Street Regal

Neither rain nor more rain could keep Rex Duke? from his royal duties as the world's first and foremost Mardi Gras parade critic. Here, he returns to proclaim the best of the best.

Greetings once again, royal subjects!

Although the holy season of Lent -- with its attendant forfeitures -- is well upon us, we shall not sacrifice one last opportunity to gaze upon the splendor that was Carnival in New Orleans, and consider the fair krewes that braved the elements to ride masked among us to gild the streets with clinking coins and gifts of beads.

Alas, storm clouds as well as war clouds gathered and darkened (and soaked!) my feather quill this season. I salute those brave riders whose cheer could not be dampened, and with sadness I bid the cancelled krewes the time-honored adage, "Until next year." Also, I regret to inform my subjects that, as I was crossing the West Bank Expressway this year, the wheels fell off my royal chariot and I was forced to miss those parades. I offer my sincere regrets to yon noble West Bank krewes and captains. Next year, I shall take the ferry.

I should note one other omission from my royal scroll this year: although I joyfully attended their typically splendid outing, I have refrained from bestowing any crowns upon the fine riders of the Krewe of Mid-City, who oft-times have won "Best Day Parade" honors in years past. The reason for this year's exclusion? A royal conflict of interest. This year's King and Queen, Clancy and Margo DuBos, also reign over the Bienville Street krewe of Gambit Communications.

So, with those caveats behind us, I present to you, my loyal readers, one last longing look at Mardi Gras 2003.

2003 Parade Season Highlights:

Best Overall Parade: Rex

Best Day Parade: Zulu

Best Night Parade: Le Krewe d'Etat and Muses (tie)

Best Superkrewe: Rex

Best Suburban Parade: Centurions

Most Improved Parade: Thoth

Favorite Themes: "Chaos Goes to Sunday School," Hermes' "Hades, Lord of the Underworld," Le Krewe D'Etat's "Tales Told by Idiots," Pontchartrain's "Do Ya Know Where Ya At?" and "Tucks Smells Something Fishy in New Orleans"



FIVE CROWNS -- Excellent -- sets a new Carnival standard

FOUR CROWNS -- Very Good to Outstanding





Ancient Druids 2 1/2 CROWNS
Although the theme, "Druid Vs," led to some odd choices ("Volka Polka," "Velocity Korea"), bravo for the charming self-parody evident in the float titled "Very, Very Overused Floats." The krewe's late start and skimpy throwing don't earn the highest marks, but the wizard robes with consistent masking lent a nice eerie cast to the proceedings. Kudos to the Sara T. Reed band with the two-dozen trombone salute.

Aquila  3 CROWNS
The stuffed "Spirit the Eagle" was a prize catch from Aquila, which honored such Louisiana traditions as music festivals and Christmas bonfires in its theme "Spirit of Louisiana." In keeping with this theme, it was a band from the Louisiana town of Independence -- the Pride of Indy -- that was among the most crowd-pleasing. Riders were generous with beads and cups, and the float-themed costumes were particularly gorgeous this year.

Argus 3 1/2 CROWNS
One of many color-related processions seen this year, this one was simply titled "Colors." The floats carried the theme out artily ("Blue Dog," featuring George and Wendy Rodrigue), hawkishly ("Our Colors Never Run," bedecked in red, white and blue) and not at all ("Harry Leesiana," featuring Jeff Parish's you-know-who). Barney led off the procession, and although corporate sponsorship was certainly evident, it seemed less pronounced than in years past. No dance groups were featured, with Argus instead opting for marching bands and several jazz bands.

Atlas 2 1/2 CROWNS
The cheerful "Happiness Is" theme was well illustrated by floats such as the heavenly "Stargazing" and the culinary "Fine Dining," with chef hats topping those riders. Throws were fairly standard-issue, with a few neon necklaces augmenting the beads and cups. The xylophones of the De La Salle Cavaliers provided a marching band highlight, as did the overall performance of the East Jefferson High School Band.

Babylon 3 1/2 CROWNS
Babylon evidently harbors a soft spot for Broadway, following up last year's "Damon Runyon's Guys and Dolls" with this year's "Sauntering Through Sondheim," honoring even lesser-known works such as Pacific Overtures and offering a well-wrought sculpture of Sweeney Todd. Float-specific costuming included satin fedoras and zoot suits on "Dick Tracy." Highlights included the mule-pulled royalty float and the Panorama Jazz Band, with an energizing solo from clarinetist Ben Schenck.

