20080130-cover-0101.jpg
 Joe "Dr. Feelgood" Burge
 Photo by Debbie Ortego
Everybody has that one Mardi Gras story they’ll never forget. When you have a century of tradition, the possibilities afforded by the anonymity of masking, and the sheer scope and scale of the parties, balls, trail rides, and festivals leading up to the zenith of Fat Tuesday, indelible Mardi Gras memories are inevitable. (Of course, the widespread presence of copious amounts of alcohol plays a role, too.)

With that in mind, The Independent Weekly asked a cross-section of Acadiana artists, musicians, politicians, designers and scholars for their most memorable Mardi Gras stories.

WHEN THE WHIP COMES DOWN

Barry Ancelet has served as chair of UL Lafayette’s Department of Modern Languages and as the first director of UL’s Center for Acadian and Creole Folklore. He’s also hosted the Rendez-vous des Cajuns live weekly music radio program on KRVS FM for more than a decade.

Ancelet’s foray into the Grand Marais Mardi Gras didn’t come without a proper initiation:

“After several days and fieldwork visits with the Grand Marais Mardi Gras over a few years, I was eventually adopted by the group. I was apparently one of the first ‘outsiders’ to photograph them, and they also apparently associated me with the media attention they received through Pat Mire’s film Dance for a Chicken. So, for example, the captain offered to feed me at lunch time. Instead of watching me walk the two or three miles between stops, participants began offering me rides on the back of a horse or on the wagon.

“From this vantage point I heard some interesting conversations and photographed some close-up portraits of the painted faces. I noticed for the first time that every participant also had a feather in his hat. When I commented on this, they explained that the painted faces and the feathers were in conscious imitation of American Indians. They explained more fully rules that I had only surmised, for example concerning the requirement to always wear a hat. Losing one’s hat is a common transgression leading to the kangaroo court trial and subsequent ritual flogging during house visits.

“As we rode on through the countryside, participants on the wagon streaked my face with paint from their own faces in what I took to be a gesture of friendship. Later I was vaguely confronted by one of the paillasses, who do the whipping. He wondered in jest if I was running Mardi Gras since my face showed signs of paint. He also pointed out that I had no hat. I talked my way out of this jam by explaining that some of my wagon mates had simply marked me while I rode with them. They were then tried and whipped for their painterly ‘assault’ on a member of the community.

“A few houses later, the wife of this same paillasse offered to do a proper job on my face, to improve on the improvised job done by the wagon riders. I knew by now this was potential trouble, but I also knew that I was leaving to photograph another Mardi Gras immediately after this stop. And I was waiting on the road by my car, far from the heart of the visit in the circle of singers at the house down the driveway, so I agreed. She did a fine job and engaged me in a lively conversation about it.

“The next thing I knew, her husband and his fellow paillasses were upon me. Under orders from the captain, they picked me up (literally) and carried me back to the house and there proceeded to try and convict me of running Mardi Gras with a painted face and no hat, as well as taking photographs without a permit. By then, I had learned enough about the game to know that I was not going to get out of this without a whipping but also that I should protest pro forma to make the game more interesting.

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 Barry Ancelet in the middle of a whipping circle during the Grand Marais Mardi Gras
“After an appropriate spell of pleading, I was ordered down and ceremonially whipped. Most whippers only gave me a ritual tap, but one gave me the full treatment. When I was allowed back on my feet, I asked who had stung me. Dallas, the chief enforcer among the group, answered that he had done so, explaining, ‘I could tell you wanted to know what the real thing felt like.’ He was, of course, right. It was an unusual outreach for this group, clearly meant to be a sort of initiation, a trap that had been elaborately set over the course most of an afternoon.

