“We don’t march.” Benny Harrell insisted. “Or stroll.” Nor do they wander, or meander…and they never rush. They have been doing this annually for 60 years this Mardi Gras
“We walk,” Harrell explained. The speed? “Half Fast.”
He admits the original name of the group was Pete Fountain’s Half-Assed Walking Club – but propriety prevailed. At the insistence of Pete’s widow, Beverly Fountain, the name was changed. The walking group is captained today by Harrell, husband of Darrah Fountain, Pete and Beverly’s daughter.
And, this year, as he has since the year the club began, retired Judge Steven Plotkin will take his place, in costume, as the club steps out Mardi Gras morning on Washington Avenue, aimed for St. Charles, where they will turn right and make their way to Canal Street. At 83, Plotkin says he is “in good shape” for the celebration.
Pete Fountain’s Half Fast Walking Club was the outgrowth of the famed local clarinetist’s lifelong love for his city’s premier holiday.
According to Harrell, one year the Fountains and some other couples grouped together in a long, liquid walk along the parade route Mardi Gras morning. At Pete’s insistence, the next year they did it again: this time, without the ladies. The newly changed name followed and Pete’s Fountain’s Half Fast Walking Club became an essential part of morning Mardi Gras.
Pete Fountain had grown up in downtown New Orleans, started playing clarinet in grammar school on Esplanade Avenue, and went on to Warren Easton High School. He benefitted from good public school music teachers (some of whom moonlighted in dance bands.) By his teenaged years, Fountain was a regular performer on Bourbon Street. His signature mellow tone, and his jazzy phrasing, proved popular both locally, and nationally, earning him a move to California and two years on the popular Lawrence Welk dance band television show in the late 1950s. A little musical strife (supposedly Pete jazzed up a rendition of “Silver Bells” on a Christmas Show) led to Pete’s departure from the Welk entourage.
Fountain signed with Decca records and immediately had an album with enough sales to go “gold.” A long string of good selling albums followed, and he could move back home from California.
Pete opened a club on Bourbon Street, and Plotkin, a young lawyer at the time, dropped in, and was immediately taken with Fountain’s music. Eventually, he would become Fountain’s attorney. Meanwhile, every Mardi Gras found him with the Half-Fast group.
As Plotkin explained, at first all the members would dress alike in some national costume.
(He admitted that the Mexican outfit is still in a closet at home.) Eventually they all began dressing in matching tuxedos – colors varying with the year.
Since 2020 – the 60th– is the diamond year – there is a special color. “I wouldn’t know how to describe it to you — it’s BRIGHT! Looks great in the sunlight,” Benny Harrell explained. Last year was pink, according to Plotkin.
With the tuxedos go matching shirts and hats, all worn with comfortable shoes. Harrell and the other officers (including Plotkin) will be easily identified by their regalia. The club has banners (Plotkin’s grandsons have carried them on the route) and, this year, there will be special club flags that members can display on their houses at Carnival season.
There are club doubloons, special throws, and even bobble heads to distribute to the cheering crowds on the route. Of course, there is always music, and since Pete’s death in 2016, the band always includes musicians who played with him. A streetcar-like truck float offered Pete a chance to sit and play in his later years, and the band will be riding this year, as will some older members. There’s a float to hold members’ extra beads and throws, and one vehicle is a rolling restroom.
The route begins at Commanders’ Palace, where members show their medallions for admittance to the courtyard around 5 a.m. and enjoy some refreshments before they leave after 7 a.m. They go down St. Charles to Canal Street, take Bourbon to Esplanade, then go back up Royal Street to the Monteleone Hotel, where members have lunch.
The Half Fast parade is also a family gathering. Plotkin’s physician son is coming in from Boston and Benny Harrell’s family connections will be along. Sixty years of parading with friends and family: Pete Fountain’s legacy continues.