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.
The music world lost one of the jazz greats this past week when pianist Ellis Marsalis died in New Orleans at 85 as the result of complications from COVID-19. Marsalis was no less than a giant in the jazz world, having taught and mentored thousands of young musicians privately and through the University of New Orleans’ jazz program, a program he founded. He fathered four musician sons, Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason, who are themselves outstanding and well-known jazz players.
Every Friday night for years, Marsalis sat down at the baby grand on stage at Snug Harbor, the legendary jazz club on Frenchman Street in New Orleans to play for the audiences who gathered at 8 and 10 p.m. to hear him. I was lucky enough to be among them a couple of times. Marsalis was not showy at the keyboard. The times I heard him play his styling was more like that of Duke Ellington, classy, elegant and sophisticated. “Mr. Marsalis’s interpretations were impressive in their economy and steadiness,” New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote. “Sticking mainly to the middle register of the keyboard, the pianist offered richly harmonized arrangements in which fancy keyboard work was kept to a minimum and studious melodic invention, rather than pronounced bass patterns, determined the structures and tempos.”
I count the times I heard him play at Snug among the best concerts that I’ve ever attended. Upon occasion, his celebrated sons would join him for a song or two. Both Branford and Delfeayo sat in with him once when I was in the audience. I caught Jason’s show on another evening at Snug. And once, Wynton and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra performed at the Mount Baker Theatre here in Bellingham, WA. So I managed to hear all of them, who were named in 2011 named Marsalis and his musician sons Jazz Masters by the National Endowment for the Arts. It is regarded as American jazz music’s highest honor and until then had only been awarded on an individual basis.
Marsalis was dedicated to educating young musicians, a legacy that he passed on to his sons. I witnessed this first hand the year that Wynton came to Bellingham. After the concert, Wynton and a few musicians from his band, walked down the street to jam in the bar of a local Mexican restaurant where another musician, Chuck Israels, who they knew was playing. Naturally, a crowd quickly filled the place. I phoned my high-school age son, Marshall, who, inspired by the concert, had gone home to with his musician friends to jam. “You need to come down here,” I told him that Wynton and group were playing in the restaurant bar.
e boys hustled back downtown but, because they were not of legal age, they had to stand on the sidewalk outside to listen. Someone from the crowd inside, who knew about my son’s band, told Wynton that they were outside. Upon hearing this, Wynton stepped away from the little stage, went outdoors to talk to the boys and invited them to come inside where they were told to stand and listen.
Years later, Marshall, a drummer, was in New Orleans with my husband and I. Together, we made our annual pilgrimage to Snug Harbor, to catch Charmaine Neville who performs her high energy show on Mondays and also Stanton Moore (probably the best drummer in the world, according to my son) who has the Tuesday night spot when he’s in town. Charmaine is considered a ‘grand dame’ of New Orleans jazz world. Like Marsalis, she fosters emerging jazz musicians and invites them to join her onstage for a song if she knows they are in the audience.
I met Charmaine personally the first night Snug re-opened after Hurricane Katrina. There were only about a dozen of us in the audience. I’ve made sure to say ‘Hello’ to her before or after a show ever since. On this particular evening, I mentioned to her that my son, a drummer, had been with us.
“Where is he?” she demanded. I motioned to the street outside saying that he had already gone out the door. Charmaine marched out to where my three sons were standing with my husband and asked, “Which one is the drummer?” I pointed to Marshall.
“Come on back in,” she ordered. “I want you to play with me in the next set. Come on.” My son, who is shy for a drummer, followed her inside because it was clear that Charmaine was not going to take “No” for an answer.
Midway through her second set, she asked Marshall to come and sit in. Her drummer passed over the sticks to my son and, as he settled in, she asked him to tell the audience where he was from, what the name of the band was and what they played. Then they started up. Marshall was clearly nervous at first but began to get into the music as they jammed. Afterwards, Charmaine gave him a hug and told him he could play with her anytime he was in town.
It’s that kind of nuturing spirit that both Marsalis and Charmaine were and are known for: the tradition of handing down from one generation to another the gift of music. With Marsalis’ passing this last week, that responsibility now falls to all of those who he trained and shared his remarkable talent and love for the music.
Wyton reported in a Facebook post, that his father said to his son Wyton just a few days before he died when his son cautioned him about COVID-19: “Man, I don’t determine the time. A lot of people are losing loved ones. Yours will be no more painful or significant than anybody else’s.” While his words are true enough, it can be said that his passing leaves a very empty spot at the piano at Snug Harbor.