“Another year, as I was observing and photographing the group, I gave a considerable donation to Thomas, who had recently been promoted to paillasse, telling him only that I wanted to see somebody interesting whipped. He thanked me profusely according to the ritual’s rules and made a big show of embracing me, transferring some of the black paint from his face to mine in the process, and explaining that this practice is called marking donors. A few minutes later, Capitaine Wallace noticed me standing just outside the circle with paint on my face. He had me brought in and accused me of running Mardi Gras without having paid my dues and without a hat. When I protested, Capitaine Wallace pointed out that I obviously had a painted face and no hat. His co-capitaine confirmed that I had paid no dues. He also explained that someone had paid for my whipping. I asked who, and Thomas testified that a man had given him a lot of money to see me whipped. I exclaimed that that man was me and protested that it was not right to use my own money to whip me. Capitaine Wallace asked Thomas if I was indeed the donor. He answered, ‘I don’t know, Capitaine. I get money from lots of people all day long. But I can tell you one thing for sure. The man who gave me that money definitely did not have paint on his face.’ Indeed, I didn’t when I gave him the money. There was, of course, no way out; I received the whipping that I had paid for. Afterwards, Wallace and Thomas confided to me that my wishes had been carried out; someone interesting had indeed been whipped.”

WARDROBE MALFUNCTIONS

Event Planner Bob Pastor is a jack of all trades when it comes to producing parties, especially Mardi Gras balls. During Carnival season, he can be found backstage at Xanadu, Townhouse, Victoria, Oberon, Rio and Attakapas balls, making the queens look beautiful before they are introduced to their subjects. Pastor’s endured his share of Mardi Gras wardrobe malfunctions, and recounts one emergency at a ball at the Hilton Hotel:

“There was a trauma. The queen’s dress wasn’t hitting the floor right. I always have my safety pins with me. They had a suite upstairs. I took the comforter off the bed, rolled it up like a bolster and pinned it under her dress. It worked fine. No one ever knew she was wearing part of the Hilton.”

His most spectacular rescue was when his own costume self destructed at the Apollo Ball. Apollo is renowned for the huge and spectacular costumes participants wear in their productions. One year, Pastor was to portray the Civil War, and he was working on his costume up to the day of the ball.

“The biggest thing I ever made was as big as a Lamar billboard — it was 16 feet across by 8 feet. I was ‘The Burning of Atlanta.’” He was about to go on stage. “As they’re zipping me into my costume, all of a sudden, the frame for the back brace breaks. And they’re playing my music. And Rebecca Landry is a fanatic. She’s saying ‘You’re supposed to be on stage,’ and my music is playing and playing and playing and they’re trying to push me on stage with this broken back brace and I said ‘No. Absolutely not.’ To take control of the situation, I said, ‘Take it off of me right now. Stand right here and hold it up behind me when the curtain opens.’ When the back brace broke, it busted the whole skirt of my costume. Which is a big hoop skirt. I stood in front of the back brace and walked across the stage right and left and right and left and then the music changed from the Gone With the Wind theme to ‘Burning Down the House.’ Well I just took the skirt and threw it on the floor. I had pantaloons on under. And they all thought it was planned. The show must go on. The head dress stayed on the back of the stage. It was so big, it looked like a backdrop for me.

“Let me tell you what happened after. That was the one, in 26 years, I worked the hardest on. Well, after the ball, there it is on the floor. I had changed my clothes and we were walking, leaving and going out into the audience and I saw it right there, and I started stomping on it. My friend says, ‘Oh my God, what are you doing?’ He didn’t know it was mine. I said ‘I hate that thing.’ I was letting my anger out. He had no idea it was mine I was doing that to. He thought I was putting vengeance on somebody.”

BOURBON AS ANTIFREEZE

As Don Cravins remembers, it was the coldest Mardi Gras ever. “I must have done somebody some bad things in my life because I had never been so damn cold in my whole life.”

It was 1989, and then-state Sen. Cravins had been selected to serve as King Toussaint L’Ouverture, monarch of the Lafayette Mardi Gras Festival Inc. Mardi Gras came early that year, falling on Feb. 7. The temperature in Lafayette that day fluctuated between 27 and 32 degrees, with winds of 10 to 15 miles per hour.

The night before, when the association held its reception, the weather had been so cold that the overpass between Lafayette and Opelousas had iced over and been closed — forcing the Cravins family to take the service road all the way into Lafayette.

