If you happen to be on North Broad Street on a certain weekend in May – the third Sunday to be precise – there’s a good chance that the corner of Orleans Avenue will be bursting with energy: people on the sidewalks and the neutral ground all centered on the black and creamy gold clubhouse of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. It is election day for King Zulu, as well as for the rest of the Zulu “characters;” a longstanding Zulu tradition, though not as long as the organization has been around.
This year is a special one for Zulu, as 2009 marks its 100th anniversary. In addition to the election, the organization has several special events, parties and other treats planned before Fat Tuesday, including an exhibition “From Tramps to Kings: 100 Years of Zulu” at the Louisiana State Museum’s Presbytere (on view until January 2010).
And of course, there are the world-famous coconuts – probably the most prized Carnival throw and unique to Zulu. Yes, there will be anniversary coconuts, as well as special coconut beads.
But most importantly is the Zulu parade on Fat Tuesday. This year’s King Zulu, Tyrone Mathieu Sr., is so excited about being King Zulu – he will be officially crowned with his Queen (and wife) Sheila Barnes Mathieu at the ball on Feb. 20 – and the organization’s 100th anniversary, it’s hard not to want to be part of the fun. “The club is so proud of Tyrone; he is a younger member of the club. He’s energetic, enthusiastic…he is a unifying source to have the membership rally around him as king,” says Zulu President Charles Hamilton, himself King Zulu in 1991. And a look around the first-floor Zulu clubhouse reveals walls lined with photos of previous King Zulus, attesting to the long legacy of this organization and its deep ties to the city.
A few facts about Zulu:
- Founded in 1909
- The group evolved out of a group of laborers who organized a club called “The Tramps,” many of who belonged to Benevolent Aid Societies. Members paid dues to these groups as a form of insurance for hard times and funerals.
- Current membership is at around 600 (including full and associate members) and is all men; riders in the parade number about 1,200 and comprise a multicultural mélange of men and women.
- Members need to be 21 to join the club.
- They must ride their first year of membership.
- The Zulu Court has “characters” that include: King: The ruler; Big Shot: tries to upstage the King; Witch Doctor: Makes sure the Gods provide for good weather on Mardi Gras day; and other characters, some based on government positions, who’re competing against each other to try to – but never – “out do” the King; Ambassador; Mayor; Province Prince; Governor; Mr. Big Stuff; and the Queen (who’s selected by the King).
- In 1920, Zulu selected its first Queen. For about the past 15 years, the Queens have been the spouses of the King.
- Coconuts appeared about 1910
- There is a law, passed in 1988 by the Louisiana Legislature, informally called the “Coconut Bill,” which excluded the coconut from liability for alleged injuries, caused when it was handed from the float.
- The Zulu poster started in 1990.
- Most famous Zulu? Musician Louis Armstrong, who reigned in 1949.
- Philanthropy: Toys for Tots; Christmas food baskets in partnership with Cox Communications; New Orleans Recreation Department; Adopt-A-School; New Orleans Police Department (bought them bullet-proof vests). Scholarships to the Zulu maids: There will be 30 debutantes this year and there are five scholarships that are awarded through a raffle.
- Mathieu isn’t the youngest King Zulu. There have been others in there 30s, and Zulu President Hamilton remembers one in 1940 who was in his 20s that was chosen when the original king passed away.
So hear ye, hear ye, rise and shine early on Tues., Feb. 24 (Fat Tuesday) at 8 a.m. to hail the arrival of King Zulu and Queen Zulu. And let’s get that Witch Doctor working now for a perfect Mardi Gras day.
Age: 41 Born: New Orleans Resides: New Orleans East
Family: Sheila Barnes Mathieu, wife (who is also Queen Zulu); five children, ages ranging from 12 to 21.
Education: John McDonogh Senior High School, Delgado Community College
Profession: UPS delivery driver
Favorite book: Truly Blessed by Teddy Pendergrass
Favorite movie: Titanic
Favorite food: Gumbo
Favorite restaurant: Too many to mention, but I like TGI Fridays.
Favorite vacation spot: Jamaica
How long have you been a member of Zulu? Since 2001. And I’ve ridden in the parade every year since I’ve joined.
How did you get started in Zulu? Larry Roy, a member, who’s the Zulu Minister of Fun. He gave me the application to join. I am the first member of my family to be in Zulu.
How many people did you run against to become Zulu? One other person.
How does one campaign to become Zulu? The party you see out front of the clubhouse is election day, when members come out to vote. Campaigning for King Zulu is actually about bringing camaraderie in the organization. We do parties where we invite members and friends. And like President Barack Obama, I believed in the personal touch and met with Zulu members.
And I notice you have a Web site: www.TyroneMathieu4King2009.com. I had the Web site created for this election. I saw what President Obama was doing with his Web site, as well as the texting and all that – I figured that was the way to go, it was different than my campaign the previous year. This is the first year that a candidate for king created his own Web site for the election. Go to the Web site – it’s got all great information about Zulu and the parade.
Was this your first year to run for king? No, I lost to Frank Boutte [King Zulu 2008] by 11 votes last year.
Have you held previous “character” positions? Yes, I was Mr. Big Stuff in 2007.
What are you looking forward to the most for the parade? The excitement of the parade, people hollering “King Zulu!” “King Zulu!”
Do you have any special throws for the parade? We always do the coconut. I have special Zulu beads…two years ago the [Zulu] President said the king could pick an animal, so my animal will be the cheetah and that will be on the special medallion, which lights up and has the anniversary year on it, as well as the king’s and queen’s names.
True Confession: I’m a softhearted person. [Though], I try to hide it.