Ella Brennan was a giant among restaurateurs in New Orleans as was her reputation for establishing and running one of this country’s most renowned culinary institutions, Commander’s Palace. She died this past week at age 92 leaving her daughter, Ti, and niece, Lally, to carry on the reputation of operating the prestigious restaurant located on the corner of Washington and Coliseum in the Garden District of New Orleans.
Indeed, Commander’s has become part of my own tradition since my husband and I started going to New Orleans 17 years ago. We originally went to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. We’ve returned year after year for a winter-break. Usually, we only stay a week, but it’s been enough time for us to become very familiar with the city and its outlying area, to make some very good friends and to sample lots of good food all over the city in its too many to mention restaurants.
Every year, however, Commander’s is at the top of our list as the way we start our visit. It has become our personal tradition to make the Garden District restaurant our first stop for Sunday jazz brunch. Without brunch at Commander’s I honestly don’t know how to begin our trip. There have been a couple of years when I failed to phone early enough (a month in advance is advised) to book our table and no reservation was available. Fortunately, Jimmy, the reservation agent who I’ve come to know over the years, told me to call back a few days before our given Sunday because often there will be an opening. When I did, as I had to do this year, we’ve managed to get in. I have been so thankful for this accommodation on these times that I now take a little box of chocolates for Jimmy in gratitude.
What makes Commander’s so special is not only the delicious Creole-style food served on its menu (recently updated by current executive chef Tory McPhail who hails from nearby Ferndale, WA.), but its impeccable service, lovely surroundings, fun, relaxing atmosphere, the jazz music played while you eat and Southern hospitality shown by its owners, Ella, her sister Dottie, and the aforementioned Ti and Lally. Whenever Ti and Lally are in-house, they tend to alternate shifts, they make it a point to walk through their dining rooms to greet and check on their customers, whether or not they know them.
I’ve had wonderful conversations with them both over the years, had the chance to introduce them to friends who’ve joined us for the meal and to tell them time and again how much I love their restaurant. I have celebrated anniversaries, birthdays and Carnival with friends and family there, just as many New Orleanians do. I’ve seen parties of grandmothers, mothers and daughters who’ve come in after church, all wearing a single strand of pearls, to celebrate a special occasion. I’ve enjoyed overhearing excited chats by tables of tourists experiencing Commanders for the first time. And I’ve had the immense pleasure of taking my own friends and family their for their first meal.
Ella Brennan’s restaurant is more than just a place to eat fine food, it’s a place where these sort of traditions are established and carried on by generations of patrons, for whom, like myself, life or a visit in New Orleans is unheard of without Commander’s.
After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, leaving considerable damage to Commander’s as well as the rest of the Garden District, largely due to the high force winds, people wondered if Commander’s would re-open. For the Brennan ladies in charge, there apparently was no question. They took the disaster as an opportunity to rebuild and renovate. It took them more than a year.
I walked by the winter after the storm to find it all boarded up. But then I returned the following year when it was back in business, listened to Lally as she described to me the full extent of the restoration and relished in the fact that it, like New Orleans, was resilient and determined to get back on its feet, despite a lack of support from some in government. That was the year that I talked with the group of women sitting at the table next to me, heard their ‘storm stories’ and learned that their Episcopal church had been the recipient of recovery funds from the Episcopalian diocese in Washington state. Their gratitude was touching.
Typically, I ask for a table in the dining area overlooking Commander’s tree-covered courtyard because I feel more like a ‘local’ there and enjoy sitting at eye-level with the big, gnarly branches of the Southern oak that stretches over it. The chairs are cushioned and tables are arranged with plenty of room between for the jazz trios that play during brunch (one usually cruises downstairs while a second plays upstairs) to maneuver their instruments, including a stand-up bass, between to play requests. Every now and then, diners are coaxed into a joining a ‘second line’to wave their napkins as they wind through the dining room.
The menu is extensive and all of it tasty. I tend to order the breakfast entrees, rather than the luncheon selections, whenever we go but had the pecan-crusted gulf fish this year instead of my favorite Cochon de Lait Eggs Benedict. Of course you must order a ‘starter’ to begin–the turtle soup is always popular as is the gumbo but I usually opt for a seasonal salad, quite often topped with fresh, local strawberries. I always save room for dessert because Commander’s creole bread pudding soufflé with whiskey cream sauce is not to be missed! It’s a once a year splurge that I’m not willing to pass up. And to drink, a Bloody Mary or Mimosa followed by chicory coffee for those, unlike me, who consume coffee.
