Since its founding four years ago, the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus has opened a portal to Carnival for legions of science fiction fans. The annual parade includes contingents organized around fandom of Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Lord of the Rings, Japanese monster films, anime and more. But the krewe is not a collection of fan clubs.
"Don't come dressed as Darth Vader," says krewe co-founder Ryan Ballard. "If you want to dress as Darth Vader, go to Comic Con. We have a guy who dresses as Darth Simmons. He combines Star Wars with KISS and Gene Simmons' look. That's cool."
Chewbacchus is a fusion of the furry Wookiee sidekick from Star Wars and the Greek god Bacchus — frequently invoked in Carnival celebrations.
"I think science fiction functions as modern mythology," Ballard says. "Star Wars and Star Trek are the epics of our time. Superheroes are our Hercules and Greek heroes. We're wrapping the ancient rites of bacchanalia around that."
This year, Chewbacchus takes on another level of transcendence with the debut of the Cult of the Sacred Drunken Wookiee. A new totem features a plastic-coated, carved-foam likeness of Chewbacca, and the apparatus is equipped with lights, a smoke machine and speakers. Ballard has arranged for a dozen local burlesque dancers to dance in Bollywood style to shepherd the icon. The krewe also has a musical mix of Tibetan chants, Sri Lankan hip-hop and Wookiee sounds that will be played on the minifloat's sound system (search for Some Metry Guy's "Om Wookiee Padme Hum" on iTunes).
The Sacred Drunken Wookiee will lead the parade, which Ballard expects to include more than 1,000 marchers from more than 50 participating groups, plus brass bands, krewe minifloats and more. The procession begins at 6 p.m. at 4300 St. Claude Avenue and follows a figure-eight route circling Bywater and Marigny. The route returns to the starting point for the Chewbacchanal, a block party with tents, bands, food trucks and more.
Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca in Star Wars, is scheduled to ride the Millennium Falcon float, which is a replica of the spaceship mounted on a golf cart. Officially, he's not the krewe's king; he's the pope (actually krewe Emperor for Life and Pope of Popes). But the krewe finds itself with a rival pope this year: Andy Richter, the comedian sidekick to late-night TV host Conan O'Brien. ("It's like the great French schism, when there were rival popes," Ballard says.)
Richter will ride a souped-up Vietnamese rickshaw, pedaled by Conan show character Pimpbot 5000. Richter's participation will be filmed for an episode of the show.
Ballard isn't certain if it's Richter's first time in the parade. The comedian's wife's sister lives in Mandeville and has participated before. Ballard says Richter may have marched before, but anonymously.
It won't be the first time the krewe has received national attention. Media outlets including The New York Times and Wired have reported on the sci-fi krewe. And the group gained attention on MSNBC for a hoax suggesting Mardi Gras beads had been found on Mars.
While the krewe has grown rapidly and drawn attention to itself, it's still finding its niche in New Orleans.
"I wouldn't say we've settled into anything normal," Ballard says.
But he and the krewe have moved into a more permanent home in Bywater. Ballard, who works as a teacher, and a couple of friends who work in the Carnival industry bought a 7,000-square-foot building, which serves as a den and workshop for Chewbacchus and storage for a float artist's props. They expect to open the space as an event venue, but for now it's half-filled with the Chewbacchus parade fleet. That includes the Sacred Drunken Wookiee totem, the Millennium Falcon popemobile, two rolling bars (the keg-equipped Bar2D2 and Barship Enterprise), an X-wing fighter made from an adult tricycle and the Mechagator (inspired by Japanese monster films).
The krewe is introducing a new type of throw this year. A select number of bandoliers, like the one Chewbacca wears, will be distributed. The furry bandolier has Velcro patches which can hold icons distributed separately by the subgroups. Or attendees can build their own bandoliers and collect the items during the parade. A collectable is appropriate for a krewe associated with Star Wars.
"For lots of people in their mid-20s, Star Wars has old-school cult status," Ballard says. "But for some of us, this is our childhood. I played with these toys."
Ballard has been a lifelong tinkerer, which has helped him build many of the krewe's vehicles. Some krewe members also spent years building floats in Krewe du Vieux subkrewes, and some still participate in that parade.
With more than 1,000 participants, Chewbacchus is the same size as Krewe du Vieux. The new building is useful for monthly meetings of nearly 100 volunteer organizers, and there's plenty of room for the krewe to keep growing.