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Arts & Culture

Mardi Gras: Behind the Scenes in New Orleans

In this episode of GoNOLA Radio, Lauren “Fleurty Girl” Thom talks with our podcast hosts about being a part of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

It’s one thing to go to and see Mardi Gras as a spectator, but quite another to put on Mardi Gras as a krewe member, float designer, business owner, marching band member or any other invested person in the community. The behind the scenes creators of Mardi Gras in New Orleans as well as the locals celebrating on the parade route take the extravagance of Carnival very seriously. Find out what goes into Mardi Gras in New Orleans in this episode of GoNOLA Radio.

Special guest and GoNOLA TV host Lauren “Fleurty Girl” Thom joins our hosts Mikko and George Ingmire to talk about the New Orleans institution and provide a glimpse into the local experience. If you’re a Mardi Gras first timer this year or are just learning about it, consider yourself a little wiser to this grand tradition full of history, culture, color, sound and joy after hearing this episode.

GoNOLA Radio is a free New Orleans podcast hosted by Mikko, Lorin Gaudin and  George Ingmire about the food, music and culture of the Crescent City. Subscribe to GoNOLA Radio on iTunes or download to your mobile device on Stitcher. GoNOLA Radio features music by Cale Pellick.

Podcast Transcript:

Sanpa: Welcome to Go NOLA Radio. I’m Sanpa Barnes and I will be your host
of hosts, as we explore New Orleans to learn about the city’s rich cultural
heritage, food, and music. We bring you experts, real deal experts, who
will talk with you about the people who make New Orleans such a wonderful
place to live and visit. Its Go NOLA Radio.

Miko: So way back in the 1850’s a whole bunch of Mobile guys came over
here, got drunk and marched down Canal Street, and New Orleans fell in love
with it and said “We should do this every year,” and that’s when Mardi Gras
actually started as a parading, partying, ultimately unique thing, in the
United States and even in the whole of North America. So we are welcoming
you to our Mardi Gras episode. To my left is the handsome George Ingmire,
musical expert.

George: Cue brass band music.

Miko: And we are sadly missing our food goddess Lauren Goden today, but
don’t fret we will be talking about food. We can’t get out of an episode
without it. I am Miko your host. We have a special guest today, I’m very
excited about. Lauren Tom, you know her better as Fleurty Girl. Hello.

Lauren: Hello, another Lauren. I’m an easy substitute.

Miko: Yes, exactly.

Lauren: Not that way, but you know.

Miko: That’s fine. You’re welcome anyway. You’re a great credit to the
city. She’s a marketing genius, has a wonderful store uptown and always is
somehow getting in the middle of the New Orleans spirit one way or another.

Lauren: It’s easy to get into, because it’s everywhere.

Miko: Absolutely, and you’re the perfect guest today, because Mardi Gras is
such a grand subject. George, as you know and our first episode, this is a
year anniversary for this.

Lauren: Congratulations.

Miko: Yes and we talked about Mardi Gras in our first episode and here we
are again, George.

George: Yes. We need more aspirin of course, more water, more vitamin B,
and just a strong spirit to make it through. This is a longer one, of course
this is like- because of the Super Bowl, we’ve grown it to over a month.

Miko: Yeah, it’s going to be a long season.

George: If you’re listening, it’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint. It really
is a marathon.

Miko: So aspirin, vitamin B, and of course Taaka King Cake Flavored Vodka.

Lauren: Yes. Last year that was the big craze, because Lucky Player Vodka
came out with a King Cake Flavored Vodka and it was huge, stores were
selling it out of the boxes that they came in, because literally, the
stores couldn’t get them on shelves before people were buying them up. Then this
year we don’t have just one company, but there’s competition. There’s now
two King Cake vodkas.

Miko: Will they put babies in the bottles?

Lauren: I don’t think they can. I’m not sure what goes into that, but I do
know the Taaka version, it’s a different distillation process, and then the
Lucky Player Vodka, they actually took a King Cake from Haydel’s Bakery
here in Metairie, and brought it to France. The chemists tasted that and
then created that vodka to taste like a Haydel’s King Cake. So I don’t know
what the Taaka people used to create theirs. Maybe it’s a Randazzo’s. Maybe
they didn’t use one at all. I don’t know, but it is a lot cheaper and the
distillation process is different.

