For 35 years the Phunny Phorty Phellows Mardi Gras krewe has chartered a St. Charles Avenue streetcar for a party ride on Kings Night (Jan. 6). To a generation of onlookers, the passing of the Phellows' cacophonous car has marked the start of the Carnival season. But this year, the Phellows have a new competitor in the harbinger business.
A downtown doppelganger
The new St. Claude Avenue/Rampart Street streetcar line opened in October 2016 and almost immediately, a musician-bon vivant named David Roe was inspired to organize a Twelfth Night streetcar ride on the tracks that head from the Marigny, past the French Quarter and on to the CBD. Roe's new streetcar riding rabble is called "The Not So Secret Society of Elysian Fields."
Public television producer Peggy Scott Laborde, who was a co-founder of the Phellows, said that "it was a little bit of a surprise," to learn of the arrival of a rival.
"But we wish them well," she said. "It's an example of how Twelfth Night is getting to be more and more filled with events."
Joan of Arc: Eternal upstart
It's not the first time that an interloper has usurped the Phellow's claim to the annual inauguration of the Mardi Gras season. In 2008, The Krewe de Jeanne d'Arc started celebrating the birthday of St. Joan, the 15th-century martyr, with a French Quarter parade. It just so happens that Joan's birthday falls on Jan. 6. So, for the past few years, the Phellows have had to share the first day of the Mardi Gras season with a charmingly weird medieval procession.
But since the Joan of Arc parade really didn't have anything to do with Mardi Gras proper, the Phunny Phorty Phellows could still claim to be the soul heralds of Crescent City Carnival.
The Phellows get philosophical about Phriday
Laborde said that on the one hand she's worried that the Twelfth Night pie might be being sliced a little too thin. But the Phunny Phorty, Joan of Arc parade, and Society of Elysian Fields events take place in different neighborhoods and may not actually diminish one another very much, she said.
Localized Mardi Gras events are good, she added.
"I think that having Carnival in neighborhoods; we've lost that over the years," she said. "I'm very much in favor of that."
And anyway, neither the current PPP nor the NOSSSOEF are actual parades. They are chartered streetcar rides. In part, Laborde said, the Phellows were formed to celebrate the historic New Orleans streetcar line, which was then a single route.
History, the future, and the fires of hell
Society of Elysian Fields founder, Roe, said it's not his intention to diminish the Phellow's annual ride, the Joan of Arc parade, or any of the other season-starting parties and performances that take place on Kings Night.
"We're not rivaling anyone," Roe said. "Carnival is about cooperation, not competition."
In fact, Roe said, both the Fellows and the Krewe of Joan of Arc have special places in his heart because he's participated in both events and has pals in both organizations.
"I've ridden with the Phellows," he said, and during a past Joan of Arc parade "I was (costumed as) the flames of hell that consumed Joan."
The "beautiful green St. Charles streetcars" Roe said, "are a symbol of history. The new red cars (of the St. Claude Avenue/Rampart Street route) are the future."
As a concession to any possible perception of conflict, Roe said, he arranged to start his downtown ride at 7:30 p.m., a half hour after the Phellows rumble away from the Uptown streetcar barn (the Joan of Arc parade also begins at 7 p.m.). In addition to avoiding friction, Roe said, staggering the streetcar departure times makes it possible that the Phellows and the Society of Elysian Fields may come within blocks of one another near Canal Street.
Yet again, it seems, New Orleans progress and tradition may squeal along in close proximity.