While the food is wonderful, it’s the little touches that make the meal even more memorable–fresh, crusty French bread laid on the table in a wrapped white linen napkin nearly as soon as you sit down; bus boys and girls who refill your water the instant the level drops much below two-thirds of a glass; the simultaneous serving of each course by the black and white attired wait staff; the cheery, welcome by the maitre d’ the minute you step in the door and of course the personal table visits by the owners.
After eating, I enjoy strolling through the rest of the restaurant, including a stop in the spacious and sparkling clean kitchen (the swinging doors leading into it are labeled “Yes” and “No”) where you can watch the amazing cook staff in action. There is even a table in the kitchen where diners can sit and watch the show if you reserve it.
If it’s Carnival season, as it was this year when I was in town, you’re invited to go watch the parades moving along St. Charles Street just a few blocks away and welcome to return to Commander’s for the toilet should the need arise. Or, if not, we wander through the historic neighborhood, admiring the elegant, old homes there, which include Miss Brennan’s herself located right next door to the restaurant. If someone is with us who has never visited the city before, we walk through the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, across the street, the oldest city-operated cemetery where the tombs are above-ground and the statuary and inscriptions represent New Orleans’ rich history.
For me, Commander’s is the consummate culinary experience with outstanding food, unsurpassed service and Southern hospitality at its finest. These are the qualities that Ella Brennan insisted be carried out in her beloved restaurant. They are standards to which other eating establishments throughout the U.S. have aspired to achieve as a result. Whether or not you’ve ever been to Commander’s it’s possible that you’ve eaten somewhere that has been influenced by her example.
If you’ve not yet been to the New Orleans restaurant, I hope you’ll consider making it part of your visit when you go. But be forewarned, it still maintains a dress code that is enforced although it’s been relaxed some in recent years. I guarantee it will be a culinary experience you’ll not forget and it might become, as it has for us, a new tradition.
We’re in the final days of Black History Month here in the U.S. I don’t want it to end without writing about a new destination I visited earlier this month while in New Orleans.
The last day of my annual retreat to New Orleans was spent visiting one of the many plantations open to tourists and school groups on what is known as River Road, the two-lane highway that winds north along the Mississippi on the opposite bank from the Crescent City. As the National Park Service says: “Although other states have their own River Roads, perhaps none is more evocative or famous than Louisiana’s. Here, the very name inspires a vision of white pillared houses standing amid lush gardens and trees dripping with Spanish moss.”
While that is true, River Road also represents a much darker, less charming story of our country’s history that is seldom told during the tours of these showy homes and that is the story of those who actually built these splendid structures, who worked the fields that stretched behind and who lived an existence of enslavement fearing that any day they could be sold off to another “master” and forced to leave their family. Except at one of these historic plantations, the story of slavery is its entire focus.
Opened in 2014, the Whitney Plantation is one of the newer properties for public and educational tours. During the many years that I have been going to New Orleans for a winter break, I have visited nearly all, if not all, the other plantation properties. They have been interesting, to be sure, and wonderful places to photograph. Last year, I went out the Destrehan Plantation, located just 22 miles west of downtown New Orleans. I took my son, who had never visited a plantation, there this year.
Destrehan makes a point of talking and including some individual stories of the enslaved in its tours, unlike other plantations. To be honest, I had never heard about the Slave Revolt of 1811 until I visited Destrehan. It certainly wasn’t in any of the history books I had read in school. I wrote a piece for this blog about Destrehan last year. The plantation is one I’d highly recommend to you.
The Whitney, however, is solely dedicated to preserving the memory and history of the enslaved. The stories you’ll hear on your tour are not storybook sweet nor romanticized. Life for those who were chained and brought to this country like cattle, or less, in the filthy holds of ships, was never romantic. The Whitney seeks to basically tell it like it truly was, as accurately as possible, without sparing words for the way these hard-working, brutalized and largely disrespected people were treated by those who considered them as nothing but property found on their list of valuable belongings.
