CHRONICLE’S: Flambeaux with Flair

Want a Mardi Gras you’ll really remember? Want to be in a parade? Consider this: you could get paid $30 or so, plus tips, and prance along in front of a guaranteed audience ready to applaud your every movement – you, too, could carry a flambeau!

Flambeau carriers bear a heavy burden these days.  Historically they’ve predominantly been black males and their dancing antics carry an unwelcome message to some modern parade-goers. The Backstreet Museum, a shrine in Tremé with artifacts of Mardi Gras Indians and other masking traditions, doesn’t celebrate flambeau carriers. Some see the flambeaux as symbols of society’s inequities.

CHRONICLE'S: Flambeaux with FlairFlambeau carriers circa 1940

Flambeaux are still part of a long line of traditional Mardi Gras practices. In typical New Orleans fashion, something that was a necessity was changed and transmuted into a peculiarly local art form.

Flambeaux today come in different varieties – there is the old-fashioned tank and burners style (in variations on two and four burner options), the flare on a stick, the propane tank style and even a toilet-paper-roll-in-a-tin-can-on-a-stick style favored by Slidell parade marchers.

Torches to light nighttime processions were a necessity back in the 19th century when there was little street lighting, but New Orleans flambeaux – using the French name for “torch” makes for a nice local touch – have persisted through the years. If you would like to see what the earlier flambeaux looked like, there is an example in the Louisiana State Museum. Or, keep your eyes open when you see a night parade approaching; the older versions still can be found.

While early New Orleanians might have regularly paraded through the nighttime streets in celebration, the first of what we know as organized Mardi Gras parades was the Comus pageant of 1857, which was lit by torches, most likely made with shredded rope soaked in pitch. The next year, Comus actually had what was described as a spotlight – possibly some piece of stage lighting equipment. New Orleans had gas lights in some form from the 1820s, but wider usage required piping and gas mains, and this method just wasn’t suitable for portable light fixtures.

The break through in flambeaux manufacture came with an 1872 invention for a vapor burning street light with a daisy-shaped burner. The wind proof device held liquid fuel in a container, had a heater for the fuel and a burner for the resulting vapor, which then gave off light. Add a reflector, put the device aloft on a stick and presto! A flambeau!

Just as the old Mardi Gras floats began with humble cotton wagons, so the flambeau carriers began using pieces of cargo slings with leather reinforcing to fashion a pole holder to wear, with a stick to twist the belt tighter.  That device, plus a head scarf covering and a loose smock to protect clothing, make up the carrier’s working outfit.

Is it dangerous work? Well, some decades back when gasoline was the fuel in use, it was much more hazardous than it is today. In the past, the better fuel was kerosene, which is relatively safe, but difficult to find. Today, the old-fashioned flambeaux use paint thinner or mineral spirits. What burns is the vapor. While gasoline vapor will ignite from a spark even if the temperature is far below zero, vapor from mineral spirits only ignites at a temperature of 104 degrees – high enough to require a flame to set it off.

Interestingly, parade planners didn’t intend for Flambeaux to dance. If you consider that the old-line night parade floats (Proteus is the only one still parading) always have strips of metallic foil placed strategically in the design, you can see that the reflection of the light makes the parade more magical.  Supposedly, the ideal parade would have flambeaux on each side of a float with their metal reflecting sheets facing toward the float to better illuminate it for the crowd.

Another special lighting effect was the fusee – the flare on a stick that used to be carried in front of floats to provide a cloud of smoke. Sad to say, the Environmental Protection Agency changed the rules and they no longer exist. Just like the mist machines at concerts, the smoke magnified the effects of the flambeaux lighting, adding to the magic.

Flambeaux today, the vapor burning variety, are usually made with some type of stove burner. Manufacture is problematic: there must be a wind shield and a reflective sheet, the entire device must be sturdy and practically indestructible. Several flambeaux were badly damaged in Hurricane Katrina and only some have been repaired. Proteus has its own old-time flambeaux; the rest in use come from various sources, old and new, and krewes rent or borrow them from each other. Endymion’s propane-tank flambeaux are actually gas burners, and are sometimes referred to as “Ghost Busters” since they resemble devices used in that film.

Among the krewes that have used flambeaux in some form are Babylon, Bacchus, Chaos, Endymion, Hermes, Le Krewe d’Etat, Orpheus, Proteus and Sparta. Will there be flambeaux at all those parades this year?  It depends.

“Everybody likes flambeaux. The technology is easy. There are multiple sets of flambeaux. Yes, the prices are high. It’s a lot of work, it’s a labor of love. The problem is the missing ingredients.  Everything is there but the carriers,” notes one krewe member.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, flambeau carriers regularly appeared.  Except for a strike in 1946 (wages went up the next year,) the carriers showed up before a parade and, with police help, enough were chosen to fill all the spots. In fact, the Lazard family were recognized as organizers for flambeau carriers and regularly filled the ranks with relatives and friends.

After Hurricane Katrina, not only did the old group of carriers not appear, the new parade schedules increased the number of carriers needed per evening. 

College fraternity members, Hispanic construction workers, former carriers ready to give it another try – the krewes are crossing their fingers that enough eager workers show up three or so hours before parade time on Napoleon Avenue near Camp Street.

What’s it like to carry a flambeau? John Carter says he’s too old now, but he well remembers Mardi Gras past. “I carried a flambeau the last year we went through the French Quarter!” he says, “It’s not hard if you know what you’re doing.” The most difficult part is at the beginning of the parade, “it’s heavy with a gallon of fuel still in there – and I liked the four burner better than the two burner, it burned off faster.” As the fuel burns down, the flambeau is easier to carry, and to dance with.  “You want to get in the front of the parade, there’s more money at the beginning. They’ll even tuck the money in your belt,” he remembers fondly.

Hopefully, Mardi Gras 2007 will still be as Nancy Lemann described in her 1985 novel, Lives of the Saints: A night parade is “inexpressibly gaudy and beautiful as it passes along, bidding farewell to the flesh.  There are always drumbeats haunting the parade, and flambeaux and harlequins in satin and silk.”

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