COVID-19 claimed another cultural figure this past week when Ronald Lewis of New Orleans died. Lewis was respected locally in the city as a member of the legendary Mardi Gras Indians and for his efforts to preserve and pass on the traditions and history of its culture. The Mardi Gras Indians are by far one of the most colorful ‘krewes’ of Mardi Gras, not only in its costumes but in its heritage.
Their traditions date back to the 1800s when Native American tribes living in the area helped to shield and protect runaway slaves. The Mardi Gras Indians honor the friendship and bonds that were formed during that time in modern day Mardi Gras parades. Today, there are more than 40 Mardi Gras Indian tribes that includes the Wild Magnolias, the Yellow Pocahontas and the Choctaw Hunters of which Lewis was once Council Chief.
I’ve never had the chance to see the Indians parade, as their parades usually occur after my annual visit to New Orleans during the Carnival season. But a couple years ago, I was lucky enough to catch members of one of the tribes perform one afternoon at the little outdoor stage in a section of he French Quarter down by the Mississippi River in what is known as Dutch Alley. The area is filled with tourists who wander in the Artist Co-op, stroll through the Mask Market (see blog post Reveling and Revealing at the Mardi Gras Mask Market, Feb. 2016. ) held here the weekend before the big Mardi Gras parades or visit the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park’s Visitor Center where you hear a jazz session, read about the history of the genre and pick up a recording or two of some of the local musicians. The Visitor Center is a stop that I recommend everyone make when they are in the city.
The tribal members performing the day I saw them wore their beautiful feathered and beaded costumes. I had seen many lustrous prints made by photographer Christopher Porche West of Indian members in their costumes displayed on the walls of the Snug Harbor jazz club. But never had I seen one in person until this one day.
Each tribal member creates and sews their own costume or ‘suit’ as they are known. The beading is intricate and detailed and takes hundreds of painstaking hours to finish. The colors are vibrant and shine in the New Orleans sunlight. The feathers are carefully placed one by one and when worn sweep with the wearer’s motions. On the costumes are ‘design patches’ that are first sketched on a canvas before decorated with beads and sequins. Each patch tells a story and matches the overall design and color of the costume. These costumes truly are artistic creations and can cost thousands of dollars in materials. Sadly, the suits are worn for only one season, then are broken down and reassembled into a new costume for the next year.
Lewis recognized the importance and value of this tradition and the mastery of the skills needed to create each of these suits. He created in his backyard The House of Dance and Feathers to preserve and educate others about the culture surrounding these unique organizations. His collection of masks, suits, figures, and other related artifacts have been on display there since 2003. It has been open to the public by appointment but, as the website notes: “We’re pretty flexible and we’d love to see you down in the Lower Ninth Ward. Just give us a call and we’ll make an arrangement for you to come and visit.”
Whether or not Lewis’ family will continue to maintain The House of Dance and Feathers is not certain. If they do, I plan to pay a visit next time I’m in town. I only wish that I had known about it while Lewis was still living and would be there to share the stories he told. One thing that is certain is Lewis’ contribution and efforts to bring attention to the extraordinary culture of the Mardi Gras Indians will not be forgotten just as the African American descendants of those runaway slaves have not forgotten the role Native Americans played in sheltering their ancestors two hundred years ago.
Next time you see a Budweiser beer commercial featuring their iconic Clydesdale horses, look closely at the driver. It might just be Rudy Helmuth. This 25-year-old from Iowa, grew up on an Amish organic farm caring for horses. “I started riding and driving horses at a very young age, practically since I could walk,” Rudy says. “Our family also trained horses so we had horses from various sizes and breeds. All from the smallest miniatures to largest draft horses. I always had a deep passion for the draft horse.” Eventually, that love and experience landed him a job as one of the drivers and handlers of one of the most famous horses in the country– Anheuser-Busch’s Clydesdales.
Now, four years later, Rudy travels all over the country 300 plus days a year with these incredible horses. For Rudy, it’s a job beyond even his wildest imagination. “I think back to the days on that Amish farm in Iowa where I was plowing fields barefoot with six horses and never in a million years did I imagine I’d get the opportunities in life that I have been granted thus far,” he says.
Rudy wandered into one of my favorite bar/restaurants in New Orleans where I was enjoying a drink and conversation with a friend. He slipped onto the stool next to us at the end of the bar and we struck up a conversation. He was in town with the Clydesdale team for appearances in some of the Carnival parades that occur in the two weeks prior to Mardi Gras. In fact, he was riding the next evening in the Krewe of Nyx parade, he told us, a parade to which I was planning to go.
