Mardi Gras season set to kick off with mix of new, old traditions

(Gallery by The Times-Picayune)

As Christmas trees come down and king cakes come out, revelers can join a couple of local groups in celebrating the switch from the holiday season to Carnival time. The Phunny Phorty Phellows and The Joan of Arc Project each flaunt a unique set of traditions in their public events on Twelfth Night, the official beginning of Carnival season.

The Phunny Phorty Phellows proclaim the start of Carnival with a loud, colorful streetcar ride up and down St. Charles Avenue, while the Joan of Arc Project sends a calmer krewe of costumed celebrants parading through the French Quarter in honor of New Orleans’ unofficial patron saint.

“We consider ourselves the herald of Carnival,” said Peggy Scott Laborde, a founding krewe member.

The Phunny Phorty Phellows form a contemporary take on an old tradition, as the group, founded in 1981, represents the revival of a satirical krewe that paraded in the late 1800s.

Since 1982, these heralds of Mardi Gras have prepared revelers for the season with an unusual “parade”—a Twelfth Night streetcar ride that runs the St. Charles Avenue route from Willow Street to Canal Street and back.

“Since this route includes the route of many Mardi Gras parades, it’s only fitting that we blaze the trail,” Laborde said.

Using New Orleans’ unique, historical mode of transportation makes sense for this unique, historical krewe, members said.

Roughly 50 costumed Phellows pack the streetcar along with the Storyville Stompers band, which performs before and during the ride.

Spectators can join the fun by seeing the group off from 6:30 to 7 p.m. at the Willow Street streetcar barn. Families often show up to watch the krewe’s champagne toast with members of the Krewe of Oak, known as “The Three Magi,” listen to the Storyville Stompers and participate in a Carnival countdown before the krewe boards the car.

“The Mystery Maskers,” a group of Phellows fans, often show up at the streetcar barn, flaunting humorous signs in support of the krewe. The group then pops up at various points along the route as part of a tradition that started at least a decade ago, Laborde said.

Others have made it their tradition to mingle at spots along the route, waiting for the streetcar of revelers to pass by.

“It does mean a lot to us to see people we see every year,” Laborde said.

The Twelfth Night ride offers most crowds their first glimpse of Mardi Gras costumes, revelry and royalty, Laborde said.

The Phellows select each year’s Queen and “Boss,” the krewe’s original name for its king, en route by passing around two king cakes. The man and woman who find the king-cake babies earn the chance to reign in fanciful crowns and scepters made from wire.

The krewe’s costumes vary from individual to group themes, satirical and other.

Phil Martin, known as “The Recycled Boss” due to his two reigns in 1995 and 2012, said he, his wife and two other couples often coordinate costumes, last year dressing as “1 percent vampires” and another year as six Peggy Labordes.

“Everyone costumes as their inspiration takes them,” said Jim Hobbs, a founding member of the group, adding that crowds enjoy the bright spectacle. “We’re noisy, and we’re colorful.”

That same night in the French Quarter, another krewe plans to give crowds a quieter, gentler introduction to Carnival with elegant costumes, twinkling LED tea lights, saints on horseback and handmade throws.

The Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc presents its fifth annual parade on Joan of Arc’s 601st birthday, which happens to fall on Twelfth Night.

“It hits the right note, I think, for early Carnival season,” said krewe member Jane Caruso.

Krewe members and parade-goers find inspiration in various aspects of the Joan of Arc story: faith, heroism, feminism and rebirth, said Amanda Helm, membership and throw coordinator.

“It really means a lot of different things to different people,” Helm said.

The krewe, founded in 2008, is known for its medieval-themed walking parade of about 60 members and 30 volunteers costumed as knights, monks, peasants, saints, angels and various versions of Joan of Arc, often riding horses. Crowds enjoy the parade’s softer, family-oriented atmosphere and the unique costumes and throws handcrafted or hand-embellished by members.

The fifth annual parade will maintain a spontaneous, handmade feel, but the event is growing with more costumes, royalty, throws and organization, said krewe founder and captain Amy Kirk Duvoisin.

“We continue to grow and find poetic and whimsical ways to incorporate parts of Joan's story into the parade,” Duvoisin said.

The krewe’s royalty, which includes a Maid of Honor and King, will for the first time include a queen. The new role, to be filled by local business and community leader Betsie Gambel, is inspired by Yolande of Argon, who funded Joan’s army. A toast from The Historic New Orleans Collection has been added to the parade.

Also for the first time, two dance troupes join the parade, with both adjusting costumes and routines to fit the Joan of Arc theme. The Muff-A-Lottas will appear in flame-inspired designs in reference to Joan’s death, and the Chorus Girl Project will perform as a moving Choir of Angels.

This year’s parade involves new elaborate papier-mache depictions of saints related to Joan of Arc and their stories, and a larger number of popular throws, such as hand-decorated swords and hand-sewn Joan “dolls,” members said.

The event also includes more festive components. The krewe will hand out LED tea lights, so parade-goers can add them to a four-foot-tall papier-mache birthday cake to sit at the base of the Joan of Arc statue.

Following the parade’s king cake ceremony in Dutch Alley, revelers can top off the celebration with a first-ever after-party at the Steamboat Natchez dock.