Bacchus 4 CROWNS
King Jon Lovitz gabbing on his cell phone while absentmindedly tossing doubloons qualifies as one of the more forgettable celebrity sightings this year, bringing down this superkrewe's rating a notch. Thankfully, Bacchus' recovery was aided by an unparalleled show of marching band prowess -- a special nod to the full-band choreography of Monroe's Carroll High School. A weak "Fantasy World" theme played out best in the Men in Black float, spooky alien spittle and all -- but other floats, such as Back to the Future, seemed dated. The giant Barney float was a kid-pleaser, but the Bacchusauras remains our purple dinosaur of choice.

Bards of Bohemia 2 1/2 CROWNS We welcome the return to our streets of the 70-year-old Bards, whose theme, "Rising from the Ashes," set both an optimistic and reflective tone, casting an eye back to themes of past decades, such as the festive "Gypsy Revelers." With a short count of floats and few bands, the Bards passed quickly, but not before the younger riders dumped long beads by the handful.

Caesar 4 CROWNS
This year, Caesar had something for everyone, from the kid-friendly Wild Thornberries characters to scores of marching bands, jazz bands and dance groups. The theme "Do You Believe" featured many inspired floats, ranging from fantasy and fable ("The Easter Bunny" and "Extraterrestrial Beings") to an optimistic depiction of the Saints as Super Bowl champs. With neon-festooned double-decker floats, Caesar is equal parts night parade and light show. Throws were plentiful and tasty, with various Caesar's-packaged snacks flying through the air. With such an otherwise impressive showing, however, I was disappointed to see so many unmasked riders.

Carrollton 3 CROWNS
For this year's "Childhood Memories" theme, the costumes outperformed the floats; highlights were the spider costumes on the "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" float and the nostalgic Flintstones' Brotherhood of the Water Buffalo garb on "Saturday Morning Cartoons." Among the better floats: the fishy "Visiting the Aquarium." Throws were a bit scarce, but the middle school bands stepped up to the musical challenge -- I shall never forget Covington's St. Paul's Marching Wolves, looking resplendent in blue zoot suits, blasting a marching band rendition of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Hail, ghost of grunge!

Centurions 4 1/2 CROWNS
Centurions executed its "Join Centurions Under the Sea" theme with aplomb; floats such as "Sea Turtle," gushed one enthralled parade-goer, were like watching an IMAX movie. The costumes were equally breathtaking, with headgear ranging from sea shells to treasure chests overflowing with beads. Band standouts included the backward-marching Archbishop Rummel High School. Another special treat was the New Orleans Irish Pipe Band in full dress, reminding us that in both parishes, the parades don't all end on Fat Tuesday.

Chaos 4 CROWNS
With Saturn rained out the night before, satire-hungry crowds were not disappointed by the 3-year-old Chaos. The clever "Chaos Goes to Sunday School" theme featured floats that were both topical and gorgeous, rolling along on old wagon frames that underscored the sense that Chaos is really a new old-line krewe. Standouts included "Jonah and the Whale" (EWE in prison), "Garden of Eden" (with a reptilian Pres Kabacoff) and "Eternal Damnation" (Saints fans). Throws were neither copious nor particularly varied -- but the grown-ups in the crowd were usually too busy decoding the floats to notice.

Endymion 4 CROWNS
I shall never forget the sight of Pete Fountain, sitting as on top of a rolling cloud, tooting merrily away on a glistening white clarinet. The "New Orleans from A to Z" theme rightfully called attention to local landmarks and customs, with a single letter such as "K" signifying everything from krewes to king cake to K-Paul's, topped with a giant bust of Paul Prudhomme smiling over the crowd. Every make and model of flambeaux was represented, and costume highlights included maid gowns representing different New Orleans neighborhoods. This superkrewe's biggest failing was its organizational snafus: long stalls kept crowds waiting, and a breakdown near the end made the remaining floats seem like an afterthought.

Excalibur 3 1/2 CROWNS
Excalibur's theme, "Louisiana's Buy Centennial," sounds ironic, but the krewe played it straight with a series of floats depicting key themes and moments in Louisiana history, from voodoo to the arrival of the Ursulines. If the krewe was still embittered over a reported dispute regarding security fees, the riders didn't reveal it -- good spirits and generous throws were both in ample supply, with the signature light-up sword fast becoming a coveted acquisition. Despite my usual preference for live music, the Dominators of Dance were an exceptional dance troupe -- perhaps next year they could marry their skills to traditional Carnival tunes?

Hermes 4 1/2 CROWNS
Hermes once again brought a classical theme to its proceedings, illustrating the secret "Hades, Lord of the Underworld" theme with floats such as "Demeter," "Leuce" and "Minotaur." Generous with their beads, the masked riders perched on wondrously sculpted floats enhanced by neon and 3D effects. Out-of-state marching bands (three from Memphis) performed well, but Carter G. Woodson Middle School's jump-step routine ruled the night. Equally spectacular were the flambeaux, which lit the streets for a procession of towering puppets.

