“I think we’ll be OK,” said Dave (on-board chief of libations) as our two story float, “The Duke,” with its massive figurehead of John Wayne, took its place in line for the annual Krewe of Gemini Mardi Gras parade in Shreveport, La. “That is,” he added, skeptically looking up at the darkening sky, “unless it rains.”
This was my first experience with Mardi Gras, having always been reluctant to throw myself into the festival madness that annually grips New Orleans between Epiphany and Fat Tuesday. “Don’t you worry, Shreveport is different,” I was assured by my jovial float hosts, Charles Seyfield and Marilyn Creswell, who were both masked and decked out in shimmering red satin cowboy regalia. “Our Mardi Gras is much more for families.”
The city of Shreveport is located on the Red River in the northwestern corner of Louisiana and is the third largest city in the state behind New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Established in 1836 and named for its founder, Henry Miller Shreve, the port boomed as a cattle town in the years leading up to and following the Civil War.
As a music center, Shreveport was home to Huddie William Ledbetter (Leadbelly), the famous folk and blues singer, and in 1953 a young rock ‘n’ roller named Elvis Presley got his start as a regular guest on the city’s popular radio show, “The Louisiana Hayride.” In the 1990s the introduction of riverboat gambling helped lift Shreveport out of an economic decline, and more recently the city has experienced the arrival of a new community of residents driven north by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.
Unlike New Orleans, which can trace the roots of its Mardi Gras celebration back to the formative days of the city, Mardi Gras in the Shreveport-Bossier region is a relatively new phenomenon. The idea was first floated (so to speak) in 1989 and led to the formation of the city’s two largest “krewes”: the Krewe of Centaurs and the Krewe of Gemini. The first “official” Gemini Mardi Gras Ball was held on Feb. 17, 1990, and was followed on Feb. 24 by the krewe’s first parade, which featured 12 floats. Today the Shreveport- Bossier Mardi Gras celebration is one of the most popular in the region and attracts thousands of visitors. When our float finally took its place in line, we found ourselves sandwiched between the Pirates of the Caribbean, with its giant figurehead of Jack Sparrow (played in the movie by Johnny Depp), and a grim visage of Gen. George Patton. The sky, however, was growing ever more threatening.
I thought back 24 hours to the festive gathering that had taken place at Krewe of Gemini’s storage facility, where hundreds of people had gathered to celebrate the traditional “loading of the floats.” When it was completed, every float was filled to overflowing with strands of multicolored beads and an array of small toys that would be dispensed to the thousands of revelers who were expected to line the parade route. Now, here we were jolting along, being greeted by kids and teenagers, parents and grandparents who were clamoring, waving their arms, shouting, screaming and cajoling and begging, all in hopes of snagging yet another strand of glittery beads. And here I was, keeper of the bootie, my arms loaded down with beads, able to make so many people happy simply by slinging them a couple of strands or a little stuffed animal. It was wonderful. I will never forget the look in the eyes of the youngest ones, when I could single them out and throw them something they instantly treasured — at least until the next float came by with another load.
Then the rain came.
At first it was just a few drops. But it didn’t take long before it was coming down in sheets. The wind began to blow, and the temperature, which had been none too warm to begin with, began to drop. Everyone on the floats and by the side of the road was soon soaked. And beautiful though they are, Mardi Gras floats are not designed with rain in mind.
The amazing thing was that hardly anybody left or seemed to concede to the weather. Whole families remained even though they were drenched. Others huddled beneath small makeshift tents they had erected along the parade route. So into the night we rolled, tossing beads and taking turns retreating to the float’s only enclosed area, a small cabin in the rear, where we could attempt to warm up. By the time we reached the end of the six-mile-long parade route and were hauled back to the staging area, the rain was coming down in buckets, and the festive mood had that had managed somehow to prevail had been thoroughly drenched.
Charles and Marilyn apologized for the fact that the after party (a parade tradition) was cancelled and wished I could have seen the parade under different circumstances. I felt sorry for them. They and the krewe had worked all year long in preparation for this night, and at no little expense. In their eyes the parade had been a failure — or at least a major disappointment.
I, on the other hand, had loved every minute, and I had come to understand in such a unique way how much more wonderful it can be to give than it is to receive.
By Jim Farber
Jim Farber is a freelance writer. Photos are of the Mardi Gras in Shreveport-Bossier City, which is the second-largest Mardi Gras celebration in Louisiana, second only to New Orleans, and are courtesy of the Shreveport-Bossier City CVB.