Float No. 2 in the 2006 parade of Mobile’s Mystics of Time depicted a serpent winding down the street. The float was gorgeous with radiant colors spotting the monster’s trunk and blasts of fiery yellow radiating from its mouth.
Carnivals in Mobile and in New Orleans have historic links – though one of the last of those links was float builder Herbert Jahncke, who in 2007 also built the New Orleans parades of Proteus, Le Krewe d’Etat, Hermes and Chaos. In Mobile that night, most of the spectators thoughts were probably lost to the sight of the flashy snake and to their passion for beads. It would take a person of rare artistic grasp to think like the creators of the very first Comus parade in New Orleans whose 1857 theme, The Demon Actors in Milton’s Paradise Lost, also explored the unexplained.
Such a person would have been Jahncke, who appreciated the history and style of the early Carnival and who knew that demons and serpents make compelling street art.
Herbert Jahncke was the son of a prominent Northshore family whose business was best known for workboats and dredging. His passion was floats more than boats. He was enamored by the New Orleans Mardi Gras and had also inherited nobility, since his father reigned as Rex in 1966.
Jahncke could’ve been a high-powered business executive but instead he wanted to build Carnival floats for a living. His company, Royal Artists, specialized in designs more in keeping with the early Carnival. In an age of steroid-like super-sized floats, Jahncke appreciated the scale of the early parades.
Proteus was one of Jahncke’s masterpieces, with his crowning achievement perhaps being the 2006 parade that celebrated the old-line krewe’s 125th anniversary. Each float represented a theme from Proteus’ past, thus unleashing a menagerie of radiant fish and fanciful creatures moving in succession, like a stream of salmon, up the parade route.
That same year, Hermes’ rendition of the “Voyages of Ulysses” included a scene in which the explorer wrestled a float – a long green serpent whose head lurched across his shoulder.
Newest to Jahncke’s stable was Le Krewe d’Etat. Because the parade is satirical it presents unique challenges, particularly in depicting contemporary topical figures whose looks, unlike that of Ulysses, are known. Jahncke’s work was dead-on including a likeness of Ray Nagin that could not be more exact had the mayor looked in a mirror.
Chaos presented another challenge. Using the floats and style of the former Momus parade, the Knights also specialize in topical humor, through more in a traditional, cartoonish style. In the first Mardi Gras after Katrina, one float teased Jefferson Parish and the pumping stations that were ordered abandoned even as the streets flooded. Parish President Aaron Broussard was depicted as a Humpty Dumpty character teetering atop a wall. Neither the character, nor ultimately Broussard, would have a big fall.
Herbert Jahncke was a nice man with a graying beard and lots of stories to tell. His promise to one day take me on a boat trip down the Tchefuncte River will unfortunately go unfilled. He died Dec. 4, 2007. (In the context of his passions, that day was significant because it was exactly two months before this year’s Proteus parade.) His loss to the New Orleans Carnival and to the preservation of its art is enormous. In life as in Mardi Gras we are presented with occasional demons. Blessed are those who bring joy along the route.