with his sword and hallmark Lucky Dog.
All That Glitters
Endymion long ago earned its place in Carnival lore for its larger-than-life presentations and over-the-top array of fiber optics, throws and themes. This year, Endymion presented a truly glittering parade under the theme "Legends and Lore of Gold." In this case, all that glittered truly was golden as the parade moved from its traditional Mid-City route to the mandatory Uptown route, but lost nothing in the transition. For its 40th anniversary parade, the krewe commissioned a special float that depicted a sleeping Endymion with a fleur de lis in his hand, lying beneath the rays of a crescent moon. We like the "new" look of Endymion at the hands of float builder Henri Schindler, who prescribes highly stylized, yet traditional, floats for all his parades.
King Arthur's 12 floats supplied some of the wittier titles, especially considering the krewe's den was hit by a tornado. Among them: "Shelter Skelter," "Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Flood Wall," "Months Later, Katrina Babies," and "FEMA Money Doesn't Grow on Trees." A crowd favorite, a float with a golf crucifix on the front, bore the title, "The Quest for the Holy FEMA Trailer." A West Bank parade until moving to New Orleans in 2001, Arthur followed the Krewe of Carrollton and its Katrina theme: "Blue Roof Blues."
Out of Uniform
The Knights of Babylon looked better than ever this year. The krewe's title float was ridden by New Orleans Police Department members who had stayed at their posts during Hurricane Katrina. Babylon wanted to honor them with a special place in the parade, and no place is as special as the title float. But there was a catch: NOPD forbids officers to ride in parades in uniform. The answer? The cops donned old-time police costumes. A very nice touch.
Muses' politically charged, sarcasm-heavy floats had to compete for attention this year with the all-women krewe's marching units, which included fiber-optic butterflies with creepily realistic faces, unicyclists, stilt walkers, belly dancers, and the Pussyfooters Dance Team (clad in pink camo and sequins). Even the support vehicles joined in as one truck carrying a sound system sported a sign reading, "Hey! FORTUNE 500 CEO! Your logo here!" The net effect: you didn't want to look away from the parade for one second, which became a problem for anyone interested in grabbing Muses' abundant throws.
Zeus celebrated its own golden anniversary as New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrated its 150th year. The title float is always a crowd favorite, and this year was no exception as Zeus paid tribute to other krewes in the New Orleans area -- complete with Zeus' take on those krewes' signature symbols. Rolling this year was "a necessity," says Zeus Captain Phil Lundgren, and crowds along the Metairie parade route seemed to agree.
Hoda and the Hotties
The official honoree of the Krewe of Argus was Elvis, but you couldn't tell by the crowds' tribute to grand marshal Hoda Kotb, the newly married former WWL-TV anchorwoman who now works for NBC News. She rode in Argus with her hubby and fellow celebrity marshal George Huff, the local lovable songster of American Idol fame. Argus gets extra kudos this year for having to change artists at the last minute after its den in eastern New Orleans was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina. On a lighter note, The Click Five, a Boston-based band of twentysomething hotties, whipped teenage girls and a few grandmas into a frenzy. Next year, Argus will continue its theme of adorable popsters by honoring the Fab Four.
Mardi Gras Makeover
You could say Hollywood went to church on the Saturday before Mardi Gras. As the Krewe of Iris rolled down St. Charles Avenue, a smaller crowd of spectators gathered a block away in the 1800 block of Carondelet Street to watch the filming of an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, ABC-TV's popular reality series. True to its formula, Makeover surprised the Rev. Charles Southall III, pastor of First Emanuel Baptist Church, with a small army of professional builders and volunteers on Feb. 19. The volunteers vowed to renovate his storm-battered church in 100 hours. The pastor and his wife -- known for their community service to the impoverished Central City neighborhood -- were whisked away for an all-expense-paid vacation. The couple returned in a chauffer-driven car to find the church freshly painted, with a new bell, reupholstered pews and other repairs. Some 200 worshippers cheered their pastor's return. The pastor rang the new bell installed in front of the church. Between rings, the Iris crowds could be heard cheering the krewe's 31 floats a block away.
