On a recent trip to Mobile, Alabama, I discovered the truth about Mardi Gras — and I have a hurricane to thank. It was about two months after the storm last summer and The Museum of Mobile was closed and licking the wounds caused by Katrina’s fury.
The Battleship Alabama was listing and off limits (it has since been righted) but the new Mobile Carnival Museum, was wide open for business.
I had always assumed New Orleans was Mama to the frolicking Fat Tuesday tradition. But the South’s best hoopla was actually born in Mobile in 1703.
The museum, opened last April, is a reliquary of Mardi party-wear. Glass cases glitter with crystal crusted gowns, robes and crowns of kings and queens that took a year to create. The trains alone on these getups weigh 200 lbs. A docent told me the whole ensemble costs the monarch’s parents around $80,000.
The royal pomp and circumstance was introduced by prominent Mobile families who founded the first Mardi Gras secret societies (called mystics), and initiated some of the country’s most exclusive costume galas.
“The King and Queen of Mardi Gras are single, in their early 20s and chosen by the societies. In 130 years only four romances have resulted,” explained the docent. After dragging around an extra 200 pounds, who can blame them?
I looked at a chronology of events listed on the wall and pointed to 1938. It said “First Black Mardi Gras parade.” “Every year since, there’s been a Black King and Queen. They toast the White King and Queen at their coronation and vice versa,” said the docent.
Is this some strange segregationist holdover? “Oh no. In the 1970s, civil rights activists questioned the practice and picketed the White Balls, demanding integration. But, they were outsiders, and were asked to leave. The Blacks liked it just the way it was,” he explained.
Mardi Gras in Mobile (February 28th this year) is more of a “family affair,” than the Crescent City’s. There are no X-rated shenanigans and revelers are more likely to be high on chocolate Moonpies than hooch. The docent told me the most coveted throws from parade floats are “stuffed animals,” and noted “Silly String was banned in 1994.”
At the Mobile Mardi Gras, the mystics insist upon safety.