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Rex Duke revisits Mardi Gras 2014

Rex Duke, Gambit's Carnival critic and aficionado, reviews the 2014 parade season

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• Best overall parade: Endymion

• Best day parade: Mid-City

• Best night parade: Chaos and Le Krewe d'Etat (tie)

• Best suburban parade: Caesar

• Best alternative krewe: Chewbacchus

• Most improved parade: Nyx

Hail, loyal subjects! Another Carnival has come to an end and I, Rex Duke®, recount my parade-viewing highlights and give my awards to the best parades of another stunning Mardi Gras. I wish to thank the marching bands, dancing groups, float riders and mounted lieutenants, along with the thousands of revelers who endured — and enjoyed — an atypically cold, rainy and wintry Mardi Gras.

  Before I unveil my ratings, a note to longtime readers: This year I have taken a different approach to my reviews. Instead of bestowing crowns on all parades in alphabetical order, I have reviewed them chronologically — the same manner in which we all view them — and I offer my thoughts on the most notable aspects of those processions I was fortunate enough to view. Alas, we Carnival lovers adore our traditions, but we also evolve to reflect current tastes. And to those krewes whose parades I was unable to review, my deepest apologies — and my solemn pledge to try harder next year!

  So, without further ado, I present the best of the best of Mardi Gras 2014:

• Favorite themes:

Bacchus: "Bacchus Explores Our Sportsman's Paradise"

Chaos: "Chaos Goes to Hell"

Le Krewe d'Etat: "DUI — d'Etat Under the Influence"

Iris: "Iris Rocks"

Endymion: "A Night at the Opera"

Orpheus: "The Enchanted Worlds"

• Favorite throws:

Bacchus — LED wine glasses

Caesar — motion-activated light saber

Delusion — DJ Soul Sister noise ordinance proclamation

Krewe du Vieux — Disneylandrieu map

Muses — mini comic books by cartoonist Caesar Meadows

Rex — float-specific signature beads

Orpheus — gold record doubloons commemorating honorary Grand Marshal Fats Domino

Friday, Feb. 21

  The krewes of Oshun and Cleopatra rolled through Uptown to inaugurate the first week of Mardi Gras parades. Oshun's "Night Out in the Big Easy" included a "Hot Stuff" float featuring a chef presiding over a boiling pot of seafood, and "All That Jazz" featured a large saxophone on the float's front. One glaring faux pas: Many float riders neglected masks and throws in favor of sipping beer while their floats whizzed by — a cardinal sin!

  Cleopatra often features St. Augustine's Marching 100 band (as do other krewes), but this year the Edna Karr Magnet School marching band's rendition of the Spice Girls' "Say You'll Be There" was the showstopper of the evening for Cleopatra's pageant.

  In Metairie, the Krewe of Excalibur presented "A Knight at the Renaissance Faire" to fans awaiting their first suburban parade of the season. The simultaneous Family Gras featured an over-the-top performance by local favorite Cowboy Mouth — thanks to frontman Fred LeBlanc — and then the Renaissance-themed parade rolled past the judging tent in front of Lakeside Shopping Center. Excalibur is heavy with floats honoring its royalty and other theme-appropriate guests, including an appearance from Merlin and Morgana. The intricate details on these were magical.

Saturday, Feb. 22

  Metairie's Krewe of Caesar lived up to its reputation as a stellar suburban krewe. Due to the cancellation of the Krewe of Atlas' Sunday night parade, Caesar (which rolled Saturday night) was the featured parade of Family Gras. With bands and marching groups that didn't stop, Caesar presented another excellent procession.

  Caesar's trademark neon adorned the headpieces of its royalty as well as many of its floats. The members threw generously — including the catch of the night, a very realistic motion-activated light saber complete with sound and vibration. Lots of plush and long beads were tossed as well.

  Caesar carried the theme "Game Time" with creatively constructed floats representing classic board games such as Candy Land and Operation. Caesar also gave a nod to modernity with floats dedicated to mobile-device games such as Angry Birds and Temple Run. The 9th Ward Marching Band stood out this year, with its sparkling red costumes matching the always-spectacular Hydra float.

