Sunday, March 1, 2009

Mardi Gras 2009 part one

Mardi Gras was amazing again this year. Colin and I went to more parades and tried even harder to experience the whole of this crazy event . We made it to almost all the parades and activities on our list, not an easy job to accomplish considering how tiring it can be watching a parade. The sensory overload of colors, sounds and motion can leave you feeling pretty wiped out.

One could classify the various New Orleans parades in a number of different ways, by the age or type of krewe (For example, the oldest krewe is the Krewe of Comus, and a women only krew is that of Muses) or when they parade during the week leading up to or on Mardi Gras. For this years blog post about Mardi Gras, parades have been classified into: day parades vs night parades, and then a discussion of the common elements shared by night and day parades. This is important for a couple of reasons, enumerated below. I am hoping that these categories, and the accompanying explanations will help all of those who have not seen a New Orleans Mardi Gras understand some of the interesting elements involved.

Night Parades:
First, and perhaps most importantly, the night parades usually have flambeau carriers. Unlike last year, this year we actually saw people tipping the flambeau carriers. In fact, one particularly sweet family next to us explained to one of their friends that they had given their young daughter a couple of extra dollars, in addition to her regular allowance, so she could tip the carriers. We also were sure to bring one dollar bills to give to any carriers we thought were particularly deserving. Colin ran down an older man with a slight limp to make sure he had a couple of dollars for his efforts. (Read last years account of Mardi Gras to learn more about flambeaux).

In addition to, and sometimes instead of flambeaux, night parades also rely on electrical lighting to make the floats visible. Depending on the resources and style of each particular krewe, this lighting can be basic, (as seen in the light bulbs and spotlights used by Bacchus) or can be LED based as in the photos from Endymion. Muses uses an interesting addition to both electrical lighting and flambeaux, large LED lit shoe puppets, attached to walking people, who manipulate them to simulate walking. The amount of the float lighting is also partially dependent on the route of the parade. I think that Endymion uses so much LED lighting in part because the route the parade travels includes a set of wide streets in mid city, with only occasional street lighting. Since the streets are so wide the house and building lighting on either side of the parade does not provide as much ambient illumination for the floats.

A phoenix float from Bacchus's parade "Creatures of the Imagination"

The shoe puppets from Muses

Endymion's captain's float, which features lit up "flames" and the Fleur de Lis shield in LEDs. The letters on the float were also made of LEDs and rotated through various colors.

Day parades:
in general day parades are smaller in scale and expense than night parades are, unless those parades happen to be either Rex or Zulu, the two huge Mardi Gras day parades. (Rex is a traditional, old line krewe which has been around since 1872, and Zulu is a traditionally black parade which is celebrating its centennial this year) You might think that day parades would be more family friendly than the night parades, but this does not seem to be the case. Day parades do have more under eight children, but that is only because really young children can get tired before much has gone by in the night parades.

A small child gets all the goodies from the Thoth parade.

We have noticed that, regardless of the time of the parade, more kids are seen at the beginning of the parade routes (before the parade turns onto canal) because there are fewer drunk tourists flashing their anatomy around. Also, regardless of where or when the parade is, the small children will get the best throws. I personally believe that I have noticed a slightly more adult humor, usually about politics, displayed in the night floats, but this may be a spurious association, since the parades with the most overt political satire, Krewe d'Etat and Krewe deVeiux, are both at night.
Here is an example of political humor, a float from Krewe d'Etat,examining the downfall of Chicago Governor Blagojevich, and comparing this failure to that of Louisiana governors.

We had not previously attended many day parades, except that of Zulu. This year, we both saw Thoth and Rex, and Colin also saw Pegasus. Our overall impression is that the smaller day parades are less elaborate, with less ostentatious float decorations, and almost no gilding on the float.

A still beautiful, although less elaborate float by Thoth.
Common elements:
There are some parts of the parades that are the same regardless of what time of day the parade is at. Common elements you are likely to see include: the military, horses, and marching bands. strangely enough, all branches of the armed services have decided that showing up to Mardi Gras is a great way to connect with average Americans, and increase support for our troops. The army, navy, coast guard and marines all have floats with service members as riders who distribute beads, cups, doubloons and posters emblazoned with recruiting information. The Marines may have the weirdest version of this, several service men ride in a camouflage painted HumVee whose back end has been converted into an enormous stereo system (pimp my ride, anyone?) For the smaller parades, the military presence may be shown only in the inclusion of military bands, both from local ROTC schools, as well as the bands or color guards of various divisions and forts.

This is the Coast Guard cutter float.The float also has a miniature version of the Coast Guard chopper on the back. The Navy also has a boat float, but theirs resembles a 1900's privateer sailing ship.

Another parade addition you can be certain of seeing is horses. there are the horse cops, the various local riding groups, captains or lieutenants of certain krewes ride on horses, and if you are lucky, some Clydesdales pulling a cart. In the larger parades, the Budweiser Clydesdales will be present, pulling their beautiful wagon accompanied by the Budweiser dalmatian. In fact, the Budweiser cart is in so many parades during the days surrounding Mardi Gras that two sets of horses, and two dalmatians take shifts. The drivers are not so lucky, I saw the same two guys working all the parades. In addition to this there is also the Angola Prison Rodeo cart, also pulled by Clydesdales.

The Budweiser wagon. These poor Clydesdales have to carry a bunch of people, their two drivers, and a dalmatian. I guess the right hand driver had noticed me at several different parades taking pictures of the horses, and by Mardi Gras day he would wave to me.

The marching bands are another integral part of nearly every parade. Most parades use a mix of musical floats and high school or college marching bands to provide the accompaniment to parades. The musical floats resemble cattle cars with windows, and contain brass or rock bands, wired up with speakers and lights. The marching bands are from places near and far, and include the teams color guard, its cheerleaders, step girls and so forth. During the Friday night parades we were near a lovely woman from Australia who now lived in Wisconsin and taught world music at the college level. She had a saying about the bands, if they were good, she would say "ah, another band NOT from Wisconsin!". Very few bands were classified as "from Wisconsin", and most of those were the bands from the New Orleans suburbs. She mentioned how much she wanted to bring her students here to see them get there asses kicked by a bunch of kids in high school.

St. Augustines marching 100, one of the best known New Orleans marching bands. "Definitely NOT from Wisconsin!"



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