For New Orleans natives, it’s a hard-won honor to ride in a Carnival parade. Many people pay annual dues to be a member of a krewe, or parade group, and some krewe clubs are exclusive and difficult to infiltrate.
Carnival is a multi-week celebration that starts on Epiphany (the 12th Day of Christmas) and culminates on Mardi Gras (the day before Lent officially begins), so the momentum builds in the days leading up to Fat Tuesday. Fittingly, the groups that roll in the final days of Carnival are known as super krewes. Orpheus rolls on Lundi Gras, or Fat Monday, when the excitement has reached fever pitch.
New Orleanian crooner Harry Connick, Jr., his father, and a friend named Sonny Borey founded Orpheus in 1993 because they wanted to see a parade that had music as its focus. The super krewe, still going strong 20 years later, is one of the most popular parades of the season.
When I arrived with my friend and photographer, Emily Slack, at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where all the floats were parked, we may as well have been entering Oz. Multi-colored floats the size of 18-wheelers were lined up row after row, creating a papier-mâché-and-spangle forest.
As we stood there gawking, we spotted “Mr. Mardi Gras” himself. Master float builder Blaine Kern, Sr. has been applying his genius to these gigantic, roving masterpieces for decades.
Kern was every bit the gregarious New Orleanian I imagined he’d be, cracking jokes and telling me he knew “a little bit about this stuff.”
He pointed out some of his favorite floats, including a 140-foot sea monster dubbed the Leviathan that debuted in 1998 and has since become a parade staple and a multi-unit float called “Smokey Mary,” which pays homage to the Pontchartrain Railroad, a pioneering track west of the Alleghenies that eventually transported people to New Orleans as the city gained acclaim as an entertainment district.
“It’s a year-round operation,” Kern said, adding that he and his crew were already working on Mardi Gras 2014.
It was time to receive our costumes: black silk pants, a red-and-white silk top adorned with sequins and an Orpheus sash, and, of course, a mask to be worn under a red hood. According to city ordinances, all riders must stay masked to preserve the history and integrity of Carnival.
While riders don what we playfully refer to as silk pajamas, krewe royalty wear the plumed, sequined gowns and king and jester-esque garb that’s come to be associated with Mardi Gras parades.
We boarded our float and began planning our bead-throwing strategy before our float rolled out of the warehouse and onto the streets. We quickly realized that we were well out of our league.
The riders around us had serious loot. In addition to an array of “light-up” accessories — beads, rings, headbands, and roses — one of our krewe compatriots, Joel, was a veritable Mardi Gras Santa Claus, with bags of stuffed animals, footballs, and toys.
It was go time. We could hear the not-too-far-off crowd begin to roar as the first floats passed. I aped the veterans around me, slinging beads over my left arm and preparing to throw them with my right as we rounded the corner and encountered our first parade goers cheering wildly just inches from the float.
Orpheus began in Uptown, a residential area where families stake out parade perches in front of their homes — which makes bead-throwing easy. But the neighborhood kids were more interested in the goodies Joel had to offer. When I threw beads to one little girl, she asked “That’s it?”
I had to laugh.
Anyone below the age of 10 is a prime target for “throws,” and can get a bit spoiled. After that, if you’re a woman, don’t expect to get much attention again until well after puberty. For guys, childhood is about as good as it gets — unless, that is, you happen to be holding a baby.
(That being said, I couldn’t resist throwing to the adorable, elderly gentlemen that lined the sidewalks.)
As the parade snaked down Canal Street into the French Quarter, the crowds inched toward colossal. Police barricades meant that people couldn’t get close to the floats anymore, and the shoulder-to-shoulder bystanders were grateful to catch anything.
Now in the final stretch, we headed back to the Convention Center, where the Orpheuscapade was being held. The ball was a black tie affair — with Mardi Gras flair. We saw people in tuxedos and glittering gowns stride in wearing beads or masks, and toting coolers filled with beer.
Everyone who rode in Orpheus was invited to the Orpheuscapade, so I got to see some of the sights myself (you can only see so much when you’re on a float). Celebrity riders “Tillman the Skateboarding Dog” and “Norman the Scooter Dog” kicked off the party with their impressive pet tricks, followed by New Orleans’ favorite walking krewe, the 610 Stompers, who showed off their “extraordinary” mustached moves.
I closed the night with a plate of andouille jambalaya and a slice of king cake at the ball. I had to giggle when I chose my piece because there were only two pieces left — one with the baby and one without. (Read this post if you don’t get the joke.)
I decided taking the baby without intending to buy another king cake in the next 24 hours, before Mardi Gras ended, would be bad mojo. And it had been too good a Lundi Gras to take the risk.