  The Krewe of Freret made its return after a 20-year absence with the theme "There's a First Time for Everything." Included among the firsts was El Lucha Krewe, a marching group of lucha libre wrestlers. Welcome back Freret!

  Sparta and Pygmalion rolled Uptown with the themes "Isn't It Romantic?" and "A Few of Our Favorite Songs" respectively — celebrating famous pairs of lovers and the world of music, from "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" to "Monster Mash." In Marigny and Bywater, the krewes of 'tit Rex and Chewbacchus prepared for their respective parades during the mild, clear evening. Before sunset, 'tit Rex emerged from St. Roch Avenue revealing its patriotic "Wee the People" theme. One of its elaborately constructed miniature floats included "Chee Wee the People," featuring disco dancing Chee Wees. Float handlers gave out miniature flambeaux, as well as a hilarious (and quite large — it unfolded to the size of a map) version of the U.S. Constitution adapted for 'tit Rex. Cartoonist Caesar Meadows handed out his annual prize — a miniature comic book.

  After dark, the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus lit up the night with its elaborate sci-fi constructions. This krewe has grown steadily since its debut in 2011, and its largest-ever parade was led by a massive, roaring robot alligator (which, unfortunately, did not spit fire as anticipated). Chewbacchus has grown to include several krewes within the krewe, a la Krewe du Vieux. Among them were groups dedicated to Doctor Who (Krewe du Who, featuring a large Tardis) and even Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (The Wyld Stallyns, featuring characters throughout time, as well as a reconstruction of the film's famous time-traveling phone booth). One group, The Rolling Elliots, rode bicycles and wore red hooded sweatshirts with papier-mache E.T. aliens in the bicycles' front baskets. Members handed out dozens of handmade throws — including a "death potion" necklace, which Rex Duke will treasure for many Carnivals to come.

Sunday, Feb. 23

  The Mystic Krewe of Barkus had to contend with drenching rain, which meant hundreds of very wet dogs marching through the streets of the French Quarter — some of which were more into it than others. Most of the mutts and the water breeds seemed to have a fine time, but others, like Boots, the bulldog belonging to Frencheeze food truck owner Jason King, sat on his human handler's shoulder and shivered, looking miserable. "He's saying, 'Two hours ago I was perfectly happy on the couch,'" King translated. Sheriff Marlin Gusman's two dogs seemed unfazed by the downpour. What were their names? "Rufus and Chaka Khan," Gusman said, with a big smile.

  Meanwhile, Uptown saw the first roll of Alla, the now-former West Bank krewe that moved to the traditional Uptown route after more than 80 years rolling across the river. (Its theme, aptly if not originally, was "Alla Goes to NOLA.") Alla joined the Krewe of King Arthur, which made a similar move in 2001. The theme this year was "King Arthur Has the Blues," and it was executed cleverly (floats in every possible shade of blue, with sub-themes all related to bummers and disgruntlement). Also doing its best in some pretty unpleasant weather was the Krewe of Carrollton, making the Uptown route on Carnival's first Sunday a prime spot for families.

Wednesday, Feb. 26

  Druids has established itself as being to Nyx what Le Krewe d'Etat is to Muses — a satirical, clowning antagonist. Druids' liberal goofing on the all-women krewe included one float that locked scantily clad Nyx "royalty" behind bars. The 20 floats that followed (under the theme "Druids Delicacies") included food-themed satire, such as Oysters Benson-fella, spoofing the money-drenched owner of the New Orleans Pelicans and Saints. I particularly enjoyed this krewe's float-specific cups.

  The Krewe of Nyx began its third year of parading under a light mist, but krewe members certainly "made it rain" with throws. The women riders appeared to have great fun pitching crowd-pleasing throws, including light-up rings. I personally caught two purses. Guest rider chef Susan Spicer tossed many signature krewe cups revealing the theme: "Cookin' with the Krewe."

  Nyx's food-and-booze theme featured "Deviled Eggs," which had Chinese dragons and riders throwing fans, and a large-breasted maiden on the "Cafe Au Lait" float, on which riders wore foam cups and mugs. Many hats featured LED lights and other uncomfortable-looking and theme-appropriate items.