Iris 3 1/2 CROWNS
Once again, Iris felt as wholesome and homespun as a small-town homecoming parade. This all-female krewe rolled under the theme "Music Transcends Life," illustrated by a range of Americana and Broadway-style floats, from "Easter Parade" (riders wore bunny ears) to the Hawaiian-laced "Little Grass Shack." Costumes were float-specific muumuus with lace-trimmed eyemasks. Once again, this was the parade for families; the more ambitious children went home with lawn-and-leaf bags filled with stuffed animals. Artistic touches on the floats were hit-or-miss: in what seemed like an unintentional Mel Brooks tribute, the "No Business Like Show Business" bust looked oddly like a refashioned Hitler.

It's funny how traditions begin -- for some reason, this all-female krewe is becoming known for its trademark fly-swatter throw. The "Magic of Music" theme was inconsistently applied throughout the parade ("Rock and Roll" and "Love Songs" I understand, but "Oscar" and "Treasure Chest"?). Floats were just so-so in design -- float-specific costumes actually outdid the floats. (Let's keep those masks on, ladies!) Nonetheless, Isis proved to be a kid-friendly parade with a lot of spunk.

King Arthur 2 1/2 CROWNS
King Arthur made an improved showing this year, helped by the historical theme "What's the Big Deal? The Story of Louisiana, 1699-1803," illustrated by floats representing the Louisiana Purchase and the state's Catholic heritage. The krewe also did a fine job carrying the castle motif throughout the parade. There weren't many bands, and costumes were fairly standard-issue, but King Arthur's custom medallion was beautifully designed, cast and painted.

Le Krewe d'Etat 4 1/2 CROWNS
Once again, this satirical krewe's floats were most brilliantly conceived and executed. The "Tales Told by Idiots" theme riffed Shakespearean on subjects ranging from a straw-stuffed John Ashcroft ("not make a scarecrow of the law") to local icons Ernie K-Doe and New Orleans' best-known waiter, Gilberto Eyzaguirre. Float-specific beads were abundant and rivaled the fascistic teddy bears as prize d'Etat throws; a pair of massive beads featuring a depiction of EWE in prison stripes was among the most popular. This year's faux marching group, the "Canal Street Business Women's Association," lampooned the infamous Canal Street brothel. Only organizational matters (big gaps) keep this from being a perfect roll.

Mercury 3 CROWNS
The theme "Mercury's Musical Heritage" was appropriate if well-worn, and was best illustrated in floats such as "New York, New York," which featured a Statue of Liberty, a live band, and apple costumes. "Tiger Rag" was adorned by a large, bright tiger climbing down its front, and riders on the Zephyrs' "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" float threw roses. I was a bit taken aback by the monster truck that led off this parade, but was won over by this attractive, spirited outing.

Although I am refraining from rating this parade, due to this year's reign by Gambit Communications' Clancy and Margo DuBos, I must set down my bag of signature Mid-City Zapp's potato chips to comment on the glory of reflected glitter of the foiled floats in one of the season's few partly sunny afternoons. The show of marching bands was again mighty, and my favorite illustration of the "Foiled Again" theme was "Foil Wrapped for Freshness," honoring King Tut. Hail, peacock-themed stilt walkers! Hail, reigning alternative weekly publishers! Hail, Mid-City!

Morpheus 3 CROWNS
Enjoying better weather than last year's frigid squalls, Morpheus rolled under a "Morpheus Treasures" theme that was represented by stones and metaphoric valuables, from "Diamonds" to "Treasures of Literature." The re-adaptations of old floats draw mixed reviews, with a portly Mona Lisa ("Treasured Paintings") and a Shakespeare that suspiciously resembled Winston Churchill. All riders stayed masked and Morpheus' royalty was elaborately garbed. Throwing was inconsistent, but the long-strand aqua medallion beads were stunning.

Muses 4 1/2 CROWNS I shall never forget when the U.S. Marine Band transitioned from "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" to the Marine Hymn, setting the tone for a poignant empty float that honored krewe members called to military duty. Otherwise, irreverence reigned under the theme "The Lesser Known Gods and Goddesses," featuring gods and goddesses of bad boyfriends, foot fetishists, and the like. The throws rivaled Zulu and d'Etat for inventiveness, variety and krewe-appropriateness; high-heel shoe beads, make-up kits, glittery tattoos and beaded beer koozies were just a few of the many highlights. Extra points for the Pink Slips, the 9th Ward Marching Band and the annual cup design contest, this time won by Benjamin Franklin student Arwen Byrd.