Miko: Well, a must for any Mardi Gras table. But beyond the vodka and
Lauren- or may I call you Ms. Girl?

Lauren: Ms. Fleurty.

Miko: Ms. Fleurty. Really the focus that we wanted to do today was talk
about the local view of Mardi Gras. I know for visitors that come in it
could be overwhelming, so what do locals do? What are some tricks? What are
some fun things to do? How do you manage such an enormous party as Mardi

Lauren: It really is an enormous party and I think one thing you can do
today, if it’s new to you, is utilize those resources that you have like
things like Go NOLA, but also there are some great apps you can download on
your phone that help you to know where the parade is. Because some people
will line up on Canal Street at six o’ clock for a parade that rolls at six
and they don’t understand that it takes a while to get there.

So I think you need to understand how it works. People don’t ever realize
how long a parade is. They think it’s just going just a couple of blocks,
but not here in New Orleans. It could take hours to get to you so it’s
important to know where the route is, and those apps will show that to you
and also how far along on the route you are, so when you can expect it. The
apps actually, you know it has a little blinking dot that shows you, “Hey,
the parade is just a couple miles away.”

It even has like an estimated time of arrival for the parade to where
you’re standing. So I think it’s- if you’re doing it for the first time,
it’s overwhelming, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. I’m
getting excited. My heart’s racing just talking about this, but just use
those resources that we have today.

Miko: I’ve never lived in a house that was more than two blocks from the
parade route, because that’s the number one consideration coming to New Orleans or
coming to Mardi Gras.

Lauren: It’s not square footage is it?

Miko: No, it’s the closest bathroom to the parade route, especially
ladies out there. Make sure that you pull your strings with your New
Orleans friends to get a close house to the parade route.

Lauren: And if you don’t have access to a bathroom, pack toilet paper in
your purse, because you may get a porta potty that doesn’t have it. That’s
also a good tip for any jazz festers that are going. It’s an essential for
a goal.

Miko: Absolutely. George?

George: Well, you’re talking about these apps that are out there. There’s
also a great radio station, in case you were wondering, WWOZ which is
always playing carnival music during this time of year. There’s always
information on where to catch the Mardi Gras Indians, where the great shows
are. Because throughout this whole season, bands are playing, and then
we’re talking, there might be the first gig at seven. There’s going to be a
gig at ten. There’s a gig at midnight and they’ll be a 3 a.m. gig and
we’ve got the live wire. You can listen to that every odd hour in New
Orleans, which I say- pretty much every hour is odd in New Orleans.

Miko: It’s funny. I’m thinking I’m listening to your show on OZ as you’re
speaking now.

George: You could go to the OZ website. There’s also These are
great places where you can read all the great lineups and what not, because
there’s a season of parades and there’s also a season of music coming

I think about the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars are going to be around d.b.a
in the afternoon, after the Krewe of Zulu, winds its way through the CBD,
through the French Quarter and ends up at d.b.a, and that’s like one of those
things that I do.

To me, I set my calendar to when I can see the New Orleans Klezmer All
Stars or catch the Mardi Gras Indians and you’ll be able to hear all about
the Mardi Gras Indians, also, on WWOZ and if you don’t know about Mardi Gras
Indians, it’s a good time to Google that: Mardi Gras Indians.

Miko: Listen to our last year’s show. One thing, obviously, Fleurty and
George, the parades are a big part of Mardi Gras. The big parades, I’m
talking about Bacchus and Orpheus. For people coming in to visit, go get
Arthur Hardy’s Guide. It’s in every supermarket checkout line. It’s like
eight bucks, and it’s absolutely the bible of the parade routes. Of course,
the newspaper, I don’t know how it’s going to work this year, now that
we’re not doing it anymore.

Lauren: Oh, that’s right.

