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MARDI GRASTHE GREATEST
FREE SHOW ON EARTH

by Bob Brooke

Mime on Royal Street, New Orleans, LA"Throw me something, Mister! Throw me something!" shout thousands of street revelers to costumed riders on larger than life floats as they shower glittering trinkets over the scrambling crowd below. Parades--60 formal ones at last count and many other informal ones--fantastic costumes, elegant balls and intricately designed tableaux, all essential parts of Mardi Gras, one of the wildest celebrations in the country.

Spending time in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, even for just a few days, is an experience you'll never forget. There's a craziness in the air as most of the city shuts down to celebrate during the last two weeks before Lent. This is no small time affair. Over 40,000 people in the greater New Orleans area are directly involved in Mardi Gras parades, each spending an average of $200.

Mardi Gras is as much a part of New Orleans as jazz and gumbo. It plays an important role in the rhythmic cycle of the year, much like the Fourth of July and Christmas do in other cities. It is a celebration for and by the people of New Orleans, itself, and is not meant for tourists, although the city fathers have made it into the city's Number One tourist attraction.

Carnival Season
Carnival season begins with several weeks of society balls and culminates with a splash of parades and revelry that ends at the stroke of midnight on the night before Ash Wednesday.

The word Carnival comes from the Latin word "carnelevare," which translates to "farewell to the flesh." A celebration common to Greek and Roman societies, it was a period of feasting before Spring planting. The Roman Christian church sanctioned the spring rites in the fourth century, fixing the date of Ash Wednesday to mid-winter, the first day of the Lenten season. This time of celebration became known as Carnival.

While Carnival is celebrated in many parts of the world, the French dubbed it "Mardi Gras" or Fat Tuesday in the Middle Ages. At that time, Mardi Gras included mass orgies and public executions but later the French popularized the tradition of masking at balls, thus giving Mardi Gras a more gentle tone. Louis XV added opulence to the balls, with regal costumes and feasting.

French explorers brought the celebration to the New World and as New Orleans became settled, it flourished as a rowdy street festival. However, by the time the United States purchased the territory of Louisiana in 1803, Mardi Gras balls were taking place.

The First Parade
It wasn't until Mardi Gras evening in 1857 that the first parade was staged by the Mystic Krewe of Comus, the first of the Mardi Gras krewes or organizations. This group was formed by six members of the Cowbellians, a group that had presented New Year's Eve parades in Mobile, Alabama, since 1831. Comus coined the word "krewe" and established not only the themed parade but a secret Carnival society which chose a mythological namesake and staged an elaborate tableaux ball. But the celebration of Mardi Gras had gotten so violent before the mid-1800's that the press called for end to it.

A hastily planned parade honoring the visit by the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff was the inspiration for the first appearance of Rex, the King of Mardi Gras, in 1872. Rex, astride a bay horse, was followed by the Boeuf Gras, or Fatted Ox, the symbol of the last meat eaten before the 40-day Lenten fast. Rex immediately became the symbol of Mardi Gras and was responsible for the first daytime parade, selecting Mardi Gras' colors--purple for justice, gold for power, green for faith--it's flag and its anthem, "If I Ever Cease to Love," taken from a popular musical play of the day.

The year 1872 also was the first for the Knights of Momus, followed in 1882 by the Krewe of Proteus and the Knights of Electra. Today, there are more than 65 Mardi Gras krewes.

Each of these organizations is made up of male, female or mixed members, who stage the elaborate balls and parades with money from their own pockets. Each has a Captain who takes care of the organizing and producing of the krewe's ball and parade.

Throw Me Something, Mister
The single element that separates Mardi Gras parades from those held elsewhere is that of the "throws" which turn parades in New Orleans into crowd participation events. Baubles have been tossed off floats since at least 1871 when a masked krewe member dressed as Santa Claus dispensed gifts to the crowd.

Today, the typical float rider spends from $250 to $500 for a wide variety of throw items, many of which bear the krewe's insignia. The most popular throw is the doubloon, an aluminum coin minted in several colors with the krewe emblem , theme of the parade, and date. Over twenty million are thrown. Others include strands of beads--over two million gross of them thrown last year--plastic cups with Mardi Gras designs and small toys.

Almost all parades follow a standard format with the Captain appearing at the head of the procession on a special float or on horseback followed by the krewe officers, the King or Queen, followed by the title float and those carrying riding members. All the floats are pulled by tractors now , but they were formally pulled by teams of white horses.

An individual 100-unit parade of a 200-member krewe may actually include more than 3,000 performers when band members(as many as 30 bands in one parade), clown units and motorcycle units are tallied up.

Night parades are the most exciting. Originally black men carried lighted torches that swung on poles called "flambeaux." They often danced while parading along and were given money by the crowd. Today, most night parades use electrically lighted floats, but some do have the flambeaux as a special touch.

By tradition and law, parades are not subsidized. No tickets are sold, and no commercialism is tolerated.

Because the large papier mache floats are time-consuming and expensive to build, less than a dozen krewes build their own original floats and costumes. The other krewes select their floats from a pool of rental floats and their themes are more generic. For instance, a float entitled the Ten Commandments from a parade with the theme of the Bible, might show up several days later as the lead unit of another parade with the theme of Academy Award Winning Movies. Of the three parishes (counties) where the parades take place--Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard--only Orleans prohibits float builders from using the same float more then twice in any given season.

Kings and Queens
The Kings and Queens of Carnival are chosen by drawings and other methods that differ with each krewe. Only the King of Mardi Gras, Rex, is chosen by the inner circle of the School of Design, the sponsoring organization of Rex.

To be King or Queen is an honor that is often bestowed on someone high in society. The King of Carnival is usually a leading citizen and his Queen is a popular debutante. In fact, the masked balls of the older and larger krewes like Comus and Momus are high society affairs.

Admission to the traditional balls held at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium are by non-transferable invitation only and dress is strictly formal--tuxedos and tails for men and long gowns for women. Only 12 of the 65 parading krewes have such affairs. Unfortunately, only one ball, that of the Krewe of Bacchus, is open to the public through the purchase of tickets.

Bacchus also stages one of the most elaborate parades. Beginning with its inception in 1969, the Krewe of Bacchus is known for its impressive tall floats that hit the trees along St. Charles Avenue, west of the French Quarter. Like the famed Krewe of Endymion parade, which is one of the longest, the floats are brought to the dance floor of the balls, which are held in the Superdome.

Besides the parades and balls, many informal parties are held in New Orleans throughout the Mardi Gras season, which begins traditionally on the twelfth night after Christmas. A festive "king cake" is served as a throwback to the European celebration of Twelfth Night. The king cake always has a prize baked into it--usually a plastic baby or a bean--and the person who gets the slice of cake with the prize must throw the next king cake party.

King cakes come in many sizes and are sold in almost every bakery in the Crescent City. One snack cake company even came up with a miniature one big enough for one person.

Since the people of New Orleans like to share their celebration of Mardi Gras, don't be surprised if you are given a string of white Mardi Gras beads--the most prized--as a symbol of welcome when you order a drink at a local bar.

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