As Cheryl, my guide for the tour who lives and grew up in the area, said: “For me, this is not history, it’s personal.” She quite likely had ancestors who were slaves, if not on the Whitney, somewhere else. Her words and descriptions of what slave life was like were full of emotional fact. And as she herself said: “Sometimes hard to hear or read.” Like the fact that no slave escaped the punishment of the slave driver’s rawhide whip. Even pregnant slaves who “misbehaved” were forced to lie face down, with he ground below dug out to accommodate their swollen belly, to receive their lashings.
The visit starts in the Whitney’s small museum while waiting for your tour time which start hourly from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. There you’ll read a little history about their journey from the Ivory to Gulf Coast, view the timeline of slavery throughout history worldwide and gain a little perspective as to how slavery in the U.S. contributed to this country’s disgraceful history.
Outside, on the plantation grounds, you’re first stop is at the picturesque Antioch Baptist Church, for many years the only African-American church in the area. The church was donated and moved to The Whitney from another location on the east bank.
Inside you’ll find beautiful, life-size clay sculptures of the children of the Whitney, created by artist Woodrow Nash. Their individual stories and pictures are found on the laminated lanyards given to you when you begin the tour for you take home as a memento of the visit here.
There’s also a stop at The Wall of Honor and Field of Angels where those lived and died in slavery are remembered. The original 22 cabins once that once housed the 61 slaves of the Haydel plantation, as it was then known, were torn down in the late 1970s. The ones that stand on the property today were moved there from other plantations.
The “Big House” is one of the earliest and finest examples Creole style plantation homes in Louisiana and is one of the best preserved. Somewhat more modest than others found on River Road, it is, however, architecturally and historically significant. It provides visitors with a glimpse of how the plantation owner’s family enjoyed the comforts of life while those they depended upon to provide it lived in simple, crowded wooden quarters within view of the back gallery.
The centerpiece on the property is the rusty-brown box-car shaped slave jail placed directly in line with the Big House. More like a cage, the ‘jail’ originally stood elsewhere and held slaves waiting to go on the auction block. Step inside and you feel a chill of those who once were shackled and confined here.
Walking around the Whitney was one of the most moving and educational experiences I’ve had in my years of going to the area. I highly recommend it for anyone who’s headed there. And if you’re not, take a few minutes to read more about The Whitney and its efforts to provide an honest historical perspective of slavery in the U.S. South. It’s sure to be a story that sticks with you.
Two years ago I wrote about the Evergreen Plantation which I had recently visited during a trip to New Orleans and which had been the location for several films, including the Academy Award winning “12 Years A Slave.” Now with last night’s Oscar ceremony and Black History month winding down, I thought I’d feature another Louisiana plantation that also has been the setting for motion pictures, including “12 Years A Slave.”
But what’s really important about this plantation, is not its film roles but the role it played in history and continues to play today in educating its visitors about the history of the South and, particularly, Black history.
The Destrehan Plantation sits a mere 30 minutes north of New Orleans yet it was one of the few plantations in the New Orleans’ area that I had not visited during the nearly 20 years that I have been going there. On this trip, however, I decided it would be a good place to take my cousin and his friend from Sweden who were visiting us in New Orleans. It would be a treat for me too.
Now that I’ve been, I can tell you that it’s one of the more worthwhile and informative plantations to visit. Architecturally, it doesn’t have the “Gone With the Wind” grandeur of Oak Alley, which many tourists associate with plantations, and its slave quarters aren’t as extensive as those found at Evergreen, but it is rich in ways that other area plantations aren’t. And yet, it barely survived having fallen into disrepair and the hands of vandals who took everything that could not be carried away.
The plantation was rescued from its demise in 1971 when a local group of preservation-minded citizens who had formed the River Road Society was granted a deed to the house and four acres of its property by the then owners, the American Oil Company. The group set out to restore the house, which has cost more than $2 million. Another $500,000 is being spent for the purchase and development of 14 more acres of plantation land, to include six bed and breakfast cottages expected to be ready in 2018.
Docents at Destrehan dress in period costume to lead visitors through the house sharing with them information about the plantation, the people who lived there, including those who were enslaved, and a history of the pre-Civil era. Our guide, Beverly, clearly enjoyed her role and answered many questions.
Construction on the French colonial style home was started in 1787 by Robin deLogny and completed in 1790. But the plantation takes its name from Jean Noel Destrehan, who married deLogny’s daughter, Celeste, and bought the property after her father’s death in 1792. Destrehan was also appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to the legislative council responsible for organizing and creating the laws for the new state of Louisiana. The appointment signed by Jefferson and Secretary of Sate James Madison is on display at the plantation although photographs of it are not permitted.