The Krewe of Caesar didn't let a little rain get in the way of its annual parade. As krewe members set up their floats on Saturday morning, the skies were overcast with a constant drizzle. But by the time Caesar rolled it was a pleasant evening, and an enthusiastic crowd lined up on Veterans Boulevard to greet the krewe. Caesar had lost some of its floats in the krewe's Ninth Ward den, but parade organizers Bob and Sylvia Carnesi made sure the parade and it's theme, "Only in Nawlins," went on as scheduled.
Medal Winners All
While real Olympians were pondering those weird donut-shaped medals in Italy, Le Krewe d'état brought "D'Olympics d'état" to New Orleans. The "100 Yard Dash" lampooned Orleans Parish Prison with a "Get Out of Jail Free" card, "Bureaucratic Hurdles" was wrapped in red tape, and "Looter Shooting" featured the "big dog, an ugly woman, two shotguns and a claw hammer" sign that business owner Bob Rue made famous. The one that generated the biggest crowd reaction was "Refrigerator Hurling," celebrating the Katrina fridge with an oversized appliance swarming with flies and being puked on by one sick-looking dude.
True Mardi Gras Spirit
Centurions showed true generosity not only for its own members but also for a krewe of special-needs adults at the Magnolia School, which Centurions sponsored on a float this year for the first time. Captain Norman Bourgeois noted that many of his krewe members had suffered from the storm, and other members banded together to help them out. He adds that the group from Magnolia School had "the greatest time just getting on the float. They were laughing, smiling, and really appreciating being there." Centurions' theme, "Centurions Enjoys New Orleans," evoked nostalgic memories for those missing the Crescent City -- and gave a special group of revelers some brand-new memories as well.
In Good Humor
Some of the krewes' Katrina references were subtler than others. Babylon's "Out From Under" theme started off with a banner thanking the New Orleans Police Department, and proceeded with a line of floats named for mean-looking sea creatures. While "Manta Ray" didn't exactly feature Hizzoner's mug, we got the message. Chaos' messages were more blunt: the "Pump-ty Dumb-ty" float balanced an egg-shaped Aaron Broussard on a pumping station, while the "Corpse of Engineers" showed gushing levee breaches. And, of course, there were those "Chocolate City" references: Chaos' "Chocolate Divinity" showed someone drowning in a vat of chocolate; d'état's riders threw edible chocolate doubloons wrapped in shiny foil, and its "Backstroke" float displayed Ray Nagin as Willy Wonka trying to crawfish away from his awkward remark.
While it's often sad to see the last float of a great parade pass, the final float of the Krewe of Muses this year left crowds silent because of its poignancy. Muses dedicated the last float of its parade to those taken away by Hurricane Katrina and symbolized their absence by leaving the float devoid of riders. Ghostly white blossoms and a design that looked like flowing water decorated its flanks and at its stern was a banner that read: "We celebrate life. We mourn the past. We shall never forget." The Grecian bust at the prow of the float had a prominent papier mach tear beneath her eye. In the wake of this float, some onlookers had real ones filling their own.
Two heads may be better than one, but on Mardi Gras sometimes two wheels can be better than four. That was certainly the consensus of a group of bicyclists known as the Krewe of Bikeus, established in 2002 when its leaders formalized an efficient way to get around town on Fat Tuesday. Two dozen people pedaled over to Pal's Lounge in Faubourg St. John at 7 a.m. for a coronation ceremony as local bassist Robert Savoy and his wife Roquel were named king and queen. Riders were costumed, and so were many of their bicycles. En route to an Uptown house party for the Zulu parade, Bikeus rolled down St. Charles Avenue, tossing beads to early risers behind the barricades.