The next day, when the crew began lining up for the parade at around noon, the weather still hadn’t warmed up. “Noon didn’t offer us any relief that day,” Cravins remembers. “It was just grey and very, very cold.” Cravins’ mandatory costume — a pair of tight leggings, short pantaloons, frilly shirt and cape — didn’t help matters. “You can’t go in there with no flannel underwear,” he says. “You gotta wear them tights. I see what women go through. I had my tights on, and I had my long cape on. I was really cool. I had let my beard grow. I was a cool king.”

With his kids all around him, Cravins took his spot at the head of the float and tried to put on a good face. In an effort to try and beat the cold, Cravins and others quickly turned to the day’s most popular antifreeze, bourbon. “I had my big goblet,” Cravins says, “almost like a chalice, drinking me some bourbon and saying, ‘Lord have mercy, how am I going to get through this thing today? I thought if I had a few drinks it would keep me warm. But I can tell you, I was just a cold, kind of drunk guy.

“I mean it just never let up. The more I would take a sip, the more it would get cold.” While at first it was fun, waving and throwing beads to the crowd soon became an afterthought to staying warm and getting through the day. “My poor little children were small then,” he says, “and they were freezing. By the time we got to the end of the line I said, ‘Just take me off this sucker.’

“Was it fun? It was wonderful. It’s great to act as though you’re royalty for one or two days. It was just so cold. As I think back on it, it was unbelievable the number of people that showed up. It shows you the great love that they have for Mardi Gras because they show up regardless; it doesn’t matter.”

THE KING OF LA FONDA

For local attorney and longtime Mardi Gras aficionado Richard Chappuis Jr., the year he reigned as King Gabriel gave him a new nickname:

“I’ve been going to La Fonda since I was a little kid, when it was on the other side of Johnston Street, by Judice Inn. I’ve been knowing Leebob [Cox, the owner of La Fonda] forever. I was King Gabriel LXI in 2000. The King of Mardi Gras has escorts everywhere he goes — normally sheriff’s deputies or city police. That year, I was very good friends with Don Breaux, and it just so happens that the sheriff’s department was assigned to me. So immediately after the end of the parade, I got in my limousine, and Sheriff Breaux was in his vehicle, with the lights and everything, and two or three deputy sheriffs on motorcycles, followed by the trolley with the king’s escorts, and we all went to La Fonda.

“I had always told Leebob, that if I was ever King Gabriel, I was coming to see him Mardi Gras Day. He had obviously forgot it. We come roaring up, people come running out like crazy, and I walk in, in full regalia. Gabe [Bako, La Fonda manager] and Leebob come outside looking like, ‘What the hell is this?’ We should have gotten a picture of their expression. It was priceless.

“I’ve got the full regalia on, and I promenade all through the restaurant with my scepter, acknowledging people. I sit at the table with some ladies visiting from Michigan, and we just have a good old time. Of course the whole place went wild. La Fonda has a tent and a band outside — it’s a great place to go after Mardi Gras. People go there and stay there till midnight, the party goes on. But that was the first time a King Gabriel has shown up in full dress at La Fonda on Mardi Gras Day. Gabe to this day calls me ‘king.’ When I walk in, he says ‘Hey, king.’ He doesn’t call me Richard anymore.”

RIDERS TO THE RESCUE

Local photographer Philip Gould has been documenting Acadiana culture and musicians since the mid-70s, but he never expected to see a high-speed chase intrude on the Mamou Mardi Gras:

“Several decades ago when we were all younger, I was photographing the Mamou Mardi Gras run. We were all deep in the country, somewhere along a curved road with no houses in sight. All of a sudden an early 1970s oversized American-made four-door sedan comes speeding in our direction.

“It swerves off the road and drives along a low ditch passing the long line of horsemen, wagons, capitaines and what not. The vehicle speeds along the low ditch quite successfully. Then the driver steers the large vehicle back up onto the road. He almost makes it. However the wheels can’t quite get enough traction in the dirt, and with wheels spinning away in the dirt, the car comes to a halt about 10 feet short of the pavement. The two men in the car jump out, climb through a barbed wire fence and take off running out into a large field headed toward a row of trees in the distance.