Napoleon 3 1/2 CROWNS
"Fantastic Festivals" paid tribute to celebrations both local and international, from "Day of the Dead" to "Chinese New Year." Traditional touches included horse-drawn carts, but it was the "Waterloo" float -- with a brightly lit Napoleon on horseback and a confetti-shooting cannon -- that most dazzled my eyes and pleased the crowd. Impressive artwork decorated all the floats, and riders stayed masked throughout the ride.

Orpheus 4 CROWNS 
It was a dark and stormy night, but a shortened version of Orpheus slogged through in good spirits, getting this year's Purple Heart. My soggy, inky notes reveal that Harry Connick Jr. and Travis Tritt were among the visible celebrities, and the theme, "A Flourish of Fetes and Feasts" showed up magnificently in special-effect-laden floats such as "Feast of Kites" and "Feast of Lanterns." The smaller crowds were rewarded with heavy throws of beads and toys, and those marching bands that waded through to the end -- including Xavier Prep and out-of-town bands from Houston and Indianapolis -- should either get a medal or new pairs of galoshes.

Okeanos 2 1/2 CROWNS
The theme "Big Easy on the Move" was represented in a straight-forward fashion by floats honoring local icons such as "The New Orleans Saints" and "Pete Fountain." (Does any living musician have a greater Mardi Gras parade presence than Fountain?) The parade held together well and riders stayed masked; royalty on horseback were regally attired. Special top hats were among the specialty throws.

Oshun 1 1/2 CROWNS
Kudos to this krewe for making the best of things in a rescheduled parade. Still, Oshun has much room for improvement. The floats honoring the "Shades of Blue" theme ranged from confusing ("New Orleans Hop Scop Blues" featured not Bessie Smith but an Oktoberfest-style busty frau) to the unfortunate ("Beale Street" was misspelled). Worst of all, T-shirts bearing the insignias of local casinos do not a throw make. By emphasizing and honoring local music, Oshun certainly shows it's on the right track, but it still has far to go.

Pegasus 3 CROWNS
A standard theme ("Out of Africa") aside, Pegasus rode well this year, with generous, enthusiastic riders throwing krewe beads, signature horseshoes and embossed footballs. Like last year, there was too much "canned" music throughout the parade, both on floats and emanating from giant radio station jamboxes. But the giant walking heads (three little pigs and giant coyote) were a nice touch, there was a good mix of marching bands, and the maids and royalty sported splendid (and obviously quite heavy) feathered crowns.

Pontchartrain 2 1/2 CROWNS
Pontchartrain was a little ragged around the edges -- I caught an old Excalibur cup from one float, and some uplift-inciting chuckleheads on float No. 5 must have thought they were on Bourbon Street instead of a family-friendly day parade -- but this krewe redeemed itself with a strong local theme. The inspired "Do Ya Know Where Ya At?" was illustrated by scenes of local streetcorners and their attendant attractions, from Decatur and North Peters (The French Market) to Magazine and Exposition (Audubon Zoo). The Belair High School marching band from Baton Rouge stole the show with its version of ReBirth's "Do Whatcha Wanna." And given this year's weather, the choice of WDSU meteorologist Margaret Orr was strategic.

Proteus 4 CROWNS
This old-line krewe shared with Orpheus the season's most inclement ride, and deserves our respect and sympathy for just making it through. Riders, attired in Pagliacci-style costumes, rode on old-style floats mounted on cotton wagon undercarriages, which were styled in vivid colors and flowing lines to illustrate the classical theme "Creatures and Cultures." Throws were skimpy despite the small crowds, and bands mostly cancelled due to the pelting rain -- but a medal of valor goes to Harper High School from Chicago, a city that's no stranger to harsh climates.

Pygmalion 2 1/2 CROWNS
"Pygmalion Sculpts the World" was this year's theme, with floats illustrating a league of nations, from Russia to China to Ireland. Costumes were a consistent satin garb with half masks, which stayed on throughout the roll. Various local high school bands made strong showings, with Clark High School a particular crowd-pleaser. Riders were spirited and enthusiastic, though throws weren't overly plentiful.

On a dampened day, His Majesty Rex was a gilded splinter of sunshine. This year, the regal krewe capped Mardi Gras with the fitting theme "Bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase," rolling a series of floats that honored the principals, landmarks and purchased territory; among the most spectacular were "Napoleon," "Mississippi, Father of Waters," "Kansas -- 1861" (ah, those sunflowers), and of course "Louisiana -- 1812." Just as wondrous were the costumes, such as the La Salle riders' garb, which matched the attire of the namesake float frontpiece. A few parades took on the bicentennial theme this year, but none brought to it the splendor of Rex.

