“If I start a parade, do you want to be in it?” From a simple phone call made by Staci Rosenberg in 1999, to a krewe of over 1,100 women a mere seven years later, the Krewe of Muses is a powerful and inclusive group of diverse women out to have fun – and help New Orleans in the process.
Photo: Charlie Varley
During the Mardi Gras season of 1999, lawyer Staci Rosenberg looked around and decided that she wanted to start a krewe. Her first call was to Weezie Porter – now Muses’ membership chairman – and from there it snowballed. By June, they had finalized their membership list and on the night before their first parade, the floats were still being painted.
Who are they? “The Muses are a diverse group of women who want to be a part of the traditions of Mardi Gras and to improve on the traditions of Mardi Gras; women who care about their community, who care about each other and who love the city,” sums up Virginia Saussy Bairnsfather, chairman of themes and floats.
Seven years later, the Krewe of Muses is active not only as a parade but as a force within our community – and they’ve only just begun.
Photo: Cheryl Gerber
Membership Has Its Privileges
“How many opportunities do women past college-age have to make really phenomenal friends – to become a sisterhood?” asks Bairnsfather. When the Krewe of Muses rolled for the first time in 2000, barely a year since its inception, it did so with 610 riding members. When it rolls this year on Thursday, Feb. 15, it’s with 668 riding members – which means every spot is full – hundreds on its waiting list and a parcel who remain non-riding members by choice, bringing the full total to over 1,100. As it says on their Web site: “Any woman over 18 years of age is eligible for membership.” This inclusiveness helps lend to their large number, as does the fact that: “Non-riding membership entitles the member to all benefits provided to riding members of the krewe except those directly associated with the parade.” With benefits like those – which include numerous chances to meet and network with a diverse assemblage of women from all over Louisiana and the thrill of knowing the parade’s theme before it rolls – waiting for two to three years on average is not exactly a hardship, especially when one might be able to substitute for another rider even earlier than that.
Muses break before parading
Photo: Sydney Byrd
“We want to keep [the krewe] intimate,” Rosenberg says, “but we want to give every woman a chance to be a member.” Though the initial membership was composed of friends of friends and invitations to membership passed by word of mouth, they also made a special effort to reach out to diverse segments of the community. “I think we’ve reached the point where a lot of people who join don’t know anybody,” Rosenberg says. “They see the parade, they go on the Internet, they look up Muses, they see on our Web site that anyone can join and they get on the list. So now,” she adds, “it’s hard to define who [our members] are.”
“Doctors, lawyers, teachers, business executives, child raisers, soccer moms, Americans, saleswomen, scientists … All women who love Mardi Gras,” says membership chairman Weezie Porter. Most are from Orleans Parish, though there are some out-of-towners who fly in every year – and more of those now, post-Hurricane Katrina. They join to ride in the parade, to find new friends and to give back to the community.
2006’s riderless Mnemosyne float.
Photo: Sydney Byrd
One Good Turn…
“The activity of having a parade sounds frivolous, although the activity of having a parade gives a lot to the community,” Rosenberg says. “People aren’t ever as interested in our outreach activities as they are in our hot throws and cool floats, but giving back to the community is one of our primary goals and has been since the beginning.”
Even listing the acts of community service that this group of women has performed on behalf of the Krewe of Muses would take pages. Among them you would find shoe drives, parades for children at Tulane Hospital and Lazarus House (an AIDS hospice), a booth every year at the Fresh Art festival making masks for children and the donation of a float ride in the parade to a community organization; this year’s recipient is Raintree, which among other things, is a New Orleans residential facility for girls ages 10-17 in need of care due to abuse or neglect. You would also find a foundation fed by events hosted by the Muses all year long, which in past years has allowed for donations to the Musicians’ Clinic, New Orleans Ballet Association and even a purchase of barricades for the New Orleans Police Department. For many years, the women from each float would also go to community groups such as homes for the elderly and battered women, and decorate their masks together. “Members would go to the homes and work with them, making it an event with King Cake and the like,” Bairnsfather explains. “It was very rewarding and we hope to do it again in the future.”
Each year, the Krewe of Muses also sponsors a cup art contest for the junior and senior high school students of Orleans Parish – the student who wins will see his or her name on the cup, which is thrown from every float and posted on the Web site. The Muses also donate $500 to the winning school. This year’s winner is Alison Lewis, age 14, who attends McMain High School. Another annual tradition takes place within the krewe: nominations for that year’s Honorary Muse. Each year, a different Muse is chosen as inspiration and a woman is chosen from our community to represent that Muse. Past years have included Charmaine Neville for Euterpe, the Muse of Music and Katrina Krewe founder Becky Zaheri for Urania, the Muse of Astronomy.
Don’t Let the Joke Float on By
“First we made fun of ourselves, then ourselves and a little bit around us politically and it just kept going. We sort of realized where the boundaries are – and at Mardi Gras there really aren’t any,” says Bairnsfather referring to the satirical bent of their floats – though she also admits that for the first four years she waited by the phone the day after Muses rolled for someone to call and tell her to leave town.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t the occasional mishap; take the year that they were almost censored. In 2003, one of the painters took it upon himself to creatively edit one float. “I didn’t notice it until the day before the parade,” Bairnsfather says. “I was riding a float entitled ‘Exposia – Goddess of Trash and Tourists,’ from the year the theme was ‘Musology, the Lesser Known Gods and Goddesses,’ representing the days when we weighed the garbage to judge the success of Mardi Gras. It included a girl with the letters ‘Sigma’ ‘L’ ‘U’ ‘T’ on her shirt and the letters were missing; there was also a man urinating in the French Quarter getting arrested by Cap. Duke – who was the captain of the district at the time – and the urine was removed … [The painter] edited the float because he thought it was inappropriate. I called up Barry Kern and he had artists fixing it in 30 minutes.”