The beautiful Budweiser horses are celebrities in their own right drawing crowds wherever they appear. The evening before I met Rudy, they had hosted an open house for the public at the New Orleans Police Department stables in City Park where the Clydesdales were staying during their visit to NOLA. “Ah rats,” I told Rudy, “I would have loved to have gone if I had known.”
Seeing my disappointment, Rudy suggested: “Why don’t you come to the stables on Thursday or Friday morning? I’ll be there after seven,”
“I’ll be there!” I said thrilled at the invitation. I had intended to visit one of the plantations that I had not yet seen in the years that we have been going to NOLA, but the plantation would always be there. The Clydesdales wouldn’t. When Thursday came, my husband and I hopped in the car and headed up to City Park’s stable area. It wasn’t difficult to find them, the three red semi-trailers with the giant words “Budweiser” on the side were parked alongside the large barn. Towards the rear of the barn, five Clydesdales were plodding around in the horse walker, tethered one in front of the other. The white feathered ankles flowed as their big hooves thudded on the soft ground. To see these incredible animals close up is to appreciate the true size of these gentle giants. Their enormous stocky muscular bodies made them an ideal draft horse to pull wagons, carriages and carts in their native Scotland. Today, in the U.S., the Clydesdale is nearly synonymous with the Budweiser Beer Company .
Rudy was out running errands when we arrived but one of the handlers who had come out to lead the horses, one by one, into the barn for their bath gave me permission to come inside and watch. I excitedly stood where I could photograph them as they sprayed the big beasts down with water, then soaped them with suds while the horse stood quietly hitched to the stall. The Budweiser Clydesdales must be at least 18 hands high (72 inches) at the shoulder when grown. That makes a step stool a necessity when washing them, even for someone like handler Butch Clark who’s not a small guy. Butch has been a handler with the Budweiser team for 12 years and prior to that showed Belgian horses for his Midwestern family. On this day, he had the job of washing the horses before they were put into their individual stalls.
Budweiser has three teams of Clydesdales, of ten horses each. Rudy’s team is based in St.Louis; another is in Ft. Collins, Colorado. and a third is in Merrimack, New Hampshire. They travel all over the country with the horses riding in two of the semi-trailers and the familiar red wagon and the horses’ tack in the other. In addition to the main stable in St. Louis and the other two hitching locations, Budweiser also has a breeding farm outside Boonville, Missouri. Every year, 25-30 foals are born but not all are destined to join the prestigious Clydesdale teams. As Clark told me, they must be 18 hands, chestnut bay in color with a white blaze on their face, four white legs and a black mane and tail. They are also all geldings and four-years-old when they join the hitch team. The smallest of the ten horses that travel with the team are hitched in front.
The two youngest horses that travelled with Rudy to New Orleans were named Cash and Rocco. The oldest of the team, Levi, was 15. Rudy is perched high above them on the red wagon’s seat and must hold 40 lbs. of reins in his hands. Together, with the tension on the reins, the weight comes to 75 lbs. Drivers like Rudy, who undergo rigorous training before they qualify as drivers, must be strong and an expert in controlling the horses. To look at him, you wouldn’t think Rudy that strong. But when you see him hitching up the team before a parade, as I did, lifting the heavy harnesses over each one’s head and then holding the reins in the parade, it’s clear that he not only knows exactly what he’s doing but that he’s a lot stronger than he initially appears.
Each harness and collar weigh about 130 pounds. The shiny brass on them must be polished before every appearance, a job that takes five hours to complete. Between appearances, the harnesses and collars are carefully re-hung in the mobile tack room.
Rudy arrived at the barn just as we were about to leave. He invited us to come watch as he hitched up the team the next evening before the Krewe d’Etat parade. I gladly took the opportunity to photograph them during the process. We arrived at the designated spot at 5:30, as he said to do. The horses were still in their spacious trailers, peering out the open side doors, anxiously awaiting their turn to be hitched up. It was clear that they knew they were about to go to work.
As parade time neared, each horse was led down the ramp to their stall and held while Rudy placed the collars and harnesses over the ears. In addition to the harnesses, every horse wears blinders and plugs in their ears to help keep their attention focused on the road and not the parade onlookers. Their tails are braided as are their manes with red roses.
One by one the Clydesdales were backed into their spots and hitched to the singletrees of the wagon. Quietly, the horses waited, held in place by the other handlers, until Rudy emerged from the trailer, dressed in his red Budweiser uniform and climbed up to his seat. Just before the team was to pull out, the Dalmatian, joined the two drivers in his perch between them. Behind them, strapped to the wagon’s benches were members of the local Krewe d’Etat or Budweiser whose job it was to toss beads to the crowd along the parade route.