“Thinking this is odd even for a Cajun Mardi Gras run, I looked down the road from where the car came. We all see a Mamou Police Department squad car fast approaching. It chooses not to go in the muddy bank and instead slowly works its way through the horsemen along the road.

“Seeing the squad car, the Capitaine orders two Mardi Gras riders after the two fleeing men in the field. Once the horses cross the fence, they easily run down the two men on foot, knocking them down to the ground from their horses as they ride past them. The men immediately fall to the ground. The riders escort the two back to the police in waiting.

“Once the two were safely in Mamou Police Department custody, the courir continued on its way.

THE OUTHOUSE AND MA-MA’S BEER

In May of 1987, Todd Ortego and Joe Burge (aka Dr. Feelgood) started the Swamp ’n’ Roll Show on KJJB FM in Eunice. The show has since moved to KBON 101.1 FM and has even morphed into a weekly television program seen every week on KDCG. Both Burge and Ortego have spent many Mardi Gras days as part of the Pas Bon krewe in Eunice’s run. Burge recalls some poetic justice for some Texas interlopers:

“Before Eunice got real big, I used to run with the Pas Bon krewe — me and Todd and John Best, Tony Olivier, Joe Olivier. When we first started doing the Swamp ’n’ Roll Show, it was a bunch of guys that hung around the station, so we just made up a krewe. We had music, a lot of percussion. I used to play the Coke crate. We even had a Pas Bon trailer. We had snake bite tonic on that trailer just in case anybody got bit.

“One year we were coming in town and we had a flat. Man, we rocked that trailer, we had about 20 or 30 people on that 16-foot trailer. That thing was rocking. By the time we got in front of City Hall, where it ends at, we were on two flats. We pulled that damn trailer through town on two flats. We weren’t about to stop.

“That whole Pas Bon run, first we used to go to Todd’s and we’d cook and drink all night. Then we started going to Marc Savoy’s and doing the cooking, then we’d drink all night. Then we’d all crash in Todd’s outdoor kitchen, get two or three hours of sleep, get back up and do it again. You’d get up, sick like a dog, drink another one. It’s the hair of the dog to get your second wind. By 5 o’clock that afternoon we were all shot to hell.

“But then Eunice got to be too big. There only used to be about 300 or 400. It’s getting to be 2,000 and 3,000 riders. It turned from a Mardi Gras run into a trail ride. By the time you would get up front to go chase the chickens and stuff like that, it was all said and done. Then we started getting a lot of people from out of state which threw a drag on it. The last time we run, there were two guys from Texas fighting. They had a piss house on the trailer, so basically they got these two guys and locked them in the piss house, went through town and when we got to City Hall, they unlocked the piss house and brought them straight to jail. You know that thing smelled like hell.”

Ortego, meanwhile, recalls the Mardi Gras when a potentially scary injury thankfully turned out to be a comedic false alarm:

“Several years ago, after a long, exciting beer and boudin-fueled day, the Mardi Gras runners in Eunice were coming into town. I was either walking on our wagon or sitting on the road as these Mardi Gras on horseback came up beside me. Well, one of the horses got excited and reared up, as horses will do, especially on Mardi Gras.

“I heard this great thud. Now a mildly sober person would have said, ‘That sounds like somebody hit the black top, head first, maybe off the back of a horse.’ So we noticed there was someone — in costume of course — laid out, moaning and barely moving. One of the companions of the downed rider approached the fallen rider and with all the seriousness and concern possible said, “You OK, Ma-ma?”

There was a long pause, and I realized that this was an elderly person who had just fallen off the back of a horse — head, neck and back first onto the black top. Ma-ma grunted and then moaned before speaking.

“‘Hold my beer,’ she said.

“Ma-ma had taken a 6-foot spill, head first onto the black top and never dropped or even spilled her can of beer! That’s when we realized that Ma-ma was going to be OK. It’s like Homer Simpson says — it was another serious injury avoided thanks to the magical powers of beer.”

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