Testing the notion that the difference between tuneful music and just plain noise is in the ear of the beholder, the Crew of Joyful Noize rang in the first few minutes of Mardi Gras with a cacophony of electric wailing. Put on by a group called the Noisician Coalition, the band featured not a single conventional instrument but rather a collection of noiseful inventions including a megaphone fused with a sax, a tuba made from plastic drain pipes, an accordion equipped with guitar pedals and air horns, drums fashioned from water coolers and countless other variations. Laser-like beams of handheld searchlights illuminated the group's progress through the Marigny toward the French Quarter, led by a grand marshal strutting out front in a mesh top, checkerboard tights, vinyl hot pants, red go-go boots and a police helmet.
Monsters Bearing Gifts
The West Bank superkrewe of Alla had to forego its traditional route, skipping the normally packed Gen. DeGaulle-Holiday Drive leg near residential neighborhoods and starting instead near the big Wal-Mart on Behrman Highway. It was a monster of a parade, with creepy, scary characters of all ilks taking center stage on the floats under the theme "Alla's Monster Bash." The "Alien" float was particularly true to the movie character, down to the green ooze dripping from it's mouth and "The Fly" float was loyal to the original B-movie version with a big fly body melded with a goofy man's head. The triple-tandem "Dracula" float celebrated the vampire, blood dripping from his fanged teeth, on the front float, followed by an arched-back cat on the second and a flying monster on the third.
It's a Family Affair
One of the most entertaining -- and endearing -- things about the Krewe of Rhea is its recognition that in Metairie, parades are all about family, kids and traditions. This year's theme "It's Carnival Time" was best carried out by its use of marching bands and dance teams featuring young people from all over: John Quincy Adams Middle School Band from Metairie, Independence High School Band from Independence, Riverdale Middle School Band from Jefferson, and dance teams from Ursuline Academy in New Orleans, Dance Unlimited from the River Parishes and LaPlace Elementary School, to name a few of the groups, which numbered about as many as the floats.
Proteus' Hot Wheels
For its 125th anniversary parade, Proteus' featured some of its most memorable themes from the past century and a quarter. Favorites included "Dumb Society (1896)" and "Tales of the Tiny Folk (1970)." Proteus also "fixed" some of the wheels on its authentic old floats without "modernizing" them -- sending them to an Amish wheelwright in Pennsylvania to be repaired the old-fashioned way. The old wheels performed beautifully, giving each float a shimmy as it lumbered down The Avenue. That, in turn, produced just enough motion to animate the various streamers (on one float, a papier-mach garland of Mardi Gras beads), which fluttered and shimmered beautifully in the Lundi Gras evening glow. And, best of all, none of it required neon or fiber optics.
The Route Most Taken
While we all realize that many of the parading krewes had to sacrifice a lot of their favorite features -- including their traditional routes -- to make this Mardi Gras run more smoothly, here's a tip of the Duke's hat to the organizers for allowing Zulu to roll on as it usually does. You could just see the Central City portion of the parade route come alive with pride as Zulu riders -- which this year featured authentic Zulu warriors from South Africa -- rolled by. And with all the political tension that has crept into the rebuilding efforts, neighbors cheered on Mayor Ray Nagin, in his camouflage-gear, riding atop his horse costumed as Lt. Gen. Russell Honore.
Midnight on Mardi Gras is supposed to signal the end of Carnival. But this year the upstart "Myssedit Krewe of FEMA" took to the streets of the French Quarter on Ash Wednesday. A day late and a dollar short from start to finish, the understaffed krewe had only five members in its inaugural run. French Quarter residents, visitors and merchants seemed surprised -- and a tad confused -- to see FEMA's Mardi Gras celebration on Wednesday morning. But krewe members assured them of the parade's intent. "Happy Fat Wednesday!" members declared. "FEMA to the rescue! FEMA delivers a parade, just when New Orleans needs it most!" FEMA beads were not immediately available, of course, but in their place krewe members distributed Bead Request Forms that explained the procedure for receiving beads. The parade was so successful that the krewe has already begun planning its New Year's celebration, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 2, 2007.