Big Easy Bash
As New Orleans celebrates its annual party this month, Member Joseph Bodenheimer shares his childhood Mardi Gras memories.
The year 1969 was a momentous one. Neil Armstrong took man’s first steps on the moon, Jimi Hendrix played a blazing rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock and what we now know as the Internet began to take form. What is lost amid such notable events is the landmark New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration that set the standard for today’s grandiose bash.
On the morning of February 18 that year, costumed parade members passed around bottles of Jack Daniel’s to ensure they’d be appropriately “gassed up” by the time they reached Canal Street, where thousands of spectators crowded around the gigantic floats, hollering the signature cry of Mardi Gas revelers: “Throw me something, mister!”
Beads and coins were tossed to excited children while women received enthusiastic kisses, spreading flu germs like wildfire, according to the first-hand account of New Orleans artist Rolland Golden.
“I was there,” says Club Member and Crescent City native Joseph Bodenheimer, who was 8 years old at the time. “For kids, [Mardi Gras] is like a festival where you get to run around and go crazy. The floats pass, people throw tons of these beads, they throw doubloons, which, at night, glitter in the street lights. ...Growing up in New Orleans gives kids a false sense of normal.”
Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday (or Shrove Tuesday, as it is known in some cultures), is the final day of carnival. While preparations begin shortly after Christmas, the New Orleans festival is in full swing for the 12 days preceding Fat Tuesday.
Parades and parties take place daily throughout the city, culminating on the final day before Lent, the 40-day observance during which ardent Christians abstain from indulgences.
“So up until Fat Tuesday, you drink and eat rich food and do anything you want, and then, boom, on Wednesday, the city just shuts down,” says Bodenheimer, 55.
Fat Tuesday was so named centuries ago by the French, who spent the day gorging themselves and parading a fat steer through the streets of Paris. The Mardi Gras tradition was brought to Louisiana as early as 1699, when French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville commemorated the holiday at his camp south of present-day New Orleans.
During its time as a French colony in the 1700s, masked balls and secret societies flourished in New Orleans and, under American control following the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, masked revelers began taking to the streets.
By this time, New Orleans was a melting pot of former French and Spanish colonists, Acadian refugees from Canada and escaped Haitian slaves. As the principal port in the antebellum South, New Orleans was the most lucrative slave market in the United States, but it also had the largest proportion of free citizens of African descent.
Fleeing political upheaval, a wave of European migrants, called the 1850ers, arrived in the city in the mid-19th century. Among those newcomers were Bodenheimer’s German and Swiss ancestors.
“I encourage those who have not been to Mardi Gras to enjoy the food for three or four days and when you are there, study the history of the city,” says Bodenheimer, whose family owns a 19th-century bed-and-breakfast in the French Quarter. “New Orleans is one of the most misunderstood cities in America.”
The city’s diverse cultures are represented in the carnival parades. By law, float riders are required to wear masks, which run the gamut from Spanish conquistador to Greek god to African tribesman.
The first documented Mardi Gras parade was in 1837, and the first krewe (parade organization), named the Mistick Krewe of Comus, was founded 20 years later. The traditions and number of krewes grew from there, and there are now around 50 krewes operating each year.
The king of carnival, called Rex, first appeared in 1872, and it was Rex who selected the distinctive Mardi Gras colors of purple (justice), green (faith) and gold (power) in 1892.
The Zulu Krewe, an organization of African-American members, formed in 1916 to poke fun at the Rex tradition.
By 1969, organizers felt the festival had become stale, and the Bacchus Krewe rolled out the largest float in Mardi Gras history, complete with comedian Danny Kaye as the krewe’s king. Mardi Gras was a family tradition during that era, celebrated almost exclusively by locals.
“We celebrated Mardi Gras by gathering at a family member’s home,” says Bodenheimer. “As an 8-year-old, I remember comparing my bag of throws with family members and friends while the adults had dinner.”
Nowadays, there are krewe-organized grand balls almost nightly, though Bodenheimer says only the blue bloods of high society are invited. While his family members weren’t official members of a krewe, he says, on occasion, one would join a float or relatives would parade on motorcycles with the Shriners charity organization.
“As kids, we loved to see and touch their Harley-Davidsons,” says Bodenheimer. “One of my uncles told me to wait at a particular corner with my friends. We heard a rumble and then a procession of massive bikes appeared from around a corner. We took home some of the coolest doubloons ever bagged.”
The Mardi Gras festivities draw as many as 1.4 million partygoers annually, with Fat Tuesday falling on February 28 this year. Some floats employ cutting-edge technology and carry hundreds of riders, while others feature the likes of crooner and Big Easy native Harry Connick Jr.
Some family aspects do remain, with the bawdier traditions confined to Bourbon Street in the historic French Quarter, where parades were discontinued in 1973 due to its narrow streets.
“Mardi Gras is different in that it is now a business and seems to be less family-orientated. It’s a big tourist show,” says Bodenheimer. “It is still important to me as it celebrates the history and culture of the city.”
First Friday: Mardi Gras
February 4 | 6pm
Words: Nick Narigon
Image: Yuuki Ide