For Mardi Gras in New Orleans last year, I donned a pair of gold lamé pants, a feathered hat encrusted with shiny sequins and a colorful mask (not the kind we’re all wearing today), then joined my neighbors and other revelers to cheer as the parade of floats, dancers and marching bands passed by. Lingering among us in the crowd was an unknown invisible visitor who sent thousands of tourists home with a dangerous carnival souvenir and later turned the NOLA into a Covid hot spot.
“New Orleans is like a giant flashing yellow light. Proceed with caution … but proceed.” – Matthew Mcconaughey
This year pandemic may have forced the city to cancel the Mardi Gras parades, balls and big gatherings, but it’s impossible to cancel the spirit and joy of Carnival in New Orleans.
“When you go to New Orleans, you’re not just going to a city, you’re going to an entire culture.” – James Carville, New Orleans resident.
The people of New Orleans are nothing but resilient. Not a hurricane nor a pandemic will keep them from celebrating Mardi Gras (and just about anything else that offers a reason to party.) After the city was ravaged by Katrina, its residents picked themselves up, dried themselves off, and rebuilt their city. Four months later there was Mardi Gras. And New Orleanians are not letting Rona keep them from “passing a good time” this carnival season either.
“In New Orleans, we celebrate evrything. It’s probably the only place you’ll see people dancing in a funeral home.” – Trombone Shorty, local musician extraordinaire.
When the mayor announced in November that there would be no parades for this year’s fête, Big Easy artists and residents spun into action transforming the facades of thousands of homes and businesses into “house floats” laborately decorated in the style of Mardi Gras floats. Think Christmas lights and decorations on steroids but with clever themes.
In other places culture comes down from on high. In New Orleans, it bubbles up from the streets.” – Ellis Marsalis (The jazz patriarch died in April 2020 from Covid.)
So in New Orleans we’re celebrating Mardi Gras in reverse this year–as Yardi Gras, or Mardi Gras in the front yard: instead of watching the floats go by, we safely walk past or drive by the house floats, many of whose decorations extend into their front yards. And we’re doing it all with grace and humor.
Krewe of House Floats
The house float concept began as a joke that New Orleans resident Megan Boudreaux, a 38-year-old insurance claims manager, posted on social media. The idea took off and now, with “parade at home” as their motto, Boudreaux’s idea has since morphed into an organization, the Krewe of House Floats. The movement has resulted in more than 7,500 members and 40 neighborhood subkrewes throughout the greater New Orleans region.
3000 Floats in New Orleans and Beyond
The krewe’s interactive map shows more than 3000 floats, mostly in the New Orleans area, but the idea has inspired people in 40 other states and as far away as Europe, Australia and Asia. (A “krewe” is social organization with members that ride on a parade float, host Mardi Gras activities including a ball, and also participate in social events throughout the year.)
“Every time blowing that trumpet of mine, I look right into the heart of the good old New Orleans. It has given me something to live for.” – Louis Armstrong, aka Satchmo.
The krewe named the local cultural icon, rapper Big Freedia, aka the “Queen of Bounce,” as their inaugural Grand Marshal. Known for having popularized the New Orleans bounce music genre, Big Freeda has collaborated with celebrity national musicians including Beyoncé.
Collectively Letting Les Bons Temps Rouler
The New Orleans City Council will soon present Boudreaux with a key to the city for her efforts in helping New Orleanians remember their “collective ability to keep the good times rolling.” The Krew of House Floats fostered a good deal of commerce between residents, local merchants and artisans.
Eighty-nine year old Mardi Gras float builders, Kern Studios, as well as a number of smaller studios, built grand front lawn custom installations while many local artists shared their talents teaching classes on papier-mache, resin and flower-making.
“Beads and bling. It’s a Mardi Gras Thing.”
The Krewe of House Floats inspired float designer Caroline Thomas to launch Hire a Mardi Gras Artist, an initiative she formed to raise funds for laid-off carnival artists. A professional float builder and designer of elaborate headdresses, Thomas approached Devin De Wulf of her former krewe, the Krewe of Red Beans, to help solicit online donations for commissioning carnival artists and workers to decorate homes throughout the city.
