on January 6, 2011
Multiple trips to New Orleans have softened my initial aversion to Mardi Gras. I’ve never been here for any significant part of the full ‘season’, having caught the tail end of one parades on a late winter visit a long time ago. But as American cities seem to become more and more similar to each other, I appreciate the distinctiveness of New Orleans and its traditions.After visiting Mardi Gras World I know a lot more about the city’s most famous custom. Among other nuggets, I learned that the parades don’t go through the French Quarter (and haven’t for 35 years), simply because the city sensibly decided that the narrow streets couldn’t handle the crowds.Blaine Kern is called ‘Mr. Mardi Gras’ for a reason: for six decades, his company has designed and built the majority of the floats and accompanying statues and ornamentation used in the dozens of Mardi Gras parades (nearly three dozen in the city itself, and another two dozen in other communities). This period of ‘carnival’ leading up to and including Mardi Gras was originally sanctioned by the Catholic church as a legitimate festival in advance of the austerity of Lent, and boy, did New Orleans run with it. The tradition of parades, organized by ‘krewes’ or clubs, dates from just before the Civil War, when a group of concerned, civic-minded and festive citizens surprised the city with this new invention to rescue carnival from the alcohol-fueled crudeness that had some city leaders clamoring to end the celebrations. In one fell swoop, this new ‘Mystick Krewe of Comus’ invented parades with floats and marching bands, lit by torches, or ‘flambeaux’, and krewes that carried them out. There’s little doubt that they drew upon existing parades in Mobile (one founder of Comus had moved from there), but instituting these traditions in New Orleans moved Carnival from a Creole event to a city-wide celebration.Each krewe is composed of members who pay (sometimes as much as a few thousand dollars) for the fun and honor of riding on the parade floats. In addition, each member must buy the beads, doubloons (commemorative aluminum coins), cups or other items tossed from the float, which runs $500 or more. Each krewe’s captain comes up with a theme for the year’s parade, and Kern’s company (and some competitors) do the rest. Kern actually owns all the floats, which are rented by the krewes, and each year they are painted over, stripped down, and redecorated for a new theme. The Kern artists come up with sketches and designs that the krewes approve, and then the sculpting and painting takes place in Kern’s studios and warehouses. This massive facility stores all kinds of items from previous parades. It’s a weird kind of museum, with oversized heads (literally) of state, sports figures, clowns, movie scenes, fake trains, and virtually any kind of figure you can imagine. And it’s only one of 20 such warehouses that store the floats and figures for 364 days of the year.Touring Mardi Gras World begins with a short and informative (although a little dated) movie about Mardi Gras, and your guide then brings in a King Cake to be shared by your group. This is a French tradition, where a small (now plastic) figurine of the Baby Jesus is baked somewhere in the cinnamon-flavored, frosted cake; in more authentic circumstances, the lucky person who has it in his or her slice then buys the next cake (no one in our group owned up to finding it). After snacks, your guide walks you through the facility, explaining more about the traditions, krewes and parades, and then leaves you to explore more on your own if you choose to do so. We settled on this as an afternoon expedition following our ferry ride to Algiers, and everyone enjoyed it. You’ll come away with beads, cake, and probably a smile: it’s hard not to have fun as you wander among the artifacts of revelry. And by the way, the ubiquitous colors of purple, green and color symbolize justice, faith and power.If you’re planning to visit, be careful: Mardi Gras World has moved in the last few years, so older information may lead you astray. (It used to be in Algiers, and one was one good reason to ride the free ferry across the Mississippi; we saw outdated billboards on the Algiers side as we boarded for our return trip that almost made us hop out of line). The new location is all the way at the southern end of the Convention Center on Port of New Orleans Drive, the road that runs right along the riverbank. It’s a pretty good walk from Canal Street, but a free shuttle will take you down and/or bank. We walked down, but rode back. Admission is $18.50 (which appears to be a standard price in New Orleans) with a small discount for students.
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