You say you want a revolution?
By Russell McCulley
Le Krewe D'Etat Invades Carnival armed with distinctive satire and a twisted sense of humor.
It began over drinks - lots of them - as many questionable movements do. The scene: Ernst Cafe, 1996. The players: a gang of youngish professionals, most of whom had been involved with Carnival organizations for years, but who'd grown disillusioned by the direction Mardi Gras seemed to be headed. On one hand, there was the bigger-is-better trend, endless parades with gargantuan floats loaded down with enough riders to man an aircraft carrier. And then there were the Clubs that Forgot to Care, whose floats resembled half-baked birthday cakes and whose parade themes seemed as flabby and out of step as, well, some of the scantily clad pompom troops that have inexplicably become something of a Carnival tradition.
Carnival was in danger, these unnamed co-conspirators believed, of losing its satirical edge and sense of mystique - the traits perhaps best exemplified by the Momus organization, which stopped parading in the early 1990s in response to New Orleans' anti-discrimination ordinance. True, there are other, younger parades, like the bawdy free-for-all antics staged by the Krewe du Vieux, that use satire to good effect. But Momus managed to balance its political and societal affronts with a rigorous respect for Carnival customs - secrecy, exclusivity and a modestly scaled parade that made it necessary to pack a lot of punch in an intentionally limited, traditional Carnival repertoire.
Like any good band of insurgents, the unnamed co-conspirators saw an opportunity and decided to exploit it. Le Krewe D'Etat was underway.
AN UNNAMED SPOKESMAN AND A HIGH OFFICIAL
Getting an audience with Le Krewe D'Etat commandos was surprisingly easy, once the ground rules were established: There would be no names revealed, the officers I would be speaking with could not be identified by their titles, but rather as An Unnamed Spokesman for the Organization and A High Official with the Krewe, and under no circumstances would the theme of this year's parade be revealed. They had agreed to meet me for lunch at Galatoire's, along with veteran float builder Henri Schindler, who also helps put together the Rex parade and who more than once asked that Unnamed Spokesman's comments be stricken from the record.
So what were the founders hoping to accomplish?
"Our object is to enslave humanity," says Unnamed Spokesman.
"I don't think you should say that," says Schindler, rolling his eyes.
Unnamed Spokesman picks at a basket of bread. "Lots of Mardi Gras krewes haven't ... they just seem to be going through the motions. They're not getting into it the way they should. I mean, look at the themes: 'Alice in Wonderland?' 'The Movies?' "
To be fair, Le Krewe D'Etat itself chose the movies for its parade theme in 2000, but it wasn't the cuddly, G-rated world of Disney
that parade-goers witnessed. Instead, it was floats featuring the "Terminator" (Dr. Jack Kevorkian) and, in a nod to the battle between prosecutor Eddie Jordan and former Gov. Edwin Edwards, one titled "I'm Gonna Get You, Sucka!" Then there were tributes of questionable taste to "Splash" (John Kennedy Jr.'s demise, although Spokesman insists the title refers to the subsequent media frenzy), "Mommie Dearest" (JonBenet Ramsey) and, most wickedly, a send up of a certain local entertainer rechristened "The Mummy" ("She's hot! She's exciting! She's 3,000 years old!").
It was, to say the least, a bit more searing than the previous year's Le Krewe D'Etat parade, the "Dictator's Circus," which featured Human Cannonball Newt Gingrich, Fat Man Harry Lee and the sword-swallowing "Great Lewinsky," whose accessories included the infamous blue dress. In 2001, the theme lampooned the fall of the New Economy. Themed " D'Etat.com," it boasted, among others, a tribute to "YatMardiGras.com," with what Schindler describes as a "really trashy-looking float" and an allmale parody of the ubiquitous dancing clubs, the "Future Hookers of America."
Unnamed Spokesman refuses to discuss this year's theme, other than to say "we do have one."
Le Krewe D'Etat's code of secrecy is a nod to the most traditional of Carnival organizations, but the group's official hierarchy
is decidedly irreverent. Instead of a king, krewe members heed edicts from the dictator, whose "court" includes such figures as the kingfish, special man, minister of misinformation, keeper of the bones and high priest.
True to its insurgent spirit, the first Le Krewe D'Etat parade was, Unnamed Spokesman says, a stealth operation. "The first year, we rode as a covert group, hidden within the ranks of Pegasus. We had a few floats within their parade."
Le Krewe D'Etat debuted in a prime parade spot, the Friday evening before Fat Tuesday, on the traditional St. Charles Avenue route. It was an instant hit with local Carnival intelligentsia. "They really burst upon the scene their first parade out," says Arthur Hardy, author and publisher of the annual Mardi Gras Guide. "That's unique; most clubs start out slow. But their leadership is made up of Carnival veterans. So they're not novices.
"It's a terrific parade. It proves you don't have to be big to be 'super,' " Hardy says, referring to the term coined to describe the "super-krewes" like Endymion and Bacchus. "I love the secrecy and the satire."
"The organization was basically founded to try to revive the oldstyle parade," says High Official with the Krewe. "We thought there
was a void there - a niche for smaller floats, especially for a night parade. It turned out to be a lot more than we expected."
To retain as much control and independence as possible, the krewe decided early on to acquire its own floats. "Very few clubs own their own floats," Schindler explains. "It was a major commitment on the part of the organization to buy a den and build its own floats."