Dusk was setting when they finally pulled out and assumed their position near the front of the parade, followed by the indispensable cart with barrel and shovels to pick up after the horses as they went along. As they lined up on Magazine Street, where the parade started, parade watchers gathered near to get a closer look at the famous Clydesdales. Kids and parents alike cheered as Rudy and his co-driver took off the wagon’s brake and slapped the reins to move the horses forward. It would be like that the rest of the parade route. Everyone, like myself, was thrilled just to see the celebrity Clydesdales. And if the Clydesdales come to location near you, be sure to wave to Rudy!
When it comes to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, you think of parades, Bourbon Street, beads and music. But you should also think masks because wearing masks on Mardi Gras and during the two weeks of Carnival that led up to the big day, is part of the tradition. And part of the fun.
For the past 33 years prior to Mardi Gras, mask makers from around the country have been bringing their handcrafted masks to the French Market Mask Market. It’s one of the highlights of the celebration and if you’re lucky enough to be in New Orleans of that weekend, as I was this year, it’s something you don’t want to miss. Tucked in Dutch Alley, the market opens on Friday before Mardi Gras and continues through Monday. During that time, Mardi Gras revelers and tourists can come to pick out a mask to wear or take home from a variety of mask makers who offer a their creations in a variety of styles. Prices range anywhere from $15, for assemble-it-yourself kits, up to $200 or more for some of the more elaborate masks.
It’s a big weekend for the mask makers too, some of whom, like Richard Thompson of Finger Lakes, N.Y. have been coming to this annual event 20 years or more. This year’s mask market drew 15 different mask makers and hundreds of shoppers, some of whom, like Carrie of The Party Never Ends, from Washington D.C. came in costume. Carrie stopped at the booth of mask maker Wendy Drolma from Woodstock, N.Y. to pick out a mask. “I have masks for all sorts of different occasions,” Carrie explained. After trying on several of Drolma’s leather masks, she settled on one with reddish tones.
Drolma is a self-taught mask maker of 25 years who began her craft at age 25. At the time, she had a corporate job but was looking for something else to do. “I like to say that mask making found me,” she explains. And though others may refer to her as a mask maker, she likes to think of herself as an ‘alchemist’, whose masks transforms those who place one of her creations on their face. “I want my masks to say something about me,” she says.
Vincent Ur is also a self-taught. His fascination with mask making in his 20s after he and his wife, Valerie, fist visited New Orleans. Valerie loved the masks she saw there and the two of them wandered in and out of the many shops that sell masks in the French Quarter. When Vincent when home, he began experimenting and launched a new career for himself, one that has been very rewarding. In addition to selling masks on his website, Masks on Parade, Vincent takes special orders and recently completed masks for the Houston Opera’s production of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ But he still comes to the Mardi Gras Mask Market as he done for the past 23 years.
Diane Trapp’s masks have also appeared in many stage productions, as well as episodes of the CW television series, ‘Vampire Diaries’ and in pre-show events for Lady Gaga concerts. Trapp and her sister-in-law, Connie, live in Hillsboro, Ore. where the two have been happily creating masks for the Mask Market for the past 23 years. They even were there the year after Katrina hit, as was I. That year, I purchased one of Diane’s spectacular masks, which I still own and wear for special events. It never fails to bring in ‘awes’ from friends along with questions as to where I bought it. The two women each have their own style.
Connie recently began adding to her masks locks of colorful yarn that are tediously stitched into a skull-cap of sorts that slips over the wearers head. Diana brought with her this year to the mask market some fanciful animal masks adorned with papier-mache horns made from recycled grocery bags. “I’m from Oregon, after all,” she says laughing. In addition to making masks, Diane also teaches a number of workshops to pass on her craft to novice mask makers.
Liz Blaz, of New Orleans, also teaches workshops in mask making and recently was in Haiti doing exactly that. She’s been invited by the Minister of Culture for the Cayman Islands to come that Carribean country to conduct workshops there as well. Blaz’ masks are constructed of leather. Her interest in the craft took her many years ago to Abano Terme, near Padua, Italy, to study the techniques of Commedia dell’Arte mask making. Her masks are now worn in theatrical productions throughout Europe and North America.
While visiting with her at the Mask Market, she explained how she first sculpts her masks using molds, then once she is satisfied with shape and it has dried, she begins to apply layers of paint until it feels it is finished. Some, such as the “mother of pearl” finish, takes many layers of paint blended together to give it the look she’s after. According to her website, Blaz is working to create a Guild of Maskmakers, to promote and help perpetuate the art.