The plantation remained in the Destrehan family until 1910 when it was sold to the Destrehan Manufacturing Company and then to Amoco which operated an oil refinery and a company town on the property until 1958.
During the tour, visitors learn about the family who lived in the house. They are also told about those who actually built the house–the enslaved which numbered more than 200 before the Civil War. The names of some of those appear on the registry posted on one of two slave cabins that sit near the entrance. The names of other slaves are placed throughout the house where they would have worked. One of those was Marguerite, a cook and laundress, whose story is told by the historical interpreters.
In the education center, originally an overseer’s cabin, are exhibits about the Slave Revolt of 1811. The revolt, which nearly succeeded, was one of the largest slave revolts in U.S. history. Contrary to the letters from the planters, “which are the basis for most accounts of the revolt,” according to historian Daniel Rasmussen, “the slave army posed an existential threat to white control over the city of New Orleans.” Three trials of those accused as instigators were conducted at Destrehan. Many found guilty were executed, others were sent back to their plantations for a life of hard toil. The story is as dramatic as any movie script but until recently, little was heard about it in American history classes. To its credit, Destrehan has made every effort to bring this part of its history to the forefront.
Plantation life was often portrayed through that of the owners but little attention was focused on the ones they enslaved. Destrehan, it seems, is attempting to correct that.
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.
Last week I posted to my personal Facebook page a profile photo of myself taken during my recent visit to New Orleans. So many people have asked about it that I thought I’d tell you about the place where the photo was made and why I was there.
Most visitors to New Orleans spend their time in the city’s historic French Quarter. That district alone is a rich cache of places to see and experience. Some visitors include a day trip out to one of the many nearby plantations to see how that life was once lived along the mighty Mississippi. But few know about the National Park Service’s Visitor Center, located right in the heart of the French Quarter or the Chalmette Battlefield, a National Park just downriver from New Orleans which was the site of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. This year is the bicentennial of that historic battle in the War of 1812.
I first visited the battlefield years ago. At the time, it was large empty field except for a large, two-story now-empty plantation home, the Maltus-Beauregard House, which overlooks the battlefield, and a towering 100-foot high cut-stone obelisk monument honoring the fallen troops. But about ten years ago, the National Park Service built and opened a Visitor’s Center at the battlefield with a small, but well-done exhibit about the decisive battle that took place there. The exhibits include maps, informational displays and historic artifacts as well as a short film about the battle. It explains how the Andrew Jackson, with his rag-tag Army of volunteers defeated the British’ well-trained crack soldiers. Youngsters, who can earn a Junior Ranger badge there, will find the exhibit just as accessible and interesting as older visitors. In the past, I have taken friends there with me. This year, my son, Marshall accompanied me on a mid-day visit.
Today, the battlefield is still. But on January 8, 1815, it was the scene of a bloody battle that determined the fate of New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory. When Jackson learned that British troops were advancing on New Orleans, he quickly gathered a force of 4,000 troops, to defend the city. The forces who came together there under Jackson’s command that day were an unusual collection of American soldiers, native Americans from the local tribes, French Creoles, Kentucky and Tennessee riflemen, free men of color and buccaneers with the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte. They represented the diverse cultures that still characterize New Orleans today.
Jackson positioned his troops between the Mississippi River and a cypress swamp forcing the British to cross a wide open field. In three short days, the American “Dirty Shirts,” as they were called, worked feverishly digging mud from the canal that flowed along the western side of the open field and hauled into place timbers to build a rampart 3/5 mile long that was, in some places, according to the Park Service Ranger on duty during my visit, 10 to 12 feet high and 25 feet wide.
It was an amazing feat of engineering and a stroke of strategic genius. It provided such good protection for the American troops against the advancing British Army that only 21 Americans were wounded or died compared to the nearly 2,000 British Redcoat casualties and wounded. The battle actually took place after the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, was signed but because it wasn’t ratified until February the following year, the fighting continued. The American victory at New Orleans firmly established the emerging country with its ideals of democracy triumphing over European aristocratic system of government.