  Float No. 11 in Nyx's procession saluted bananas Foster, the flaming dessert invented at Brennan's — which closed abruptly last year. The krewe addressed that issue by putting a sign on the tractor towing the float: "Bananas Foster — from the Pink Building on Royal."

  Unfortunately, a 20-minute delay in the middle of the parade left many revelers out in the cold, but the always-excellent Marine Corps Band got the Sirens dance-marching to Lady Gaga's "Born This Way."

Thursday, Feb. 27

  As the sun began to set, the Knights of Babylon rolled with a theme of "Thanks for the Memories," a hat tip to the krewe's 75th anniversary. One float celebrated the famously mad knight Don Quixote, and its riders dressed as conquistadors. Riders on "Chinese Expeditions" wore conical hats, and riders on "Kismet" wore plush elephant headgear.

  The Knights of Chaos wasted no time digging into their satirical "Goes to Hell" theme. A float with Mayor Mitch Landrieu dressed as the pope led "7 Deadly Sins," with each City Council member representing a particular offense — Cynthia Hedge-Morrell was in the lead position under Landrieu with the word "sloth" above her face. On another float, disgraced former Mayor Ray Nagin was portrayed as "Beelzeboob."

  Chaos reviewed some of the South's most controversial people in a float called "Shot to Hell." U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the cast of Duck Dynasty and home-cooking queen Paula Deen were among those who earned Chaos' barbs. The krewe's final float was "High as Hell," featuring a massive potted marijuana plant.

  The Krewe of Muses' theme this year was "Ready-to-Wear You Out" — befitting a krewe that's all about fashion. Among this year's fashion statements was a giant effigy of Gov. Bobby Jindal in an "insinceresucker" suit. For those on the other side of the aisle — and a tip of the hat to last year's furor over the City Council's regulation of go-cups — there was a special go-cup throw with Council Vice President Stacy Head's name. The procession also was notable for the debut of the "glambeaux" — an all-female version of the traditional flambeaux carriers.

  Both Chaos and Muses referenced New Orleans' ongoing newspaper war; both featured floats lampooning John Georges, who bought The Advocate last year. Chaos featured a horned Georges holding a newspaper saying "ME! ME! ME! I WIN!" while Muses created a Clark Kent-looking Georges wearing a suit of newspapers (to go with the krewe's fashion theme). Muses also upped the game with "TP Streak," a parody of The Times-Picayune's derided tabloid edition, TP Street. That float featured editor Jim Amoss in the nude, running against a background of falling currency.

Friday, Feb. 28

  Le Krewe d'Etat — one of the most consistent Carnival satirists in town — made Canadian headlines for its Rob Ford-fronted float. This year's theme, "D.U.I.: d'Etat Under the Influence," featured "Canadian Club" with Ford smoking a billowing crack pipe.

  The detailed floats were covered in one-liner jabs at local and national politicos and celebrities unfortunate enough to come under d'Etat's scrutiny. One favorite was "Happy Hour," featuring Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman in bartender attire serving a host of inmates. Among d'Etat's walking krewes were a dance group honoring New Orleans Saints defensive coach Rob Ryan, and the stunning skeleton costumed members of the Skeleton Krewe, which also made a dramatic appearance on Fat Tuesday in the French Quarter, appearing on the streets in the cold and rain.

  Hermes, known for its drama and spectacular use of light and shadow, celebrated its 75th anniversary with "The Diamond Jubilee," featuring floats decorated with themes from past years and a raft of coolly elegant throws, many of which lighted up. Morpheus, unfortunately, suffered in comparison to d'Etat and Hermes — its tribute to the streets of New Orleans was not cohesive and one of the floats rolled with no riders.

Saturday, March 1

  The krewes of Iris and Tucks rolled on a very sunny Samedi Gras. As Iris made its way down St. Charles Avenue, I overheard one parade goer say, "Oh how funny! My therapist's name is Iris!"

  "Iris Rocks" was this year's theme, and it included many kinds of rocks, from martinis on the rocks to stone crab as well as Fraggle Rock, though the float's massive fraggle looked quite odd. Rex Duke was quite amused by a mohawked punk rocker adorning the "Punk Rock" float, which I imagine is the first ever.

