The Turn of the KreweLike a lot of krewe members, the mischievous soldiers of Le Krewe d’Etat marched back into the city of New Orleans in October 2005, along with most everyone else (who could) to learn some brutal truths. By the time they gathered in November after Mayor Ray Nagin and the City Council agreed to proceed with Mardi Gras the following winter, they were faced with a flooded den. Floats lived up to their word in the worst way, having floated in six feet of Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters. They’d lost perhaps two of the most crucial planning months of the Mardi Gras off-season.

But first, the members had to decide if they even wanted to go forward with the season.

“We were very concerned,” says the krewe’s historian, known more commonly as the Minister of Disinformation. “We had a huge debate as to whether to parade or not. It might seem frivolous or insensitive spending all that time and money doing a parade when there was so much work to be done. But we decided that, at the end of the day, Mardi Gras had to happen.”

And it could be argued that no other krewe was better positioned to capture the mood of the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras than Le Krewe d’Etat, which burst onto the scene in 1998 with its first full parade and recaptured the imagination of crowds with its brilliant blend of irreverence and tradition. Watching that 2006 parade brought to mind two pop-cultural references. In the Woody Allen film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alan Alda’s TV-producer character obliviously opines, “Humor is tragedy plus time.” Another is the satire publication The Onion’s first post-9/11 issue, at a time when practically the entire nation was ready for anything humorous, much less ironic, in the face of such tragedy. Instead of pulling punches, the issue blared with its unrepentantly brazen headline, “Holy F—-ing S—-!” – a headline as obscene and unspeakable as the tragedy it was going to humorously try to come to grips with.

Enter Le Krewe d’Etat, which responded to the horrors of Katrina with an equally brazen approach under the theme “D’Olympics D’Etat” – full-out parodies and civic self-reference translating Olympics as fashioned by Katrina. Perhaps taking their cue from Crimes and Misdemeanors and The Onion, Le Krewe d’Etat met tragedy head-on and turned the whole notion of mourning inside out.

“It became an obligation to have a parade that was a true distraction,” the Minister recalls. “I mean, you’ve been spending the winter scraping mold off your wall and tearing down Sheetrock. We wanted to come up with something witty and biting. We were careful not to take potshots at people. It was fine to take shots at the federal government and people who we felt let us down but not to ridicule people whose homes had flooded.”

The result was such pun-driven floats as “Breach Volleyball,” “Refrigerator Hurling” and “The Mold Vault.” The color schemes were as haunting and bold as they were whimsical – the green head of the “Mold Vault” looking like a cross between Adult Swim and a comic book. Never before did the krewe’s signature float boasting its motto, “Live to Ride, Ride to Live,” with its eerie skeletal figurehead, feel so darkly appropriate.

The Turn of the KreweThe crowds were ecstatic, as if sharing that same cathartic moment where you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. The krewe’s now-famed Dictator’s Dancin’ Dawlins became DEMA – the “Dictators Emergency Management Authority” – bedecked in white chemical-protection suits and blue-tarp capes, with lyrics sung to the tune of “YMCA.”

“It touched me to think we’d actually done what we’d set out to do,” says the Minister. “After 9/11, you couldn’t even do art at that point, yet. But that’s how different New Orleans was; we turned it around and made us laugh.
“Otherwise, we might go crazy.”

That’s the kind of audacity that defines Le Krewe d’Etat, which is just as likely to flaunt tradition as it is to revere it. It is, after all, the sum of its parts, which include members from other krewes as well as newcomers who might not necessarily have been invited into the more blue-blood ranks of New Orleans’ older krewes. (They currently number 430 riding members and 150 non-riding members with 23 floats.) Like many other krewes, they are practically obsessive about their secrecy and anonymity; getting comments for the record is near impossible, and you can forget about quoting anyone by their birth name.

And about those names! Gone are the kings and queens and presidents and such. No, with this krewe it’s not a board of directors but the “Junta”; there’s not a king but the “Dictator”; not a president but a “Kingfish”; not a vice president but a “Yes Man”; no secretary but the “Scribe”; the treasurer is the “Keeper of the Bones”; and we’ve already acknowledged the historian as the “Minister of Disinformation.” They don’t have a proper ball but it sure looks like they’re having one up there on the float. And don’t sweat if you can’t keep with the themes; members pass around bulletins that explains the theme and floats to parade-goers in advance on the route (another nod to the good old days of Carnival).