Miko: Normally, the route would be right on the front page of the paper,
but I’m sure they’re online, too. Go NOLA’s going to list all the parade
routes, so that’s a good way to do the big ones. I wanted to bring up- and I
was going to ask you, too- there’s a sort of smaller scope parade, the
Marching Clubs, and these are more boutique kind of experiences. But
they’re just as fun, just as valid. I mean, I listed a few of my favorite
ones here, but before I throw it out there, what are your favorite parades?
What’s your favorite thing to do? I’ll throw it to our lady first. Fleurty,
what’s your favorite Marching Club?

Lauren: I love the Krewe of Zulu.

Miko: Krewe of Zulu, yeah.

Lauren: It’s just so much culture. It’s so much energy.

Miko: It started as an all-black krewe back in 1913 or so, and it started
spoofing New Orleans politics, and it really integrated Mardi Gras for both
whites and blacks. So what do you like specifically about it?

Lauren: Just everything. I mean the floats are just huge, but there is just
so much to see in that parade, lots of energy, lots of walking groups, lots
of costumes. They really bring in that African culture, too. They’ve got
people that are travelling to New Orleans, just to be in this parade from
different places around the world. I just think it’s just so cultural and
it embodies everything that New Orleans is about. I always think about, of
all the parades I can catch if I had to go to one, it would be that one. I
do enjoy the Krewe of Muses Parade is another good one. Because what girl
doesn’t want to catch a shoe? Also the Krewe of Nyx and their purses is a
good one.

Miko: Well, here’s the thing. Full disclosure, you’re in the Pussyfooters,
a great marching club, year-round club.

Lauren: Yes, we’re a dance group of girls, ladies in corsets and fishnets
and go-go boots and wigs.

Miko: You march in Muses and in…

Lauren: Orpheus and Thoth this year, and the Krewe of Nyx, as well.

Miko: The Krewe of Nyx and you are the Goddess of Nyx this year?

Lauren: Yes, I was chosen as the Goddess of Nyx.

Miko: Nyx, the dreamy erotic goddess.

Lauren: Of the night. It’s been such an experience for me, because I’ve
only marched in them with the Pussyfooters. We’re a dance group. So this is
my first year to ride in a parade and I’ll have my own float. So it’s kind
of like, I did the neighborhood parades as a kid in the back of a pickup
truck. So this is a whole new experience and I’ve had to go for fittings at
Southern Costume Company. Sometimes once a day, sometimes twice a day,
multiple times a week and it really, it shows you what goes in to just the
costumes- just the costumes. I mean I’m there back and forth all day long,
because it’s such a big deal. They have to think about everything. You’re
up on a moving stage for hours.

Miko: George, what’s your favorite thing to do?

George: Parade-wise, I’m a little biased of course. But I would say the
Krewe Du Vieux. I’m a member of Krewe of Comatose. I’ve been since 2006, I
guess. I skipped one year last year, but I’m back again and it’s just
amazing, all the float building that’s going on in the dens right now. But
it begins in our neighborhoods, where we’re seeing people that we see all
the time in the Marigny and the Bywater, and talk about lampooning.

I mean the political- it’s not really great for kids, unless you’ve exposed
your kids to, like, a little bit of raunchy humor. I think in New Orleans, we
kind of have that built-in, where we can kind of laugh at ourselves and be
a little naughty, but not feel uncomfortable about it. It gets pretty
risque. Some of the themes are pretty intense.

Miko: And the other thing about the marching clubs, like the big parades
started like this, a lot of them I should say back in the day. They kind of
snake through the neighborhoods, and, shall we say, it’s very easy to leave
the queue and run into your local gin mill, pick up a cocktail, and then
run back to the parade. So it’s more of a social community sprawl than it
is an organized…

George: Absolutely, now I’ve got some stops along the way and sometimes I
have to find the parade again. It might take me 10-15 minutes to find where
it went, because I’ve wandered off somewhere. I’m one of those types. I’m
like, “Oh God, I think the parade has ended. Oh, there it is again.”

Miko: There’s the famous marching clubs, of course. A couple of weeks ago
the actual season started on January sixth. That’s Twelfth Night and King’s
Day. They call it in other countries. The Twelfth Night revelers march
through the French Quarter. That’s positively sedate to what happens after
that. There’s the Krewe of Joan of Arc or Joan D’arc that starts and
Bienville himself will be there. He’s a good friend of mine.

