When Kids Are Kings
- story by Karen Fineran, photos by Ellis Anderson
Marching to a Different Drummer
Carnival and Creativity go hand-in-hand - especially in these five very different sorts of Mardi Gras parades. They're all within easy driving distance from the Mississippi coast and make for a fun-filled day trip!
- story by Karen Fineran
The Spectacular Mardi Gras Mind of Carter Church
A small Mardi Gras museum in the historic Bay St. Louis depot features samplings of the extraordinary costumes designed by the iconic Carter Church. Celebrate Nereids 50th anniversary by visiting!
- by Rebecca Orfila, photos by Ellis Anderson
Ornate satin gowns, capes and breeches, headdresses, and beads are de rigueur at balls and on floats. During our recent visit to the Mardi Gras Museum, Susan Duffy, the Depot’s concierge, explained that a queen’s costume can take as many as 400 hours to create. Each crystal jewel is individually pasted onto the gowns and other pieces of the royal ensemble.
The dresses are special creations, fitted to each individual participant. Both royals wear high collars - iced with sparkling silver decorations, crystals jewels, and flowing with white or dyed ostrich feathers. The high collars are a modern design, typical for contemporary queens and kings.
The Nereids Kings’ and attending dukes’ costumes are equally elaborate and consist of tunics, short capes, and knee-length breeches. The King’s crown is smaller than the Queen’s and is decorated with the special motif of the year - and white ostrich feathers.
The other costumes in the collection were also created by Carter Church. After a brief period of rest following Mardi Gras, Church begins to design ceremonial regalia for the next Carnival season. Krewes in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama reach out to him for their costuming needs.
In most cases, the theme for the next year is determined by a krewe; then, it becomes Church’s duty to create sparkling ceremonial clothing to illustrate the chosen motif. Fanciful designs, such as an alligator and swamp scene on a queen’s gown or Aztec-themed costumes intertwined with satin snakes are typical of Church’s detailed designs.
Church’s original design drawings are situated in front of each display at the Mardi Gras Museum. His drawings are beautiful in their own right. His many years of experience have gained him noteworthy acclaim in the fashion industry.
In a small exhibit slightly off the main hall of the museum is the costume Carter Church wore as King of Nereids in 2013. Church said that serving as King of a the famous all-women krewe was the highlight of his life.
Also included in the display is a Queen’s collar in the Medici style. The late 16th Century fashion consists of a rigid fan worn upright behind the head of a female wearer, not the large, towering form seen in modern queens’ regalia. The Medici style collar is decorated with crystals and silver decorations.
Costs for such finery can vary from nominal amounts to thousands of dollars. In the case of Kings and Queens of some krewes, the costumes will be worn the following year during the presentation ceremonies at the balls when the previous year’s royalty is presented to the new King and Queen.
One of the museums’ volunteers is Martha Franks, who has a special connection to it. Mrs. Franks is Carter Church’s sister. When the number of visitors rises during the busy seasons at the museum, or the staff is otherwise occupied, Mrs. Franks gracefully steps in and guides the guests through the display. According to Duffy, she is well versed on the royal wear and the creation of each special costume.
The museum’s collection of elaborate costumes dotted with crystals and feathers give out-of-town visitors an up-close view of the Mardi Gras celebration. According to Duffy, approximately 800 to 1,000 people stop by the Depot each month. Each visitor is welcomed with his or her own set of Mardi Gras beads.
The Mission-style train depot is also home to the Hancock County Tourism Development Bureau, headed by Myrna Green. The historic building was restored after Hurricane Katrina. The depot and the grounds surrounding it are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and it is a Mississippi Landmark Property.
The museum is located at 1928 Depot Way in Bay St. Louis and is open every day of the year except Sundays, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. The second floor of the Depot is home to the nationally acclaimed folk artist Alice Moseley's museum.
"Mardi Blah" turns "Mardi Rah!" for two transplants who discover the joys of carnival season on the coast.
- story by Ana Balka
“Omaha versus North Dakota,” my husband said. “So we’ll move this weekend, and be out of here before everything goes crazy.”
“Ah huh,” said the man. His flummoxed expression remained as he shook the ice in his glass, took a sip and turned his attention back to the game.
“It’s a shame you’ll miss Mardi Gras,” the woman said. “Won’t it be awfully cold there?” Her bewilderment followed us as we waved and went into our gate a couple of doors down.