The Turn of the KreweThe roots of the krewe can be traced to another krewe that no one will go on record as naming. The general idea was that an idea to try something temporary with the Pegasus parade in 1996 turned into a breaking away and establishment of the new krewe. But it’s even more complicated than that, with some residual wistfulness following the controversial City Council decision in 1992 to withhold parade permits for krewes that did not integrate. All of the krewes went along except for three of the oldest and most respected: Momus, Comus and Proteus. It was a triple blow to Carnival, particularly considering how satirical Comus was. There was a feeling among many that a gaping hole had been created and while practically everyone contacted for this article wouldn’t say it outright, there’s a general feeling that Le Krewe d’Etat helped fill that void.

Part of the sensitivity is two-fold; part of it is out of a respect for the krewes that remain and have decades of seniority on d’Etat. As brash as d’Etat can seem – the group ruffled more than a few feathers by successfully campaigning for a newly created spot parading behind Hermes on the Friday before Fat Tuesday – nobody wants to seem like they’re replacing something as grand as Comus on the streets during Carnival. (Proteus eventually returned to parade; Momus has many of its members represented in Chaos.) Part of the sensitivity stems from the krewe’s emergence on the heels of the superkrewe trend that started in the 1960s with Bacchus and Endymion and was capped off with the emergence of Orpheus in 1993. Clearly d’Etat is alternative to the superkrewes but doesn’t consider itself competition.

“They brought back an element that had been missing,” says noted Mardi Gras historian Arthur Hardy. “[The early 1990s] was just a very sad time for Mardi Gras and I think most New Orleanians, both black and white, really felt the loss of those krewes. But now Mardi Gras is a lot stronger now than then. They’re one of the best krewes of the past 25 years.”

Still, Le Krewe d’Etat clearly benefits from a membership that stands firmly in both the past and present. As topical as their themes are and as cutting as their satire – “Looziana Scandals and Scoundrels,” “Malice in Wonderland” and “Tarot d’Etat” come to mind – there is a fondness for the core values of Carnival. Hence the eschewing of the bling of the fiber optics and double-decker or tandem floats of the trendy super-krewes – as well as what some felt was a lack of attention to the aesthetic details that can turn a krewe’s parade into a thingy of beauty. (There is some bling, however; d’Etat is well known for its flashing-eye skull beads, which are as scary as they are valuable.)

“They represent the best of both worlds,” says Hardy, who makes a point of how daring it was to make a skull so prominent on the krewe’s logo. “It’s not in any way grotesque or a dark side, but a mysterious side. They really broke ranks there but the secrecy idea tied them to the older krewes.”

Indeed, the krewe seems to appeal to both the upstarts and the nostalgic.
“I’m a Mardi Gras traditionalist,” says the krewe’s captain, who would only be quoted as “Captain.” “I’ve probably read every book that’s every been written about Mardi Gras. And I love all the traditional aspects. But we try to be traditional with a little bit of a twist.”

Henri Schindler has written some of those books and for six years supervised the production and direction of the parade, and also deserves a lot of the credit for d’Etat’s sudden emergence as one of the most popular and highly praised krewes.
“Carnival craves novelty,” says Schindler, who also served as the producer/director for Comus from 1987-’91. “The trick is finding the balance between novelty and tradition, making things interesting and beautiful and in d’Etat’s case, pointed and satirical. The idea is to amuse with barbs; they take aim at a wide range of characters. We poked fun at Bill Clinton, Rush Limbaugh, O.J. Simpson – there’s no agenda. It’s broadside. That’s what makes it so wonderful. Nothing’s sacred.”
The Turn of the KreweSchindler and Le Krewe d’Etat parted ways for the 2005 parade, which was then designed by Herb Jahnke’s Royal Artists Inc. Tragically, Jahnke passed away in early December, setting forth yet another challenge for the young krewe to grapple with. If Le Krewe d’Etat was true to form, it would so with the same kind of humor that helped everyone get through that sobering Mardi Gras season of 2006. Of course, the theme is a secret but the Minister of Disinformation might have offered a clue as to the tone. There has always been talk of putting together a “cutting-room-floor” parade that skewers all of the other krewes, he says, but perhaps realizes discretion is the better part of valor.

Still, the Minister maintains, “I think that it’s gotten zanier over the years. We’ve learned that we can trust our instincts and be more cutting-edge. I think we’ve had one letter to the editor written to the paper saying one float was offensive. We’ve learned we can push the envelope more than we thought we could. So if anything we’re more outlandish.

“Otherwise we’re just committed to putting on a Mardi Gras parade and having a hell of a good time.”

David Lee Simmons served eight years as the A&E editor and managing editor for Gambit Weekly. He is currently the A&E Editor for Creative Loafing, the alternative newsweekly in Atlanta.