Like Blaz, Scott Schoonover, also traveled abroad to study his craft. Schoonover attended the University of Iowa where he studied set design and became interested in costume making. But it was mask making that intrigued him.
He was drawn to Bali, where he learned from native maskmakers. As Schoonover tells it, part of requirement was to also learn the dances for which each mask was intended. Schoonover says that experience led him to his own philosophy towards his craft which is that “we are a community of artists who tell stories essential to our identity based on a legacy handed down from our ancestors.” He’s now based in St. Louis, where he’s from originally, and sells his work to a number of theatre companies as well as through his website.
Tony Fuemmeler of Portland, Ore., also became interested in mask making while an undergraduate in theatre at the University of Kansas. There he studied the Lecoq tradition with Ron and Ludvika Popenhagen. His very stylized masks reflect Lecoq’s development of the neutral mask as a training tool for actors, “designed to facilitate a state of openness in the student-performers, moving gradually on to character and expressive masks, and finally to ‘the smallest mask in the world’ the clown’s red-nose.”*
Lecoq’s use of mask changed the performers’ movement on stage. giving them a body-based approach to mask work, rather than a visually led one. Fuemmeler, who is also a puppeteer and director now teaches workshops for actors that utilize this approach to character development. You can read more about his work on his website.
Throughout the weekend, collectors, celebrants and the curious come to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Mask Market at the French Market to see these wonderful creations. They are special and unique souvenirs for anyone who ends up purchasing one of them, just as I did at my first mask market. Some of those come seeking new masks for their Mardi Gras costumes, while others, like myself, see their new acquisition as a work of art to be displayed and worn for special occasions. But whether you pick out a mask for purchase, take time to visit this market if you are in New Orleans during Mardi Gras weekend. It’s an opportunity to see firsthand the work of some premier maskmakers who are continuing a tradition that dates back centuries.
Mardi Gras is this upcoming Tuesday. In New Orleans, where I just spent a week, the Carnival season leads up to Mardi Gras and actually begins on January 6, or ‘King’s Day’, the Day of the Epiphany. While Mardi Gras in this country is traditionally celebrated in many places in the South, most people associate it with the historic city of New Orleans. There the parades start two weekends before Mardi Gras and continue until the day of.
The first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans took place in 1856 when a group of business organized themselves into a ‘krewe’ or club and called it the Mystick Krewe of Comus. When you visit the city, stop by the restaurant, Antoine’s in the French Quarter. Antoine’s opened in 1840 and is said to be the city’s oldest fine eating establishment. Known for its French-Creole cuisine, the restaurant has also been the scene of many ‘krewe’ luncheons and brunches that take place prior to the annual parades.
Three of the restaurant’s private dining rooms bear the names of local krewes. You are welcome to view them, if they are not in use, and view the photos,king and queen gowns, septers, elaborate invitations, medallions and other parade memorabilia on permanent display there. Just ask one of the staff for directions as the restaurant is vast and you can easily lose your way in its backroom chambers.
The parades in New Orleans are held throughout the city. Each one is different in character and theme, although this year, Star Wars seemed to be a popular choice. Contrary to recent popular media publicity, Mardi Gras is very much a family celebration, as are most of the parades. One year when visiting New Orleans, I was lucky enough to catch a parade of the French Quarter’s elementary school (Kipp McDonogh) students. Each class was costumed as a different nursery rhyme. Many of the youngsters were barely taller than the tangled beads that they tried to throw out to the onlookers. It was by far one of the cutest Mardi Gras parades and charmed everyone standing along Royal Street.
Krewe du Vieux kicks off the New Orleans parade line-up, however, with its satirical and often bawdy procession in the French Quarter two Saturdays before Mardi Gras. This is one that you might not want to take your kids to see although there were plenty of them in the crowd this year. The krewe pokes fun at everyone and anything in the way of its usually highly charged political theme. This year’s theme, for example, was ‘Begs for Change’ and targeted the Supreme Court, City Hall, the local school system, Kickstarter, the medical system as well as others. Because it is the first parade and occurs on Saturday in the French Quarter the sidewalks along the parade route are packed and loud.
Another popular early parade near the Quarter is that by the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, a fairly recent addition to the krewes. As one New Orleanean friend described it, “It’s a parade for geeks.” Members are Star Wars freaks, Trekkies, Mega-Geeks, Gamers to mention a few. This year, they pedaled, pushed and walked their small floats through the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods to the delight of everyone there. There were nearly as many Intergalatic costumes on the street as there was in the parade and everyone, everyone was having fun whether blowing bubbles or having laser sword fights or just watching the merriment.