Known for celebrating the local culinary tradition of serving red beans on Monday, the Krewe of Red beans has been continuously active during the pandemic in helping to feed front line workers. They raised over $1.2 million for Feed the Font Line NOLA, which hired unemployed musicians to deliver food from locally owned restaurants to hospital workers. Entirely volunteer-based, 99% of donations went to recipients–the restaurants, health care workers, and musicians. The krewe has now pivoted the idea into Feed the Second Line, where musicians volunteer to drive the elderly and at-risk culture-bearers to receive COVID-19 vaccines.
While some of the city’s most extravagantly decorated houses are the work of well-known krewes and professional artists (a few even replete with magnificent professional sound and light shows), others reflect the imagination and verve of ordinary residents and ad hoc neighborhood groups.
Some people have taken the DIY route, sourcing items like mannequins from Craigslist or Nextdoor and creating decorations from little more than cardboard, spray paint and a few lights.
The facades of many homes and businesses are festooned with “float flowers,” a staple of many traditional Mardi Gras floats. To replace the crowds of parade watchers, wooden cut outs of groups of waving people greet passersby.
Not surpisingly, the pandemic features promenently in many of this year’s themes. “Chewy’s Guide to the Covid Galaxy” features a sign, “May the Mask Be With You.”
To make the experience interactive, the lawn at “Maison MASKquerade” has signs with QR codes directing visitors to YouTube videos.
One of my favorites, just down the street from me, is the ever so slightly lewd Krewe of Tucks “Get Pricked–Vaccinate, Don’t Procrastinate” featuring a large paper mâché Dr. Fauci head and where visitors were offered “shots” of intoxicating libations via a syringe.
One large estate on St. Charles Avenue transformed its front property into a circus, replete with two larger-that-life size giraffes grazing on the lawn, and a menagerie that includes ane elephant, lion and tiger, oh my. A giant gorilla just beyond the fence beats his chest as he greets visitors.
A few doors down the street, the historic New Orleans “wedding cake house” was transformed into “DinoGras on the Avenue,” a Jurrasic Park-like extravaganza featuring a looming pack of prehistorics roaming the lawn.
A pterodactyl, velociraptor and triceroptops each have approriately large Mardi Gras beads around their necks, while the brontosaurus steals the show sporting a voluminous top hat.
One of the most elaborate house floats is “Magical Musical Mardi Gras” with its spectacular nightly music and light show celebrating Louisiana’s heritage and culture. It features local musicians Professor Longhair, Dr. John and Louis Armstrong, who appears alone on one of the balconies.
This house float best replicated the experience of watching a moving float. The changing lights encouraged onlookers to move along the fence perimeter to the sound of the music from one end of the property to the other.
The big surprise was hidden around the corner on the side of the property. A freestanding float shaped like a giant guitar topped with piano topped with trombone provided a separate music and light show.
Around the corner from me, actor Bryan Batt’s Uptown home covered with vibrant flowers and beads, below.
While some residents have hired professionals to create extravagant installations, some replete with magnificent professional sound and light shows, others have taken the DIY route, sourcing items like mannequins from Craigslist or Nextdoor and creating decorations from little more than cardboard, spray paint and a few lights.
In my neighborhood, every third house is decorated to some degree. This may be as simple as a wreath on the door or as elaborate as a professionally created house float, but the unrefined amateur efforts are no less wonderful to me than the sophisticated ones.
The people of my city are once again revealing their adaptability and creativity and, best of all, they are demonstrating the strength of community–the heart of New Orleans that keeps on beating despite so many obstacles.
You don’t need to be here to experience Mardi Gras New Orleans style. Take a virtual stroll through the city using the the Krewe of House Floats interactive map, order yourself up some king cake from iconic New Orleans bakeries, and enjoy free musical performances online at Mardi Gras For All, featuring iconic artists, chefs and personalities at famous New Orleans venues including Mardi Gras World, Antoine’s, Dooky Chase’s and more featuring Emeril Lagasse, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Archie Manning and Jimmy Buffett, among others.
All photos Robin Plaskoff Horton.