If Mardi Gras 2011 left you staggered (or staggering), that's no surprise. City officials were still tallying the numbers late last week, but Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, estimated the crowds to be the largest not only since Katrina, but the largest in a decade.
Mardi Gras 2010 coincided with the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl victory. This year, the very late date for Fat Tuesday — the latest, in fact, in more than a century — coincided with college spring break, filling hotels and Bourbon Street with young people. But anyone who marched in the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny, watched parades on St. Charles Avenue, grilled under the North Claiborne Avenue overpass or walked the Argus route in Metairie can tell you it seemed as though the entire metro population turned out to enjoy New Orleans' unique celebration.
We were blessed with a streak of good weather for most parades, beginning Feb. 19 as the irreverent Krewe du Vieux's mule-drawn floats made their ramshackle ramble through the Marigny and Vieux Carré. At the other end of the Carnival spectrum, the Krewe of Barkus saw thousands of mutts and their owners squeezed onto the small side lawn of the Municipal Auditorium as a staging area; let's hope the entrance to Armstrong Park is repaired by Mardi Gras 2012.
The masked balls came off without a hitch this year, from Algiers' hallucinogenic M.O.M.'s Ball to the traditional meeting of Rex and Comus. The parades shone with talent, flash and imagination (see Rex Duke's reviews on page 20), aided immeasurably by the city's many brass bands and high school marching bands, as well as all the marching groups — including the 610 Stompers, the all-male troupe that became a favorite after debuting at the "Buddy D" parade in 2009.
Artistry was on full display everywhere on Fat Tuesday, from the dazzling suits of the Mardi Gras Indians to the annual Society of St. Anne parade into the French Quarter and the eye-popping, R-rated spectacle of the Bourbon Street Costume Contest, where Police Chief Ronal Serpas paid his respects on horseback — and even District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro was spotted smiling on a balcony.
On Lundi Gras, when bad weather threatened to douse Fat Tuesday celebrations, a local TV meteorologist brought on the Krewe of Zulu's Witch Doctor, who cast a spell of protection over Mardi Gras. (Only in New Orleans, perhaps ... but it worked.) The big day dawned warm and mostly dry for the rolling of Zulu, Rex and Argus. Mayor Mitch Landrieu even descended from his perch at Gallier Hall to bust a move on St. Charles Avenue with some Zulu dancers.
The krewe that overcame the greatest challenge this year was Endymion, which was forced to reschedule its Saturday Mid-City roll to an Uptown route on Sunday following Bacchus. (It was also a blow to Mid-City merchants, for whom Endymion is the most lucrative weekend of the year.)
There were few reports of trouble on parade routes this year, but there was an ugly clash between the walking Krewe of Eris and officers from NOPD's Fifth District; a melee broke out on March 6 in the Faubourg Marigny. Eris, named for the god of discord, is a krewe that doesn't believe in permits. NOPD shut down the group in 2009.
According to several witnesses, a small number of people in the group this year caused a great deal of trouble: keying cars, scrawling graffiti, carrying lighted torches through residential areas of the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny, and jumping from car roof to car roof. Cops responded with Tasers and pepper spray, and in one video an NOPD officer is seen physically attacking a bystander who's attempting to record the scene. NOPD said in a statement that 12 marchers were arrested and six officers were hurt; the department's public integrity division and independent police monitor Susan Hutson have each opened investigations. The fracas was a major blot on a near-perfect Carnival season.
Mostly, Mardi Gras was yet another chance for New Orleanians to throw the best party in the world before entering the Lenten season. Next year's Fat Tuesday falls on Feb. 21, which means you've only got 11 months to get some rest — and your costume.