Rhea 1 CROWN
Rhea, muse of the painted T-shirt. That, at least, was once again the costume of the largely unmasked riders in this continually underperforming krewe. Rhea did honor its "Rhea's Three-Three Year" theme with appropriate floats depicting trios of blind mice, three favorite colors and the three-ringed circus. Also, royalty was nicely attired. But there were more gaps than beads, and it is perhaps time for Rhea to reconsider its commitment to parading -- or decide once and for all to put on a Carnival-worthy parade.

Shangra-La 2 1/2 CROWNS
Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the krewe paraded under the theme "Orient Expressed," revisiting past themes with floats such as "Celebration," which displayed a bust of Dr. John and some sort of 18th century nobleman (hmm). Throws were varied and generous, with the stuffed Rosie the Dragon toy serving as the day's prime catch. The krewe's biggest problem is sonic. Amplified bands and pop-blaring dance schools were spaced too close together, creating noise collisions with multiple casualties. Plus, mobile DJs sometimes drowned out the marching bands. Speaking of which, here's some good news: Fortier High School's version of Professor Longhair's "Go to the Mardi Gras" was a blast.

Sparta 2 1/2 CROWNS
A fine roll was marred by a breakdown that significantly delayed the proceedings and led to a lot of high-speed catch-up by the later components. The classical "A Knight at the Ballet" theme featured productions such as "The Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake." Costumes provided a good follow-through on the fancy feathered floats. The season's first appearance of the St. Augustine Marching 100 demonstrated the classic New Orleans power drum line, and McMain's dance squad was the epitome of strut. Best of all was the sports-star-studded "Cystic Fibrosis Prince and Princess" float.

Thor 2 1/2 CROWNS
The theme "Dance to the Music" was inconsistently executed -- is "Proud to be an American" a dance tune? The old Dinah Shore song "Pass the Peace Pipe" was represented by riders in feathered headgear, and krewe members on "Hound Dog" sported guitar shirts. Still, the best music of all was the live rendition of "Iko Iko" on the king's float. The krewe delighted crowds with copious throws, including blinking medallion beads and Mardi Gras posters.

Thoth 4 CROWNS
Thoth gains extra points this year for preserving a unique neighborhood route during a time when road construction and other considerations have led to the streamlining of city parade routes. The "Thoth's Wonderful World of Color" theme proved that a simple idea can be well executed. ("Yellow" featured a submarine, "Blue" had Bluebeard, and there was even "American Cheese Orange.") Smooth organization and masked riders prevailed. But mainly, Thoth earns praise for displaying an exceptionally friendly, day-parade attitude, joyfully tossing a variety of toys to the many children -- and a few adults -- lining its winding route. This was the feel-good parade of the season.

Tucks 3 CROWNS
The theme "Tucks Smells Something Fishy in New Orleans" promised more satire than it ultimately delivered, but the more clever productions featured "Bodenheimer's Dock" and a lawyer-themed shark float. The throws featured the famed Tucks toilet, including one coveted version that squirted back at you. In keeping with its bad-boy reputation, the Tucks riders took off their masks more than any other Orleans krewe this year. And in keeping with my desire to uphold Carnival tradition, I accordingly deduct from their score for this raffish misbehavior.

Zeus 3 1/2 CROWNS
Being forced to reschedule due to inclement weather, Zeus made the best of it and put on a strong show, with the krewe's royalty resplendent in horse-drawn wagons, masking throughout, and several special throws, including a bobble-head version of Zeus himself. If my eyes don't deceive me, floats depicting the "Our World in Color" theme were shared with Thoth -- but there are far worse things than a little thrifty cooperation across parish lines. Marching bands were few in number, likely due to the parade's rescheduling.

This was a very, very good year for Zulu, which proved once and for all it could roll relatively on time with minimal gapping and a good pace. Classic Carnival moments abounded, such as the leadoff Walking Warriors inciting the crowd to dance to the Hot 8 Brass Band's "Ate Up the Apple Tree." The theme, "The Kingdom of Zulu," was well-served by the often animal-bedecked floats, with breathtaking plumage on the ceremonial African-style costumes. Riders were generous and festive, offering up dazzling float/character medallions such as the action-figure-size Witch Doctor with leopard-skin cape and skull-belt. Plus, of course, the coconuts. And if all that wasn't enough, there was the cheerful irony of filmmaker Spike Lee (who examined the legacy of blackface in Bamboozled), reveling as celebrity rider in the middle of it all.

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