Mardi Gras Walking Clubs
Carnival’s feet on the street
It’s the neglected part of Mardi Gras,” Marilyn Nonenmacher insists, “but it’s wonderful!” Nonenmacher is talking about the clubs that walk a route on Mardi Gras Day. She doesn’t actually march with a walking club for Carnival, but for the last half century she has been a formidable force in keeping one of the remaining Carnival Clubs on the street: Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast Walking Club. Fountain’s group, for which Fountain himself still plays music, nowadays from a small streetcar float with his group, was founded in 1961, which makes it a youngster in the small world of men’s walking clubs.
Starting around 7 a.m. Mardi Gras morning, the clubs, accompanied by their bands, will wander through Uptown neighborhoods, between Magazine Street and the river, finally converging on Washington Avenue (where the Half-Fast joins up from their later route start at Commander’s Palace). From there, they turn onto St. Charles Avenue and proceed in front of Zulu.
Oldest of the groups is the Jefferson City Buzzards, founded in 1890, and supposedly named for the birds that frequented the area slaughterhouses near the river Uptown. Like the other clubs, the members walk or dance along with canes, decorated with paper flowers to give to parade goers (with a kiss for ladies). Members also give out beads and doubloons.
The longest marching veteran Buzzard is George Luft – who plans to be on the route again this year. “I joined the Buzzards in 1949,” he recalls. “The U.S. Army needed me in Korea in ’51 and ’52, and, when I was working at The Times-Picayune, I was going to have work Carnival Day in ’56, and when I finally got the day off, it was too late to get the costume so I didn’t march. In ’99, I had broken my leg, so I only marched about eight blocks.”
The Buzzards (like other groups) have long had a “rehearsal parade” a few weeks before Mardi Gras. Buzzards also parade in the St. Patrick’s or the Irish-Italian parades in Jefferson Parish, where many members now live. Their band now rides, but they still have live music. “We’ve been around since 1890,” Luft notes. “We must be doing something right.”
Second in age to the Buzzards is the Corner Club, formed in 1918 on the corner of Third and Rousseau streets. Seann Halligan’s great-grandfather Edward Gallagher was one of the founders, and his grandfather, 90 year-old John “Bubby” Gallagher, helped start it up again in ’47 after World War II.
Their clubhouse is now on Annunciation Street where they have their monthly meetings.
Although the Corner Club marches on Mardi Gras Day, they also take part in the Krewe of Thoth Parade and the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
“The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is really big now,” Halligan says. “With our inactive members added, it gets up to around 300 members.” The Corner Club will have a marching brass band with them for Thoth and St. Patrick’s Day, but on Carnival they’ll have a sound system this year to provide music.
The Corner Club still has canes. “We have two ladies, Rosary and Pam, who make them,” Halligan explains. Members are costumed to match the club’s annual theme, and the marchers are always preceded by the Corner Club Banner held aloft. “This is our third banner since 1918, we retired the second one three years ago but it’s still hanging up in the clubhouse,” Halligan says.
Roch Peterson was elected president of the Lyons Carnival Club in March of this year. “I’ve been marching since the late 1980s, and served as Grand Marshall in 2002,” Peterson says.
The Lyons Club starts its parade at Grit’s Bar on Lyons Street. “We roll out with a lot of lieutenant-type costumes, tunics and plumes, and we have regular float rider costumes – satin top and pants. And, we definitely have a cane with flowers: that’s the tool of choice for marchers,” he laughs.
Lyons likes to have a brass band, preferably with young musicians, riding on Mardi Gras and on foot with them in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “Those bands are magnificent – at some point they hit the zone totally free styling – modern stuff you hear in the clubs!” Peterson reports.
The Half-Fast Walking Club may be the youngest, but its tuxedo-clad members will be about 230 strong when they march out Washington Avenue Carnival morning. Pete Fountain’s son-in-law, Benny Harrell, is co-captain along with Elmo Spellman, and Fountain and his music still inspires the group. “Pete is the whole thing. He is just wonderful. He comes in, they all stand up. He is just such a good, giving man!” says Nonenmacher.
Nonenmacher has spent the last 10 or so years as the Half-Fast executive director. “I pick what they’re going to wear. Last year the tuxes were yellow, for ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road.’ This year we’re going to ‘Paint the Town Red!’”
Two hundred and thirty men in red tuxedos: Want to see that sight?
Well, first you have to get up pretty early Mardi Gras morning …
A Neighborhood Tradition
Besides the Buzzards, Corner and Lyons, some years back there were two other active traditional Uptown neighborhood walking clubs, the Garden District and the Eleonore, both of which had clubhouses. The walking clubs have always been less expensive to join than krewes that paraded, and they bring Carnival, with music, right into residential areas on their early morning routes. Up until recently, walking clubs would visit the John Hainkel Home (once the Home for Incurables) and the old Marine Hospital. Clubs still try to route past nursing homes to bring a little Mardi Gras to shut-ins, even if it’s before breakfast time when they arrive.