Mardi Gras Mémoires

St. Louis Mardi Gras 2007 – The two first place prizes went to the Mystic Knights of the Purple Haze, for best float and best costumes. Their pre-parade ball at the historical Casa Loma Ball Room deserved an award, too. The Casa Loma retains a cache of shabby-chic and outsider coolness – at least, from the inside. Viewed from the wrap-around balcony, the spacious stage shimmers with psychedelia: tie dye and batik streamers flutter; bunting with images of pendulous breasts and beads drapes seductively; and banners decorated with the likenesses of Jimi and Jerry hang from the rafters. Beneath the Knights’ decorations lie the ultra-swank Art Deco embellishments that are the Casa Loma’s trademark. Shiny black surfaces ringed with chrome lit by glass sconces erupting from mid-way up the walls. The dance-floor floats on a cushion of air. This place was built for balls.

The Mystic Knights Ball is a masquerade. Clotted at tables are sheiks and harem girls, jesters, devils, knights and wenches. Elvis parades through the crowd with exaggerated sideburns and a pre-lit jumpsuit whose tiny lights race around his substantial mid-section and collide at a monstrous, gaudy belt buckle. Big Chief makes a grand entrance with his mini-krewe of Mardi Gras Indians. Mark Twain arrives in a white suit and drooping mustache, cigar in hand. There’s Groucho and Stevie Nicks, and Marilyn, too. Kings and Queens, and, yes, queens of drag. And so many pimps and ho’s – too many to count. But make no mistake, it’s the music that draws the eager crowd to this ball.

The Knights faithfully blend the sacred with the profane, choosing Louisiana-bred bands with Zydeco and Cajun roots; they aren’t afraid to play hard-rock classics like Hey Joe and Sunshine of Your Love, either. Past balls’ headliners included Chubby Carrier and his Bayou Swamp Band. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Chubby play Franklin’s Tower on the accordion. That year I dressed like Carmen Miranda. I had my photo taken with Chubby.

Twenty Oh-Seven was true to tradition. Bonerama, a brass-heavy septet brought horns, including a killer sousaphone, to the jam-band genre. As they took the stage, the dance floor filled with revelers. A handful of real dancers moved in pairs but the majority indulged in the neo-hippie, spin-twirl-and-shimmy style of solitary bop, dancing near but not with each other. Beads rained down from the balcony. Drinks were spilled and loose feathers from hoochie-mommas’ rainbow boas mixed with plastic beads on the dance-floor, creating a veritable mine field for tipsy dancers. But miraculously, all stayed on their feet, ready for the second line to form and snake its way a round the room, gathering faithful along the way. The Casa Loma morphed into the Fillmore on the Mississippi. The sousaphone guy laid down a bottom lower than any bass guitar could provide. When Bonerama launched into Cross Town Traffic, the room looked, sounded and smelled like what one imagines the Fillmore to have been, with a smattering of Tipitinas. A generous pourer behind the bar, and it was easy to go there in your head.

At the Subterranean Ball, masks, wigs and hats are welcome disguises. Folks get hot on the dance floor, so costumes often have removable parts. For the most part, modesty rules but the occasional glimpse is there to be had. Dancers don’t collide. There is no Mosh Pit. Brushing up against a fellow reveler results in a muttered apology paired with a goofy smile. Clumsiness is a forgivable sin.

I was a reveler at this ball for years. I’ve waited in line to enter. I’ve worked for weeks on costumes; braved the February cold in sleeveless flapper attire. Once, a gauzy girly-pirate costume nearly got me frostbite. Some years I stayed to the bitter end. Others, I staggered out at the break. I get my picture taken in drunken glee. And when I stay late, I often witness the progression of vices. One year, I saw a fight. Exotic dancers, or very capable wanna-bes, take the stage to bump and grind. Upstairs, suspicious smells have caught me by surprise. Sort of.

The balcony can be risky for unescorted women. Many find it easy to take to heart, “What Happens At Mardi Gras does not count” as they run the gauntlet to the ladies room. Eventually, we all must go up – the bathrooms are located above. I’ve had my palm read while waiting in line for the bathroom. I’ve seen commerce in the powder room just outside the stalls. I won’t enumerate the vices I’ve seen, overheard or participated in on both floors of the Casa Loma. They might seem tame by some standards.

Every year, the crowd grew fewer in number. The big, floating dance floor was only half-full in 2007. Perhaps our party-hardy ways were catching up with us Boomers faster than we realized. Forecasts of four-to-six inches of blowing snow don’t help, either. Maybe the degradation of the neighborhood that surrounds the Casa Loma has nudged people away who once helped pack the room. The Knights don’t advertise broadly. Since I’m not one of them, I don’t know but I wonder if they take pains to keep the numbers down. Perhaps they see it as a semi-private function, not to be confused with the spectacle that attracts the crush of humankind to the Soulard streets on parade day. I know that the erstwhile Papa Ray, who mans the mike from the time the doors open until the band starts to play, spins bona fide soul music. Who can resist that siren sound?

Ash Wednesday is almost upon us. The revelry that was Mardi Gras 2007 slips away, a fading memory. Like very year, as Lent approaches, it’s a good time to take stock; reflect upon the wisdom of our choices. Mardi Gras 2013 will pass into others’ memories with, I hope, the same fondness that past celebrations hold for me.

Best of luck this year to the Mystic Knights of the Purple Haze.

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