The Big Chief
Making way for a Wild Magnolia
The “new suit” of Big Chief Theodore “Bo” Dollis of The Wild Magnolias ain’t so new any more.
Still, the rumpled but magnificent creation of feathers and beads and satins painstakingly created for Mardi Gras 2008 is carefully laid out on a landing near the door to Dollis’ apartment and calls to him every morning; reminding him that Mardi Gras 2009 is drawing near and there’s still time to pull down one more day of glory and madness on a crazy Carnival day.
For more than 40 years as Big Chief of The Wild Magnolias, Dollis had reached iconic heights and has become one of the grand symbols of Mardi Gras, photographed and filmed and transformed into folklore legend as he has led his devoted band of about 12 warriors along Jackson Avenue, down Dryades Street, across Simon Bolivar Avenue and over to Freret Street.
Having forsaken Rex and Zulu for the dancing, singing rainbow show The Wild Magnolias put on all Mardi Gras day long, followers and devotees to the Indian tribes couldn’t buy a ticket for this kind of extravaganza. They pay Bo Dollis the ultimate Mardi Gras homage as they call out to him along the meandering, unplanned Uptown route of the tribe.
Dollis lives for Mardi Gras and The Wild Magnolias. He paid his dues as Flag Boy for a couple of years and then as Spy Boy for a few more and finally, when the entire tribe called on him to become Big Chief, Bo Dollis had to think about it long and hard.
“These were all his friends; his guys,” says Bo Dollis Jr., himself a “chief-in-waiting” behind his dad. “When you’re the Big Chief you have to be a little more restrained and laid back. Dad didn’t want that. Hey, he had been Flag Boy and Spy Boy and had really cut up with his friends in the back. But in the end, they pushed him into it. And he’s been a great [Big] Chief. There used to be fights among the different Indian tribes, but my dad helped change all that. Today, there’s competition with the masking and singing but no violence. My dad changed a lot.”
What Bo Dollis Sr. can’t change are the ravages of age and the toll that’s eventually paid for all those good times.
At 64, he has had valves in his heart rebuilt, suffered several strokes and now must go to dialysis three times a week. He lives in an apartment above a beauty salon on Louisiana Avenue. A big-screen television fills the room with an eerie green tinted picture, as the Big Chief struggles to suck in a breath and finish a full sentence about his favorite topic.
“It’s gotten so expensive over the years,” Dollis says. “The beads, the material. What used to cost a nickel now costs a dollar. And the costumes have gotten really heavy. Today, they could go…”
“One hundred pounds,” Bo Dollis Jr. chimes in. His dad’s decision on whether he will mask and lead The Wild Magnolias on Mardi Gras 2009 is day-to-day. “But we would make a suit a lot lighter if Dad did mask.”
The Big Chief talks about following a tribe known as the “White Eagles” through the streets when he was a kid, and about masking for the first time as a Mardi Gras Indian with the Golden Arrows back in 1960. His face lights up in a smile when he tells of “Handa Wanda,” the single hit the tribe recorded and which is considered a Mardi Gras classic today ranking up there with “Carnival Time” and “Mardi Gras Mambo.” There were subsequent CDs, videos and photos – countless thousands of photos.
“Ya know, more than ever I feel I’ve got to be out there,” Big Chief Dollis says. “Everybody will be lookin’ for me. Physically, I’m feelin’ pretty good right now. Sure, I can’t do some of the things I used to do, especially on this one side where I had the stroke. I got my good days … and then some of them not so good. We’ll just wait and see.”
“Wait and see,” Bo Jr. says. “If there’s any way in the world my dad can be out there, he’ll be there.” “He’s the man,” Bo Jr. says. “He’s the Big Chief!”
The Big Chief offers me a handshake and opens the door. As I depart down the wooden stairs, Big Chief Bo Dollis stares down at last year’s “new suit” lying a few feet from his door and waiting for a decision.
Reality is a relentless beast and cannot be denied. Upstairs, Big Chief Bo Dollis closes the door on another day.