  Tucks rolled with the theme "The Sporting Life" — and the krewe had to obey Carnival ordinances that reined in its liberal toilet paper streams that end up hanging on St. Charles Avenue trees for days. There were significantly fewer rolls thrown this year — though many rolls filled the streets following the parade. One parade goer who has watched Tucks every year said Tucks has "come a long way since it first started." I agree!

  In Mid-City, nearly every float in Endymion's massive parade featured LEDs or strobe lights — a welcome feature that Endymion brought to Mardi Gras several years ago. Many floats also had their own personal DJs, giving the super krewe the aura of a passel of individual parties rather than one big celebration. The crowds spilled out onto the streets all along Endymion's route — a testament to this perennial favorite's enduring popularity.

  And this year Endymion once again lived up to its advance billing. Endymion's ambitious and audacious floats perfectly matched its fantastical, high-brow affair theme, "An Evening at the Opera." Floats decorated to the nines matched the grand operas they represented, from the flower-covered "Carmen" to the winged horses and rainbows on "Ride of the Valkyries." "Don Giovanni" stretched endlessly with its many recreated scenes from the famous opera. It was an evening of ethereal street theater that once again brought Endymion the prize for best overall parade.

Thoth's "Forrest 
Gump" float - PHOTO BY REX DUKE
  • Photo by Rex Duke
  • Thoth's "Forrest Gump" float

Sunday, March 2

  The Krewe of Okeanos featured Vince Vance and his trademark hair — and his likeness on the front of the float — to lead the parade under the theme "Okeanos Celebrates the Holidays." I have long admired Okeanos' fun and family-friendly approach. Floats depicted Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas — and even a very meta "Mardi Gras" float.

  The Krewe of Mid-City's hallmark is an array of dazzling foil floats and gorgeous throws. This year's parade included a massive theme medallion celebrating "50 Shades of Green." Kicking off things was a City Park float featuring the park's train — with working steam. The "green" floats included unique, well-crafted sculptures adorning the rainbow-colored foil. "Green Hornet" featured a namesake smirking bug surrounded by dancing frogs, "Little Green Men" featured green robots and aliens, and "Green Goddess" had a Grim Reaper-esque figure looming behind the green figures on board. Sophie B. Wright and St. Mary's Academy marching bands wowed the crowds, though I was too busy to cheer because my face was stuffed with Mid-City's signature Zapp's potato-chip throws.

  The Krewe of Thoth went Hollywood this year with large, heavily decorated floats depicting famous films, from Forrest Gump and Platoon to Jaws and Jurassic Park — the latter, which strung two floats together, featured velociraptors and a replica of the film's famous front gates. This year's signature cup featured the ibis-headed Egyptian god rolling out a red carpet.

  The Hollywood theme was a fantastic preview for that night's Academy Awards — and clearly better than the ceremony itself. Though the parade stalled several times, riders were never shy about tossing throws while they waited. Parade goers were treated to plush snakes, delicate glass beads and toys of all kinds — including small rubber bouncing balls, which peppered the route and sidewalk along Magazine Street.

  As Bacchus prepared its tour Uptown, the St. Charles Avenue neutral ground — and St. Charles Avenue itself — was overloaded with onlookers, as well as dozens of tents, chairs, DJ booths with extension cords snaking through the crowds, picnic tables, and even a whole pig roasting on a spit.

  As always, Bacchus was a sight to behold. This year's Bacchus, actor and musician Hugh Laurie, tossed handfuls of beads left and right and clearly enjoyed himself. The floats were bright and pretty, and for the most part matched the theme of "Bacchus Explores Our Sportsman's Paradise." However, the "Camping and Nature Walks" float missed the mark, sporting a bicycle rider on the front, and several people in the crowd were confused by "Gator Fishing in the Louisiana Swamps." Even Rex Duke knows that gators are hunted, not fished.

  Crowd favorites included "Deep Sea Fishing in the Gulf Coast," with a man in a diving suit on the front and riders in fishing hats; and "Louisiana Whitetail Deer Hunting," which featured a lovely deer in full leap. Even King Kong got the sportsman's paradise treatment with a fishing pole in one hand and a fish in the other; Queen Kong had a duck call. The Shaw High School band from East Cleveland, Ohio, displayed awesome dance moves and fit in well among its Louisiana marching peers.

