Louisiana can rightfully claim to be the capital of Carnival in North America, but in the eastern province of Carnival’s empire stands another palace, known to the peasantry merely as the Washington Hilton Hotel. Below the hotel’s lobby exists a ballroom so enormous that, until the recent completion of a convention center, it ranked as the district’s largest meeting space. Every inch is used to contain the annual soiree of the Mystick Krewe of Louisianians.
By the time on that Saturday afternoon, Feb. 1, 2003, when I got to Washington, many ball-goers already seemed exhausted from two days of parties hosted by politicians, special interest groups and miscellaneous businesses. With the parties having begun Thursday, by ball time Saturday night, we fresh arrivals at least brought clear vision and sober expectations to the party-weary crowd.
After an opening ceremony at which maskers dressed like characters from the Louisiana Purchase made their bows from the stage and the king and queen were introduced came the presentation of a line of maids, each representing a Louisiana festival, that could have stretched to Baltimore. Then came a serpentine parade in which mini-floats, flanked by maskers, rolled through the ballroom. There was a float for each of the state’s members of Congress and, on foot, a corresponding masked entourage. Each masker tossed trinkets to the wave of tuxedoed arms and satin-gloved hands.
Towering Carnival figures decorated the ballroom, hotel lobby and even the building’s front entrance. Among my surprises was that the ball was such a big production: To deliver the props and mini-floats, New Orleans float-builder Blaine Kern hired four 18-wheeler trucks.
Another surprise was that after three days of festivity, the parties continued after the ball, even before the dancing in the main room was done. Down a hall, the Jefferson Parish Chamber hosted a “Samba Soiree” at which rum drinks flowed and from which a samba band led a conga line through the crowded corridors. In another meeting room a krewe member hosted a private breakfast. Throughout the halls, would-be candidates for the then-upcoming state elections hoped for that fateful encounter that would fuel their bandwagons.
(In the crowd were two former members of Congress whose heritage, coincidentally, fit in with the krewe’s 2003 “Louisiana Purchase” theme. Bob Livingston is a great relative many times removed of the Robert Livingston who helped negotiate the purchase for Thomas Jefferson; Lindy Boggs’ family name is Claiborne, making her a relative of Jefferson’s choice to be the state’s first American governor. The 2010 theme is “Energy — Louisiana Style.”)
On the morning after the ball, clustered throughout the lobby of the Washington Hilton were the girls, now dressed in sandals and jeans, who the night before had glowed as maids. They were going home in the same way they got there –– on a chartered jet, now taking them nonstop to Baton Rouge.
“You’re from Louisiana,” a taxi driver told me without having to ask. The law of probability was on his side.
According to New Orleans businessman Joe Rault, a former high-ranking official of the krewe, 70 percent of the 3,000 ball attendees were from the state. They packed not only the Washington Hilton but also the two hotels across the street.
New lobbying laws and a shaky economy may curtail the scope of the event in the future, but the Louisiana Mardi Gras ball will probably always remain as one of Washington’s biggest events.
By Sunday evening most of the Louisianians were heading home, where the Mardi Gras celebrations were just beginning.