Though the prior description makes the Krewe of Muses’ floats sound very adult, their parade uses what could be called “The Looney Tunes Effect”: just like in the famous cartoons, children can take one aspect away from the parade while parents take another. For example, during last year’s “Muses Got Game” theme, children would see Rock’em Sock’em Robots coming down the street, while the adults would appreciate the joke in Rock’em Sock’em Bouncers.
The timing of a parade, especially one that is composed of mostly satirical floats, can be a difficult thing to get accomplish. “It’s like timing a joke to get the punch line just right,” Bairnsfather says. “I think that we got it okay the first time, and now we’re getting pretty good at it.”
The powers behind these themes are Bairnsfather and her partner in crime, or as she refers to him, her “Apollo”: float artist Damon Bowie who, according to Bairnsfather, “keeps us grounded and keeps us in line.” The float theme is chosen by Bairnsfather and Rosenberg and then expanded on through meetings with volunteers from the krewe. And it grows from there. “Last December,” Bairnsfather recalls, “I was calling up Staci [Rosenberg] saying, ‘I have another idea for a float and we’re going to swap it with this one’ and she’d say, ‘Great, do it!’”
However, creating floats isn’t all fun and parties. The Muses work very closely with their artists, approving a black and white sketch and then a color sketch before paint ever touches a float. In addition, with a satirical parade like Muses, you have to stay topical. Bairnsfather says that they try to leave 10 percent of the parade until the last minute, “In tighter years, they’re painting as we’re approving the color sketches just to get them out there.”
The Krewe of Muses’ parade is 26-27 floats long with one float designated as a band float. The maximum size of any float is 32 riders, but they throw heavily. “We’re not a superkrewe,” Bairnsfather remarks, “In 2008 we’re looking at adding one more large float, and it would be the only superfloat.”
Not all the floats are satirical, either. There are three signature floats that appear each year. The Sirens appear as the last float of the parade – except for last year, when the last float was Mnemosyne, goddess of memory and mother of the Muses, which appeared riderless in memory of what had been lost. The Sirens has a double meaning, as one would expect: in mythology, the Sirens were cast out by the Muses and also, every parade ends with police sirens – get it?
Inspiration struck again in 2003, in the form of a bubbling bathtub full of Muses. Sketched on a bar napkin before a yearly Lieutenants dinner, The Bathing Muses float has sloshed its way down the Uptown parade route ever since.
The pièce de résistance in terms of impact, however, is The Muses Shoe. “Three weeks [after becoming float chairman] I was at a crawfish boil,” Bairnsfather remembers. “I was joking and I said, ‘Let’s have a shoe theme! We’ll have a pump float and a clog float, a wedge float and a sling back float.’ We were laughing about it.” In 2003, The Muses Shoe made its first appearance. At 17.5 feet tall – the maximum height for a float on the Uptown route – and a little over 20 feet long, every square inch of this float is literally covered in fiber optic lights and is the only one of its kind. It changes colors five times and the word “Muses” appears and disappears from both sides.
Catch the Spirit
“A large part of our krewe is composed of women with young children and we’re a very creative group,” Rosenberg says. “I love anything that lights up; I love kids’ toys … One of the most fun things about being on a float is to hold out a really great stuffed animal and watch a child’s face light up.”
The Krewe of Muses’ throws are another aspect that sets this krewe apart. Though the riders throw heavily, they throw very few filler beads – a term for generic beads without a krewe’s name or logo. Almost everything that they throw from their floats has the Muses’ name and logo on it – including their stuffed animals, which no one else has. They had some of the first “light-up” beads and some of the first fiber optic medallions. There is also an annual “surprise” throw, which is always useful and usually geared towards girls; past years have included a toothbrush, a compact with a mirror and a pedicure kit. Not to mention their “glitter shoes,” which in the spirit of Zulu’s coconuts they decorate themselves. These shoes represent hours of sticky and burned fingers covered in feathers.
The quality of the throws isn’t surprising when you factor in these ladies’ dedication. Bairnsfather and Rosenberg even went to trade shows in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, China to research possibilities for future throws – that’s where the inspiration for the fuzzy, bendable spear struck. The other fun thing about Muses’ throws is that you see them year round – for example, many school-aged children use their “bead bags” as backpacks or lunchboxes, and Rosenberg has had many people tell her they still use the compact and toothbrush.
McMain student, Alison Lewis’ winning cup design for 2007.
Marching to a Different Beat
“We’ve tended to reinvent the wheel,” Rosenberg says, “which is sometimes good and sometimes bad. We found out later that many krewes do things very differently, but it’s worked for us.” Reinventing the wheel in terms of non-float parade entertainment fell on the shoulders of Dionne Randolph, parade chairman.
According to her, the city has informed them that this year, because of a shortage of marching bands, they “would be allowed one marching group per two floats.” This entitles the Muses to 12-15 groups. Included in this number will be another thing that this krewe is known for: quirky adult marching groups. Among such groups are, the Ninth Ward Marching Band, the Rolling Elvi, the Pussyfooters and the Bearded Oysters. The Krewe of Muses was the first parade in which most of these groups appeared, and as such, Randolph has developed a close and protective relationship with them. “I think that initially everyone thought they [the marching groups] were weird, but now they all want them,” Rosenberg says. In fact, last year, post-Hurricane Katrina, some of the other krewes approached Randolph asking for help in order to book some of the groups and bands.
It’s this difference, evidenced in their approach to membership, community service, satire, throws and marching groups, which makes this very inclusive group so remarkable. Jumping in with both feet, they’ve only been parading for seven years and have already left their imprint on New Orleans’ Carnival – the next seven should be just as exciting.