Lundi Gras

  The weather began to turn ugly on Lundi Gras. Canal Street was a wind tunnel. Nevertheless, the Krewe of Orpheus presented "The Enchanted World." One standout float was "Cherished Familiars," featuring a frog riding a white rabbit and colorful floral and animal scenes. A massive dragon — twisting its tail through three floats strung together — composed Orpheus' "Leviathan" float. Drumcart NOLA also brought the beats and an impressive diaphanous light-up jellyfish on poles, along with marine-costumed walkers. Proteus also was impressive, with elaborate floats reflecting the theme "Ancient Elements of Alchemy" — the horse-drawn floats beautifully represented classical elements, the periodic table and their respective gods and mythical figures. Monday night's crowds were thin but spirited.

Monroe's Wossman High School band marched on Mardi Gras without ponchos - PHOTO BY REX DUKE
  • Photo by Rex Duke
  • Monroe's Wossman High School band marched on Mardi Gras without ponchos

Fat Tuesday

  The coldest, wettest Mardi Gras in more than a century (the coldest since 1899!) had few upsides, but one was parking. While empty lots on Elysian Fields Avenue near the French Quarter were charging $30, there were still free spots open in the Faubourg Marigny by mid-morning.

  The Society of Ste. Anne, the traditional walking krewe that gathers in the Marigny and marches into the Quarter, was fully costumed but a bit bedraggled as revelers tried to crowd under any nearby balcony or into the R Bar on Royal Street.

  A massive oozing eyeball guarded the shivering yet smiling and happy-as-clams revelers outside Mimi's in the Marigny, where costumed crowds took shelter or posed for pictures on balconies. A roving tiki bar took shelter under a blue tarp, and I foolishly hoped for a hot toddy and not the rum drinks they shared. I'd never seen such creative costume layering to combat the weather. Coats and ponchos were common, and revelers stepped up their makeup and wig games. Another common tactic was to pull a massive petticoat or tutu over the whole ensemble, or use lots of layered tights and socks. This is probably the only time I've seen second line umbrellas used for their original purpose.

Jackson Square, usually a center of activity (and group dance numbers) was virtually deserted at noon.

  The Bourbon Street Awards, the annual best-of-the-best costume contest held at Bourbon and St. Ann streets, celebrated its 50th installment under a fiercely cold drizzle that cut down on the number of contestants as well as spectators. Among the outstanding costumes was a group of people dressed as giant tropical cocktails in what was more like hot chocolate weather.

  Despite the muddiest, coldest weather in more than a century, Zulu ran on time and riders seemed to enjoy themselves, tossing many throws to a thin crowd. While I stood in front of Avenue Pub, many stayed inside it or under their tents. Zulu's throws weren't very theme- or even parade-specific, and my fingers were frozen — catching anything was painful — but Zulu riders were incredibly generous with their throws. Those who did line the route were rewarded with half-coconut shell pendants, NBA performance-wear shirts, foam footballs and coconuts galore (one friend I know received 20). I also saw many exchanges — especially hot plates of barbecue for coconuts.

  Rex had a beautiful and stunningly executed theme of "Gods of All the Ages." As befitting its status, Rex is always a class act, but some of its themes have been a tad obscure to many viewers (e.g., "This Sceptered Isle" a few years back). Not so this year! The vibrant blue, many-armed gods were the perfect lurid counterpoint to a wet, gray day.

  Rex stopped for toasts, as expected, but soon started up again and rolled quickly. Riders tossed many beads — from the traditional matte, yellow, green and purple plastic to more elaborate versions, as well as bracelets, cups, beads and doubloons. Reusable shopping bags were en vogue this year, as were float-specific beads and plush toys. Sadly, the icy rain and plunging temperatures put a damper on Fat Tuesday's parades and parade watchers. I noticed many crying children, and one reveler quipped, "I'm not drunk enough to feel warm!" Another, who hailed from Memphis, Tenn., looked on the bright side, saying, "It's cold, but at least it's not snowing like where I'm from!"

  Thus concludes my 2014 edition of Mardi Gras parade reviews. I bid you farewell, dear subjects, until next year!

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