When the Big Easy goes mad for Mardi Gras
February 10, 2013
You’re madness, Mardi Gras.
The grand illusion. That wild final fling of the flesh before the sackcloth and ashes of Lent. A mystic realm of fantasy that weaves its spell with lighted torches, hiding its secrets behind mysterious masks, as it dances and weaves its way through the downtown streets of New Orleans.
You’re, chaos, Mardi Gras.
A never-never world. A sea-storm of noise where hungry hands beg and plead and reach out for worthless doubloons that spin downward like tossed treasure from a mythical land of paper mache. Worthless. Yet precious. Thrown aside. Yet hoarded.
You’re a pied piper, Mardi Gras.
A leader of the lost, of the found, of the undiscovered. Of clowns and hoboes and ballerinas and kings. Both producer and director of a make-believe world in the Big Easy, the city that care has forgotten.
Back in 1883, someone wrote: “Canal Street presents its long, deep vista of illumination; monograms of fire, eagles of flame, ladders of light, blaze along the way. And the face of that human circulation is resistless. To strive against the current is out of the question. When the human springtide has reached its fullest, the pageant issues from its hiding place and sails by like a grotesque armada while the ocean of witnesses ebbs away in the wake.”
So you’ve changed very little, just grown a little larger and more sophisticated and more expensive. But you’re still willing to let the god of joy and mirth join the god of laughter and ridicule in the merry court of Rex, and let the days lose themselves in the sounds of music, in the heartbeat of Bourbon Street jazz, or what’s left of it, until those melancholy cathedral bells at midnight toll the end of the devil-may-care season.
Mardi Gras began calmly enough in 1827 when a group of costumed students raced down the narrow streets of New Orleans ringing cowbells, blowing horns, and throwing flowers to people on sidewalks. They were only mimicking the pre-Lenten celebrations they had seen while studying in Paris.
By the 1830s, the great masquerade was underway. Bonbons and sugarcoated almonds were tossed into the streets, And the New Orleans Picayune reported: “The principal streets were traversed by a masquerade company on horseback and in carriages, comprising every variety of costume and character, from the fantastic harlequin to the somber Turk and wild Indian.”
Then, for a time, the glamour and frivolity of Mardi Gras began to falter. As the New Orleans Bee reported, “Boys with bags of flour paraded the streets, and painted Jezebels exhibited themselves in public carriages, and that is about all.”
But Mardi Gras did not fall by the wayside. It organized. The Mystic Krewe of Comus in 1857 launched a whole new era of customs and instant traditions. For the first time, a parade was held at night, and other Krewes would follow, cloaked in secrecy, pomp, and protocol.
Rex is still King, ruling over as many as sixty parades that stretch out rather haphazardly for most the month of February. But perhaps the wildest day of them all belongs to the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. For years, none of the members ever told a soul what route it would take. Maybe none of them knew. They just wound drunkenly through New Orleans, tossing golden-painted coconuts to the crowd and stopping to toast every bar they happened to wander past.
Zulu would become the hard-drinking, ribald ruler of the society, and William Story was the first – back in 1909. He wore a lard can for a crown and carried a banana stalk for s scepter. Why the lard can? Well, it came in handy for holding cold beer, and Zulu could get it filled for a nickel.
In 1915, Zulu even had his own float, a furniture wagon. Two years later, while Rex arrived in a yacht, Zulu came rowing up the New Basin Canal in a skiff. Then came 1933, and the Zulus elected themselves a Queen. She awaited her royal consort atop a grandstand in front of Geddes and Moss Undertaking and Embalming Company, Ltd. Why not? The company had provided the King with a bottle of champagne and given a thousand sandwiches to his hungry followers.
As one Zulu King proclaimed: “I am going to percolate down the streets with the residue behind me,” and so he did.
The grandest Zulu was the Satchmo, Louis Armstrong. As a waif in a New Orleans Orphan’s Home, he had raced in the noisy, dusty streets of Mardi Gras. But in 1949, he was King. Old Satchmo grinned and vowed in a gravel voice, “I’m going to blow my head off with that trumpet. I’m going to blow my soul through it.”
After all of the revelry and parades and balls and music had ended one year, a Zulu King was asked for his fondest memory. He closed his eyes, thought for a moment, and answered, “Man, my biggest thrill was running all of them red lights.”