Two of the larger parades that same weekend were the Krewe of Oshun and Krewe of Cleopatra parades. They were entirely different and had big rolling floats from which the masked riders were tossing all sorts of ‘throws’ into the crowd below. We watched from the Garden District neighborhood, not far from where the parades started. Families were there with their kids, sitting together in lawn chairs or standing huddled at the curb so as to better catch the stuffed animals, miniature footballs, key chains, cups, horned headbands, tiny balls as well as the traditional beads. I managed to snag a sipper cup and a lighted key chain with Cleopatra’s krewe insignia on it in addition to some ‘krewe beads’. The beads with the Krewe’s insignia are prized among parade goers.
Of all the parades I saw this year, my favorite was that of Krewe de Barkus. Judging from those who lined the streets to watch the afternoon parade, I wasn’t alone. This is one Mardi Gras parade that has really gone to the dogs. That’s because it’s all about the dogs. Owners and their beloved costumed canines strutted down the street together, along with an occasional second line band, to the cheers of those watching. Dogs of every sort, from Great Danes to Chihuahua, were dressed as ‘Star Wars’ characters in keeping with this year’s parade theme of ‘Bark Wars.’
The dogs paraded on the end of a leash or rode in homemade floats and seemed not to mind that they’re wearing headpieces, hats, robes, frilly collars or even peeking out of boxes. Almost as many dogs were on the sidelines as in the parade where they collected doggie treats of every sort from the marchers. To Go, the handsome brown boxer sitting next to me scored doggie chews, a pull toy, a frisbee and I don’t know what else while I picked up more beads and some insulated cup holders imprinted with the name and likeness of the Krewe’s King, Andouille Lamarie, a wire-haired Dachshund. It was all very silly and great fun.
The parades continue throughout the city, with as many as 13 on some days, culminating with those on Mardi Gras itself. And then it all ends–until the next year. As is said in New Orleans, “Happy Mardi Gras!”
Learn more about the Krewes of New Orleans on the History Blog‘s guest post by Rosary O’Neill from March 27, 2014.
See more of my photos from the Krewe of Barkus Mardi Gras parade. Go to my Portfolio page!
Mardi Gras is this Tuesday. No doubt there will be usual media coverage of the annual festivities in the city of New Orleans. You know the ones I mean–throngs of celebrants jamming the famous Bourbon Street, revelers showered by beads thrown from balconies and floats, inebriated masked partiers caught doing things that would otherwise embarrass them or their mothers. These are the popular media’s imagery of the holiday. But there is another side to Mardi Gras that few outsiders may know about or experience that includes activities and parties leading up to Mardi Gras during the two weeks prior, known as Carnival.
Homes and businesses throughout the city are festooned with Mardi Gras decorations much like homes are decked during the Christmas holidays in other parts of the United States. Banners are draped, flags are posted, wreaths are hung all in colors of purple, green and gold, the official Mardi Gras colors as established in 1892. The purple represents justice, green stands for faith and gold for power. Garlands of beads, both large and small, are looped above thresholds, flung over fence posts, hung from tree branches or wrapped along balcony railings. Giant-sized masks, Fleur de Lis and Krewe coats of arms are fixed on doors and gates. Shop windows everywhere, of course, sport Mardi Gras-themed displays. Some residents enjoy putting up even more elaborate displays of lights or even mannequins dressed in costume. It’s quite a show.
While visitors can pick up beads in any French Quarter shop catering to tourists or at the outdoor French Market down on Decatur Street, New Orleanians have other sources. There’s a fabulous corner shop on Magazine Street in what is known as the Irish Channel–the Brad & Dellwen Flag Party. The little, narrow store is packed with flags of every kind but especially those bearing Mardi Gras colors, the Fleur de Lis and other New Orleans specific themes.
For beads, garlands, wreaths,tabletop decorations and about everything else, they head off to Accent Annex in the Metairie area of the city, just off the freeway. A visit to this place is in itself an event. This huge store has aisles of Mardi Gras supplies, many at a fraction of the cost that you’d pay otherwise at the tourist shops in the Quarter. The store has every sort of decoration imaginable and anything that you might need to make your Mardi Gras party a hit. I make it a point to stop at the store to load up on Mardi Gras party supplies whenever I’m in New Orleans.
Crafty New Orleanians make their own Mardi Gras decorations or wreaths. I scored a wonderful wreath one year crafted by a woman who lived in the area across Lake Pontchartrain, known as North Shore, and who had placed her homemade goodies for sale at a booth one year in the French Market. I carefully carried it home in a large plastic bag when I flew back. Now I hang it on my own door during Mardi Gras season just to remind of the decorated homes there.
As they say in New Orleans, ‘Happy Mardi Gras, y’all!”