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Mardi Gras 2005 in New Orleans

Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, 2005 fell on February 8.  We arrived in New Orleans on Friday, January 28 and settled in for nearly two weeks of Carnival season parades, spicy food, and revelry.  It was my fifth consecutive Mardi Gras and Joe’s third.  Our inn of choice was once again Marc Anthoni’s Bear Trap, an exclusive leather guesthouse, centrally located just off the gay end of main drag Bourbon Street , and our principal hangout was the Phoenix , the leather bar outside the French Quarter, at Elysian Fields and North Rampart.

We attended 10 of the dozens of festive parades, which take place between Epiphany and the day before Lent begins, and are put on by the various krewes, or Mardi Gras organizations, and amassed a considerable quantity of beads, commemorative aluminum doubloons, souvenir cups, and other “throws,” tossed from the floats by krewe members to the eager spectators.  Collecting strings of different and interesting Mardi Gras beads, some bearing krewe medallions, becomes a competitive passion and temporary obsession of the season.  Many of the floats serve to satirize local political figures and issues.  These parades’ sponsoring krewes and their themes follow.

We went to two, surprisingly not rained out, on the night we arrived.  The theme of Oshun was “Next Frontier: Under the Sea” and sculpted sea stars, clownfish and sea horses populated the floats.  “Break a Leg” was the title of the Pymalion parade and there were floats representing “Grease,” “Cats,” “South Pacific” and other musicals. Pontchartrain the next day, led by its traditional “Super Grouper” float, was entitled “What’s Playing at the Show Tonight?” and movies such as “Gone with the Wind,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “Troy” were vehicles for its commentary.  Shangri-La’s, which followed, was “Cheers to Shangri-La” and diverse cocktails were celebrated.  A favorite parade, organized by the Mystic Krewe of Barkus, was held the next afternoon, billed as “Hairy Pawter and the Sorcerer’s Bone,” and featured hundreds of dogs and dog owners strutting their stuff, often in matching wizard, witch and fairy costumes.  To attain Barkus royalty status, a pet must have been adopted from a shelter.

We braved three parades in a row on February 2, the last one postponed from the previous wet evening.  Saturn’s “See You in the Funny Papers” brought floats based on comic strips, the all-female Muses’ “Muse TV—We’ll Turn You On” used television shows as inspiration, and Morpheus’ “Childhood Dreams” depicted nursery rhymes.  The last two were particularly generous with their throws.  At the third, I caught a stuffed toy crescent Man in the Moon, complete with nightcap, while Joe received a huge set of rainbow disco ball beads from a friendly bear, who asked where we were from and assured us that all the others on his float were “family” as well.

We watched the Saturday afternoon, February 5 parades with a lesbian couple from Texas and these were Iris’ “A Whirl of Celebration,” its floats illustrating the holidays, and Tucks’ “The Big Easy SINerama,” another using movies to drive its points home.

On Fat Tuesday itself, the warmest, sunniest day of our stay, despite an interlude of rain, we eschewed climactic parades Zulu and Rex, which we attended last year, for the very gay Bourbon Street Awards ceremony, a festival of creative drag and leather, hosted by local travesti celebrities Bianca Del Rio and Blanche Debris.  If insect costumes seemed to predominate, it was because many participants had introduced their elaborate garb at the Krewe of Armeinius’ recent gala fête, billed as the “Bug Ball.”  The top winner, netting a trophy and $1,000 cash, was the Firefly, who wept tears of joy at his selection.

Between parades, we dined on the likes of blackened catfish, shrimp Creole, crawfish étouffée, fried oyster po’ boys (sandwiches) and gumbo at favorite eateries Petunia’s and Déja Vu, in the Quarter; La Peniche, near the Phoenix; and popular New Orleans standbys Ralph & Kacoo’s, where a sweet young man named Austin fussed over us, and Brennan’s, where the flaming dessert, bananas Foster was created.  Augmenting these were takeout orders from the Quatermaster, nicknamed the Nellie Deli, and powdered sugar-covered, deep-fried beignets, the local variation on doughnuts or zeppoli, at Café du Monde, a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River .

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We encountered friends from New York , New Orleans itself, and elsewhere and made new friends as well.  We had dinner one night with New Yorkers Joe Pepe and Jerry Stagg.  We saw Bobbie “Cobra” Scherffius and Victor Alfieri, Cherry Grove restaurant Top of the Bay’s cook, Bobby Boots, and my ex, Ken Auletta.  I ran into Bebe Scarpi, whom I knew from our mutual Queens College days.  One night, little Joe and I had dinner at the home of locals Rick Caravalho and Dan Chavers, whom we’d met during earlier visits.  On the final night of our stay, Mistress Sharon, our friend from New York , joined us for dinner at Petunia’s and beignets at Café du Monde. 

We rented a car and ventured outside the city twice during the weekend before Mardi Gras.  On Saturday night the 5th, we heard ageless legend Irma Thomas, the “Soul Queen of New Orleans ,” sing at the Treasure Chest Casino, near the airport, in Kenner , accompanied by her band, the Professionals.  Before the public 48 years, she is currently at work on writing her autobiography.  She moved us with “Just Hold Me While I Cry,” which she co-wrote, and “It’s Raining,” and regaled us, in frisky contrast, with “You Can Have My Husband, but Please Don’t Mess with My Man,” Mardi Gras medley “I Done Got Over,” “Iko Iko” and “ Hey Pocky Way ,” and “Carnival Time.”  To celebrants present, she sang “Happy Birthday to All You Aquarians,” one of which is (February 18), and concluded her first set, as she often does, with “Simply the Best.”

The next night, we went to the city of Chalmette to attend the Lords of Leather’s annual Bal Masque, its fantastic tableaux a riot of feathers and leathers, and I was given official permission to photograph four of them.  The theme of the ball was “Great Expectations.”  The focus of the “Over the Rainbow” tableau, paying homage to the quests in both “Wizard of Oz” and “Around the World in 80 Days,” was a rainbow-colored hot-air balloon. Our host, Kevin Chesnut’s “A Rose by Any Other Name” concerned Babe, the pig who aspired to do the work of a sheepdog, and Kevin brought the whole damned barnyard on stage with him.  The star of “Out of the Closet” was a fabulous dragqueen.  To the tune of “It Should Have Been Me,” “Jilted and Beguiled” gave a happy gay and lesbian twist to Charles Dickens’ tale of the embittered Miss Havisham, left at the altar on her wedding day, starring Mina as a glamorous Miss Havisham.  It was gratifying to find that the name and image of GLBT rights opponent Anita Bryant, brought up in connection with a “Florida Sunshine” tableau, can still inspire a chorus of booing.

Mardi Gras 2006 will fall on February 28 and our plans to be there are already in place.

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photos by Bruce-Michael Gelbert, Joe Saporito and friends

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