It was January of 2013, and after an overseas move, my husband and I had been staying temporarily in the French Quarter while we looked for something more permanent in the area. And we’d found it on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
So we were moving out of the condo that weekend. The following week, on the Friday preceding Mardi Gras, we had tickets for the aforementioned hockey game in my home state of Nebraska. Our neighbors must have been visualizing the meme that shows a woman flashing her chest to a herd of cows over the caption “Mardi Gras in Nebraska.”
We knew what a cool opportunity it was to live in the French Quarter even for a short time. That said, we weren’t always in tune with the way things are done around here. Not that I’m a stranger to parties or parades, but as far as making a big deal of things, the closest we had to Mardi Gras where I grew up (besides, duh, Cornhusker games) was the world-famous Czech festival in Wilber, which (as I am certain you know) is the Czech Capital of the USA. King cake? No, man. Kolaches. Delicious, delicious kolaches.
Steven is from the Netherlands, and he has home movies of his mother and sisters whooping it up in bizarre (and kind of scary) masks for vastenavond — Carnival — sometime in the mid-’70s. Neither Steven nor his dad appears in these videos. They were likely at home doing something reasonable, like reading.
So in January 2013, while all of our friends were sketching, stitching, bedazzling, be-feathering, and fur-lining ingenious outfits for not just Mardi Gras but also Lundi Gras and the Saturday before and the eve prior to that, we may have mumbled a “bah humbug” or two at the idea of the noise, the crowds, the costumes, the marching bands and — don’t hate — the parades. We had Mardi Blah.
Still, the spirit of the season caught me during the run-up. There was the ethereal procession of knights and angels in the dim light of the Jeanne d’Arc parade. Our friends in the microkrewe ‘tit Rəx made detailed and hilarious Barbie-doll-sized social statements for their 28-shoebox-float parade. Our condo was on the parade route for the Mystic Krewe of Barkus. Who can remain a wet blanket when hundreds of dogs in sunglasses and tutus are grinning and wagging past your house? If you’re raising your hand, perhaps we need to station you on the route for Krewe du Vieux and see if what rolls past makes you swell with a bit more enthusiasm.
Our Mardi Gras celebrations since we moved to the Bay have been appealingly up-close and personal. We braved the 2014 cold snap for the Mystic Krewe of Seahorse’s parade, where we cheered Keith and Susan of the Ugly Pirate as they sailed by in their pirate-mobile, waved and yelled as friends passed in bead-festooned golf carts, and marveled at the cold-weather commitment that the ladies of the Raw Oyster Marching Club displayed in their frilly pirate damsel outfits.
Last year I inched closer to the spirit of things. It wasn’t exactly a costume, but at least I took the time to put on a furry green coat, and I dressed the Mardi dog in a nice sweater before joining the pack of revelers who were whooping it up on the front lawn of the French Potager with owner Martha Whitney Butler.
“The first year I went to Mardi Gras,” says Butler, who grew up in a non-coastal Alabama town with no Mardi Gras tradition, “I felt like I was one of the only people who wasn’t in costume. After, I was like, [forget] this, because the only people not in costume were tourists. Every year, I would add a little more ‘umph’ to my costume.”
It’s quite possible that I’ll do the same and find myself adding a bit more umph to my Mardi Gras outlook each year. Don’t get me wrong; I’m quite fine with maintaining a less-than-rabid level of holiday spirit. But the idea of a collective letting-down of the hair before a period of spiritual self-discipline has merit regardless of one’s beliefs, and as I’ve said in this column before, the Gulf Coast has a way of drawing you in, sometimes despite yourself.
2/6 - Friday
2/8 - Sunday
2/10 - Tuesday
2/14 - Saturday
2/14 - Saturday
2/16 - Monday, Lundi Gras
2/17 - Tuesday, Mardi Gras
2/21 - Saturday
by Pat Saik
Long-time Fourth Ward resident, Larry Lewis, knows something special about Mardi Gras history in Bay St. Louis. The Bay St. Louis parade drew people from several counties and parishes, all to see the special attraction—the marching of the Moss Men. Larry was born in 1950; five years later he costumed and marched for the first time in a parade. Nearly every year hence he has joined the revelry.