"We own everything! And we will own it all!" chimes in Unnamed Spokesman, which elicits another look of mock exasperation from Schindler.
"If it gets too big, it becomes more like a convention," says Schindler of Le Krewe D'Etat's limited parade - 21 floats - and membership, which is open but kept to a relatively small number. "We have a long list of people who want in, but there aren't enough floats," says Unnamed Spokesman. Size isn't the point anyway, he says: "Our measure of success is how irreverent we can be - how much shit we can stir up."
SATIRE IN CARNIVAL
A few days after our lunch, I accompany Schindler to the Faubourg Marigny warehouse where the ghosts of parades past are
stored. He points out yesterday's headlines in the jumble of papiermache figures. A Smokey Bear statue used the U. S. Park Service's own symbol to poke fun at the agency's fire-control policies, which, a few years back, resulted in millions of charred public acres; nearby stands a peeling Firestone tire and the "mental detector" that decorated an Orleans Parish School Boardthemed float last year.
"One reason the parade has caught on is that it doesn't have a narrow focus at all," Schindler says. "It's not just about politics
or one (political) party. It includes entertainment, culture - everybody gets poked."
Satire, he says, "has always been a part of Carnival," peaking in the 1870s, when Reconstruction prompted satirical responses that
were "anything but lighthearted.
"There were very witty, well-done caricatures," Schindler says, citing Comus' infamous "Missing Links" parade of 1873 as an especially caustic example. Tracing the evolution of mankind from the sponge to the gorilla, the figures, upon closer inspection, were actually barely disguised caricatures of contemporary politicians. But "the last and most vitriolic of the satirical parades," he says, was 1877's offering from Momus titled "Hades, The Dream of Momus," which threw barbs at the Reconstruction politicians. Afterward, "that type of satire disappeared from the old-line groups, although some others picked up the slack."
By the turn of the century, though, satire had pretty much disappeared altogether. "And it didn't really resurface until 1977," Schindler says, when Momus commemorated the centennial of the Hades parade. "It was a big success."
Schindler has authored a -series of books on the "golden age" of Carnival, which he places at "roughly 1870 to 1930," when "everything was done with so much care and artistry." The style, he says, never really recovered from the Great Depression and World War II. "Before then, every year brought an entirely new parade - a new king's float, a new title float. That all stopped. The floats we know today, the Carnival icons, were developed in the '30s and retained. There's nothing wrong with that, just different."
Le Krewe D'Etat, he says, is one of "maybe a dozen or so parades that have their own floats that roll just one time. And they have a very clear idea of what they want to do," both conceptually, adopting a broad brush approach to satire, and visually. "They want the floats to reflect the old-school, 19th-century look," Schindler says. "Real attention to detail, a lot of things built on to the float, not painted on."
Schindler was involved in Le Krewe D'Etat's parade planning and design from the start, but only recently took over float building duties from another contractor. The arrangement has been a good fit, says High Official, who describes the typical theme planning session like so: "There's food, drinks, and the ideas start flowing. Especially after a lot of drinks have been consumed."
Once the theme has been settled on, the committee meets at regular intervals to hammer out the details - and, in some cases, to refashion ideas in response to changing events. In October 2000, for example, the krewe had reserved two floats for the outcome of the presidential election in early November; Mardi Gras would be just days away by the time the outcome was in fact determined. The George W. Bush figure atop the float cleverly acknowledged the vote with a five-to-four count on its hands.
A REPUTATION TO UPHOLD
I ask Schindler if the events, and the aftermath, of last September will put a damper on the satirical side of Carnival. "I don't think we'll see too much of that," he says. Still, it would seem that the challenge for Le Krewe D'Etat and other satirically inclined
organizations this year will be finding the right balance: avoiding the easy targets that Sept. 11 rendered insignificant and managing to draw the right amount of blood from its targets without alienating a public whose mood, at least for the moment, is decidedly less than ironic.
Last fall, the krewe offered a glimpse of at least one possible target when it issued a statement declaring its intention to move to Mississippi if certain conditions were not met. "The traditional St. Charles Avenue route is no longer viable for Le Krewe D'Etat," it read. "Numerous potholes on the avenue cause jolts to our riders, who are not always that steady on their feet by that time of night ... Numerous trees, telephone poles, streetlights, power lines and
varied obstructions are acting as impediments to sightlines for spectators and riders alike."
The open letter, which ran in Angus Lind's Times-Picayunecolumn, went on to list several demands: a cut of the city's hotel tax, a portion of food and drink sales, the removal of all utility poles and trees from the route or, alternatively, the granting of a new parade route that would require that "all buildings between Chartres Street and Royal Street between Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue be demolished or removed to give the Krewe a wide lane with unobstructed views of our parade" and "enable the Krewe to sell places in luxury stands and suites on Jackson Square and elsewhere along our new Vieux Carre route."
Le Krewe D'Etat doesn't have to look too hard for targets in a city that offers up a steady stream of satire-worthy figures. Unnamed Spokesman is tight-lipped about whose oxen will be gored this year, but he acknowledges that the krewe has a reputation to live up to. And he seems proud that the parade has been so well-received.
"We wanted to create a parade that people would remember and laugh at and actually take the time to look at," he says. "We wanted to create our own niche - our own satirical, twisted niche."
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