The founder of the city back in 1699 or whatever, and they march from the
Bienville statue to the Joan of Arc statue, and then a couple weeks later
is the Krewe Delusion, a satirical club. They’re going to have Harry
Shearer this year and the Dirty Dozen is going to be with them. They march
through the French Quarter and into the Marigny. The International Krewe of
Chewbachhus, this is right off their page. It’s Star Wars freaks, Trekkies,
Whovians, mega-geeks, gamers, circuit benders,
cryptozoologists, UFO conspiracy theorists, and super-nerdum, but that’s a
really fun…

Lauren: I mean there is something for everyone. Mardi Gras has something
for everyone. The little risque, the little nerdy, the family-friendly
ones, the cultural ones, it’s just so saturated with so much to do, no
matter what your thing is. That’s what’s so great about it.

Miko: Absolutely. I’m surprised you’re not part of this one Lauren; The
Divine Protectors of Endangered Pleasures of DIVA, an all-female group.
They wear their corsets and they have their escorts, the Elvie. They run on
February 8th and then on Mardi Gras day. Here’s the funny thing- you can’t
go to sleep on Monday.

You go out all night Monday, but Mardi Gras day, which this year is
February 12th. It starts at 6:30 in the morning. The Irish Channel Corner
Carnival Club marches to the Irish Channel and, of course, they stop at
bars. The Jefferson City Buzzards is the oldest marching group. They’ve
been around since the oh, god, like 1890’s. They’re famous for getting on
their backs in the middle of the street and yelling cockroach and they wave
their arms in the air.

Lauren: I didn’t know that.

Miko: Mardi Gras music has started. It’s on the radio now, and there’s some
famous songs, there’s a couple of classic discs, which I’m sure George can
speak to, but Al Carnival Time Johnson, I mean these are songs, as soon as
you hear da, da, dah, da, dah, you know what song’s coming up. Professor
Long Hair has the whistle that I can’t do.

George: I’m not trying.

Lauren: Me either.

George: We’re talking about all these songs. There’s a big Top Ten list
that’s always online. You can find the Top Ten Mardi Gras songs, but
something that seems to always get skipped. I’m reading some here, you’ll
see. “Go to the Mardi Gras”- Professor Long Hair of course, “Hey, Pocky”- The
Meters, Earl King- “Street Parade,” “Carnival Time” by Al Johnson, “Jock-a-mo” by
Sugar Boy Crawford and his Cane Cutters.

Nowhere do you see “Indian Red,” just because it’s a Mardi Gras Indian song
and it may not be a song that the popular masses know about, and it’s not
necessarily a Mardi Gras song, but it’s a Mardi Gras Indian song. It’s a
way they start their day, the Mardi Gras Indians, before they even head out-
early on Mardi Gras day they sing that song. It’s a prayer and it’s a
spiritual song. It also has to do with empowerment, and they sing that song
at the end of the day when they make it back in one piece, after going out
there and doing mock battles and everything else.

But when I listen to “Indian Red,” it literally chokes me up, because it’s a
beautiful song and encapsulates the pride of a culture that I think
oftentimes, does not get recognized on the larger scale. A lot of us here
in New Orleans kind of take it for granted and we may fail to tell people
that are coming in to town, “Do your homework, find out where you can find
the Mardi Gras Indians.”

I can tell you right now if you can go to the Back Street Cultural Museum
in the Treme, sometime in the afternoon you’re going to see a bunch of
Indians ending their day there, and if you find out how you can find an
actual tribe and meet them, as they’re coming out the door, I don’t think
you could ask for better.

Lauren: No, that’s a great spot.

Miko: Part of the adventures.

George: Then you’re going to hear a lot of these songs, but there is going
to be song in call and response form, which brings us to the Afro-Caribbean
roots that also show up in Mardi Gras.

