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Mardi Gras Past



Maybe the best way to look at Spanish moss in any appreciative way is during the heart of winter.

Then, it's not hidden in any green cloak of summer and you don't get distracted by the colors. That's how you've got to look at things sometimes, at what's left against a background of what was also once there. For instance, Carnival against a background of what it once was. The immediacy of Carnival brought into sharper focus by the colors of its history.

Rattle off the names of parading krewes that are no longer with us, and each and every one is a dimming memory to someone who trudged as a child with ladder and anticipatory heart to some corner on Gentilly or Carrollton or Elysian Fields or Metairie Road. Each and every one is tucked away in some part of the heart where the good things stay.

Of course, near the end, you might have winced and turned away so as not to see the shabby costumes with pulled-down masks, the retread floats with baffling themes, the kiddie marching bands with sparse and squeaky repertoires.

Then again, the struggle to stay alive sometimes led organizations to alternative routes or awkward mergers. Take the Krewe of Pandora, a ladies club that originally paraded in Gentilly and eastern New Orleans. After 15 years, hungry for new members, Pandora switched its route to City Park and downtown. Then, men were added to the membership rolls, and the krewe changed its name to "Pandora and Epimetheus." In 1994, the krewe merged with another troubled group, the Krewe of Freret, but it was a last hurrah. Next season, both were gone.

"There once were five krewes parading in the Gentilly area," says Mardi Gras historian Arthur Hardy. "I was the band director at Brother Martin High, and we marched in all of them. They were an important part of Mardi Gras. They showed you didn't have to be Rex to do Mardi Gras."

So did the Krewe of Arabi, which dated back to 1932. Sam DiMartino is 60 and remembers the last Arabi parade in 1986 and plenty before that. "It was strictly neighborhood, family-type. It started as a walking parade; anyone with a pick-up truck followed and got into the parade. We usually started at the stockyards, with a live steer, and went to the city, near Elysian Fields.

"Chick Taranto and Peter Perino were the captains. They were connected politically, and they could get people to ride. But then, it got very tough to get families to ride on Mardi Gras. Now, people have to leave the parish to experience Mardi Gras."

Each of the gone parades had its unique aspect. The Krewe of Freret formed up in front of the old Loyola Fieldhouse and followed its flambeaux past places and people that were visited by Carnival for only a few hours a year. The Krewe of Carrollton formed up on Oak and had a flat-bed truck full of stuffed animals they saved for the children at Charity Hospital. Know what? Nobody bothered the stuffed animals.

Marvel Lebreton rode in Venus, first of the women's parading krewes, for 19 years. "To me, Venus was the ultimate in parades," she says. "I always wanted to be queen."

Then, there was Momus, born in 1872, died in the social engineering of the City Council in the 1990s. Besides having the coolest krewe motto (Dum vivimus, vivamus. While we live, let us live.), Momus may well have enjoyed the drunkest membership.

"They didn't revert to satiric themes until 1977, their anniversary year," says Henri Schindler, float designer and historian. "It was an element that had been missing for too long, and people embraced it."

So much so that satire is now an integral part of the makeup of such krewes as D'Etat, Muses, Druids and the Krewe of Chaos, which parades on Momus' old Thursday date with Momus' old floats and much of its membership.

Then, there was Comus, the perfect embodiment of royal haughtiness. "After us, the deluge." Comus reeked of aristocratic disdain, as befits the oldest. The wobbly-wheeled floats had light-grabbing protrusions, bees and fairies who bobbed and swooped like chimney swifts as the float advanced. It was a parade to be admired, not plundered.

"Without Comus, Carnival is incomplete," declares Schindler, who designed the floats prior to the krewe's 1991 parading demise. "Mardi Gras day seems to unravel in the afternoon, and by nightfall, it's a sad thing."

There will be others. Regrettably. Neighborhoods change, leadership changes, politics change. Aristocratic or common, none of the missing will be commonplace. Someplace in this town, someone will savor the memory.

"We remember not because we have something we wish to go back to," once wrote memoirist Andre Aciman. "Nor because memories are all we have. We remember because memory is our most intimate, most familiar gesture. Most people are convinced I love Alexandria. In truth, I love remembering Alexandria. For it is not Alexandria that is beautiful. Remembering is beautiful."


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