Larry, who has lived at the same location on Ballentine Street for forty years, can still tell you the name of just about everybody who lived (or still lives) in his neighborhood. Many are family—aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, nieces and nephews. Especially before Hurricane Katrina virtually destroyed every house on Ballentine Street from the beach to Third Street, three or four families lived in homes close to one another, and if you weren’t family, you were friend.
Larry credits his uncle, Slim Banks for starting the Mardi Gras in Bay St. Louis around 1955. Slim came from New Orleans and started everybody dressing up as Mardi Gras Indians, following the tradition already going strong in New Orleans.
Three tribes—the Krewe of Alley (or Alley Cats), the Back of Town Tribe and the Uptown Tribe--would all get together on Mardi Gras, helping each other with their elaborate hand-made costumes, adding more colorful feathers to the crown or sewing on more glittery beads.
Costuming as Indians got to be bigger and bigger each year and the Alley Cats decided they wanted to do something to look different. “So we started being the Moss Men,” Larry explains.
What do Moss Men look like? “Something like a gorilla suit,” says Larry. Moss Men made their own costumes by twining tie wire through numerous slices cut about every six inches into the fabric of a shirt—usually an old sweatshirt served best. Blue jeans made the best below the waist part of the costume. Once the moss had been attached, with tie wire, it was painted. “Red, black, white, yellow, orange, pink, whatever colors we came across. We didn’t care” Larry recalls with a smile. “When we paraded, sometimes the moss would flip around to the gray side when a wind was blowing.”
Moss Men pulled out old Halloween masks to complete the costume. If you didn’t have a mask, people made up a black crème for their faces, fashioned from chimney soot mixed with lard.
The Moss Men started parading from “the alley” (the semicircle off Ballentine Street now named Cue Street) to Third Street, pass St. Rose de Lima to Main Street. They eventually ended up at “Back of Town” via Sycamore Street to St. Francis, although the exact route may be modified from year to year. Along the way, the marchers threw beads and candy to the onlookers. Though called the Moss Men, it was not unusual for woman to participate, dressed in costumes made of moss, varying from the men by wearing moss-covered skirts rather than jeans.
Larry credits Clara Mae Darcy and Charlie Murrey as the generators who kept the Moss Man tradition going year after year. Ms. Darcy lived on St. John Street, not far from the cemetery. It was in her yard surrounding her house that parade participants met before the marching started, often using her place for getting costumed.
For now, the Moss Men have disbanded, though some may participate in the Mardi Gras parade in Bay St. Louis put on by the Krewe of Diamonds.
Larry Lewis is married to Elmira Jackson Lewis and together they have raised three girls and one boy during their 22 years of marriage: Amelia (the eldest), Larry, Jr., Jeanene and Amber, still “the baby girl” to Larry. Larry’s father, Arthur Lewis passed away in 2006. “Don’t mourn for me,” he told his children. “I had a good life.”
Like his father, Larry lives his life to the fullest. He has worked for the City of Bay St. Louis for over 37 years, presently as a supervisor in the drainage department. He sings in a four-member gospel group, the “Angels of Joy.” He sings for the love of it, traveling to churches and participating often in three-day retreats. Though he also loved to play the saxophone, an injury to his mouth some time ago has prevented him from playing more than an hour or so every now and then. And, he sheepishly admits, Elmira doesn’t encourage him. She likes it better when he keeps the sax in the closet.
Larry also has a green thumb. Attesting to that fact is a 35-foot grapefruit tree filled with a winter bounty. Larry planted the tree from a seed when he was a child. Larry and Elmira’s yard has several fruit trees—kumquat, plum, tangerine, grapefruit, oranges and lemons. It wasn’t unusual, especially before Katrina devastated so much of Ballentine Street, for many of the street’s residents to grow fruit trees in their own yards.
When asked his secret of growing things successfully, Larry didn’t skip a beat. “The main ingredient—say a prayer for it and pray for it to bear fruit.”
Larry and Elmira have seven grandchildren and one great grandchild. Happily, Larry’s mother, Lena Mae Lewis, is still living. Larry proudly says that now there are living five generations of his family.
Wearing a shirt emblazoned with “I LOVE BAY ST. LOUIS,” Larry really means it. “People here get along real good. There’s a lot of hospitality. People have love in their hearts. I’m not going anywhere,” he says with a grin.
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