A New Merry-Making Marching Club - The Raw Oysters
by Ellis Anderson
-This month - a sassy new group of marching women took to the streets for the first time on Lundi Gras to rave reviews.
Raw Oyster’s founder and organizer, Martha Whitney Butler, says she’s always enjoyed watching the groups that march and dance in New Orleans’ many parades and felt that Hancock County “had a need” for its own local band of merry-makers.
Butler owns the French Potager in Old Town Bay St. Louis where she sells antiques and her distinctive flower arrangements. She’s an active member of the community and serves on the board of The Arts, Hancock County. Yet, the first time the club marched on February 16th, she wasn’t sure how the public would respond to a glittery dance team of feisty women flaunting costumes of red and gold.
“We were a huge hit!” Butler says. “In less than one week following the Seahorse parade, we had over 500 ‘likes’ on our Facebook page. We were also featured in almost every media outlet on the Mississippi gulf coast.”
That same evening, the group also received invitations to march in both Jackson’s and Waveland’s St. Patrick’s Day parades. Schedule conflicts forced them to decline the Jackson gig this year, but it’s clear the Raw Oyster Marching Club is going places. Lots of places.
It’s also growing - the group is up to forty-five members now. Thirty of the group marched with Seahorse and twenty will be marching in the Waveland parade on March 14th. Butler says that having forty-plus members assures a good group will commit to any parade they’re asked to join.
Commitment and enthusiasm are key requirements for membership at this point. The group plans to learn a different dance for each performance opportunity. Founding member and serious dance diva Chloé Harville works with Butler to choreograph the numbers, and rehearsals are held twice a week for six weeks before a parade.
Costumer Laura Kidd (who creates costume headdresses professionally) also takes her job seriously. The red and gold costumes for the premier performance lit up the evening parade, but the group’s opting for a costume change for the upcoming Waveland event, when they’ll wear gold dresses and green wigs in honor of the club’s first queen, fabled dancer Kitty West.
West became nationally renowned for her “Evangeline, the Oyster Girl” dance she choreographed and performed for decades, beginning in the late 1940s in New Orleans. The show told the story of Evangeline, who slept in an oyster shell in the swamps of Louisiana and rose once every hundred years to seek her beloved. West’s performances drew Hollywood greats like Frank Sinatra and Richard Widmark to the French Quarter and became so legendary that the dance routine is a popular draw even today in both Texas and New Orleans venues, nearly seven decades after it originated.
Butler had read about Kitty West in a book two years before and had been excited to learn later that the retired dancer lived in the Bay area. She also found stunning vintage photographs of West and her oyster shell stage prop.
“I was looking for a theme for the club that would be locally relevant,” says Butler. “West is iconic in the entertainment field and oysters are such a part of the culture here, so it all seemed a perfect fit.”
During the Seahorse Parade, Kitty West, now in her eighties, elegantly reigned over the club from a “throne” set up along the parade route. The club paid homage to their first queen by presenting her with a bouquet of roses and performing their routine.
West, who has been featured twice in Life magazine, says “I want to be able to try to help these young girls coming up who want to get out there and dance. I want them to be artistic and to have class.”