At the battlefield today, you can take a self-guided driving tour around the field where signs point out the positions of both armies. The rampart was partially reconstructed in 1964 with cannons now positioned behind it to better give visitors an idea of what American forces hastily built. You can climb up the inside of the obelisk to the viewing platform at the top. A walk leads up to the Maltus-Beauregard house and the levee behind where the steamboat, the Creole Queen, docks to drop visitors that take the short cruise down the Mississippi from New Orleans.
A number of exhibits and events are commemorating the battle’s bicentennial in New Orleans. On the anniversary, historic re-enactors, dressed in authentic costume, gathered at the battlefield to mark the actual day of the battle. This event takes place yearly although this year the crowds swelled, according to Park Rangers, due to the bicentennial. In New Orleans, you can currently see exhibits relating to Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans at both the Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street in the French Quarter and the Louisiana State Museum Cabildo on Jackson Square. In April, Navy Week will celebrate the Battle’s Bicentennial.
If a trip to New Orleans is in your plans for this year, I’d encourage you to include a visit out to the battlefield,which can provide a welcome break from the frenzy of the French Quarter, or to one of the ongoing exhibits devoted to the Battle’s Bicentennial. It will provide you with a look back at this unique American city’s importance in American history and how it continues to be one of the most culturally significant cities in the country today.
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!
Since winning the Oscar for Best Picture at the Academy Awards last Sunday, the film, “12 Years a Slave” has reappeared in the theatres all over the country for people like me who missed it the first time. The film was shot entirely in and around New Orleans and at four different outlying historic plantations–Felicity, Magnolia, Bocage and Destrehan. All four are open to the public for tours.
But these are not the only plantations to have starred in an Oscar-winning film. Last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay–Quentin Tarentino’s “Django Unchained“–was filmed on location at the Evergreen Plantation located on Louisiana highway 18, otherwise known as River Road. Evergreen is one of several historic plantations found on this two-lane stretch of road that winds along the southern side of the Mississippi, blocked from view by the large, earthen levee. I have driven this route many times over the years during my annual visits to New Orleans. Recently, I took friends on a day trip to see Evergreen. The trip takes only about an hour from New Orleans, if you don’t stop to see all the other interesting places along the way.
Evergreen distinguishes itself from many of the other plantations in that the 250-year-old property is the only intact, antebellum sugar plantation remaining in Louisiana. In fact, it is one of the few intact plantations in the South, according to our plantation guide. In addition to Evergreen’s ‘big house,’ there are 22 cypress slave cabins lining the oak alleé, more than any other plantation in the area. Some of these structures were built in 1830. And, our guide informed us, the cabins “have never been restored, only repaired.” Interior walls once divided the cabins into two separate living spaces for slave families but were removed at some point. Otherwise, they remain much as they did when as many as 200 people lived at Evergreen during the antebellum period.
The main house, prominently visible from the road through the big black iron gate, was built in 1790 by German immigrant Christophe Heidel. Heidel constructed his home in the Creole manner, with the main living quarters raised on pillars above the ground floor protecting it floodwaters. Christophe’s great-grandson, Pierre Clidamant Becnel, renovated the house in 1832 to reflect the then popular Classical Revival architectural style. The ground floor was enclosed, as was the back gallery.
A graceful, S-shaped curving double stairway was added to the front of the house. Other outlying buildings, known as ‘dependencies’ were erected including a pair of garçonniers, where the family’s adolescent boys lived and pigeonaires. A parterre garden was designed to be admired from the home’s rear gallery. A kitchen, a milking barn, a caretakers cottage, a carriage house and an outhouse for the owners were also built.
The plantation, however, began to decay 1930s when the Songy family, who occupied it then were forced to leave when the bank foreclosed on Evergreen. The once splendid sugar plantation continued to decline until a wealthy Louisiana oil heiress, Matilda Geddings Gray, purchased it and began to bring it back to life again in 1944. Gray’s efforts continued after her death with the current owner, her niece, Matilda Gray Stream, who inherited the plantation in 1971. Stream has received numerous awards for her preservation work on Evergreen.
Today, the plantation and its 37 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. In fact, it was featured in Preservation Magazine‘s Summer 2013 issue where you can read more about the plantation, its history and restoration. (I am proud to say that I have been a long-time member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.)
Evergreen is not only a working plantation again, but an educational center where students learn about antebellum life, where archaeologists search for artifacts about its cultural history, where tourists can glimpse into the past and where filmmakers, like Tarentino and others, can create award-winning films of days gone by for the cinema.