Miko: Well, one other glaring thing I want to get to before- because we’re
running out of time- but in these parades and with the musical connection,
we have the marching bands, too, in New Orleans, and they are absolutely the
best. My favorite memory of Mardi Gras ever is, I was standing where St.
Charles Avenue gets very skinny before Canal Street, so there’s all these
tall buildings and I always have this thing, the bands never play when
they walk in front of me, and St. Aug Marching Band got in front of me,
and as soon as they got in front of me, with these big, huge buildings
being sounding boards, they launched into Thriller. The Michael Jackson
song, which was a hit that year, so that opening ba-ba-bah-ba, my blood is
still tingling thinking of that.

Lauren: You feel it all over. That’s magical.

Miko: Yeah, so George, about the marching bands in New Orleans what makes
them unique?

George: What I love about them is they’re fan-based. They’re the students
and the people, the alumni they’re following the marching bands along the
parade route. So you’re watching a parade going down the street, but then
you’re watching a neutral ground, a bunch of people that are parallel. So
to me, that’s a testament as well, to the pride of the bands.

Miko: They’re not just playing John Phillip Sousa. Not that that’s bad, but
they’re like funking it up.

Lauren: They’re high-stepping and they’re stomping and they’re blaring
those horns, and some of them will march in more than one parade in a day
and these parades are eight miles long. It’s amazing what goes into this
and they’ve been practicing and practicing for weeks leading up to it.
There is so much and just like you said, do your homework so you can take
as much of it in as you can.

Miko: Okay, I’m going to throw you guys one last quick Mardi Gras shot that
you’re looking forward to. I’m going to throw one out there right now.
They’ve introduced this new King Cake over at Butcher, which is next to
Cochon, that great restaurant down in the Warehouse District. They’re
bringing out an Elvis Cake this year, because of course Elvis is a King to
a lot of people. Can you guess what’s in it, Elvis’ favorite meal?

Lauren: Peanut butter?

Miko: And?

Lauren: Bananas.

Miko: You win today’s top prize, a big slice of Elvis King Cake.

Lauren: Knowing Cochon, there has to be some other sort of meat in there.

Miko: Yes, they’re putting bacon in there, so it’s probably the first King
Cake in history with bacon in it.

Lauren: That’s amazing. That’s so New Orleans. We’ve done the King Cake in
so many different ways and I’ve never heard of that one like that before.

Miko: All right. So just right on the spot, one Mardi Gras thing, go.

Lauren: One Mardi Gras thing?

Miko: Yes.

Lauren: I just love just how exciting it is and just costuming up for it
and people…

Miko: What are you going to be this year?

Lauren: I dress up as a Pussyfooter, so that in itself is fun. But just to
stand there and just watch all the costumes, like families dressing up. I
love to people-watch on Mardi Gras day.

Miko: How many fiscal cliffs do you think we’re going to see this year?

Lauren: That’s a good one- or binders full of women.

George: Yes, beautiful- binders full of women. You’ve given me an idea. I
would say just the excitement on Mardi Gras morning, when everyone’s trying
to get out the door, but somebody’s still struggling with their costume.
That anticipation that almost feels like you had when you were a kid for
Christmas day, but you kind of stopped having when you slept in on
Christmas. But you get to your teens or your twenties and you’re like, “Oh
yeah, it’s Christmas.”

But that joy and that excitement doesn’t go away on Mardi Gras morning. You
get up and you’re scrambling around, and you’ve got men putting on tutus,
and women putting on mustaches and somebody dressing up like this and
somebody dressing up like that, and it’s all good. And you’re all excited,
because you’re gathering, like myself, somewhere in the Marigny for St.
Anne’s, and it just begins there and then it ends right as the fire
department is sweeping off the street with the cops, and telling you, “You
ought to go home.” And get off the sidewalk for a second-on to the sidewalk-
and then we go right back into the street, right?

Miko: Lauren Tom, Fleurty Girl, Happy Mardi Gras.

Lauren: Happy Mardi Gras to you, too.

Miko: George, Jockamo.

George: Indeed.

Miko: Happy Mardi Gras.

Sanpa: Go NOLA radio is a production of New Orleans Tourism and Marketing
Corporation, in conjunction with FSC Interactive, music by Cale Pellet. My
name is Sanpa. Tune in next week by subscribing to Go NOLA Radio on iTunes