They march with hula hoops and ribbon. They march with ashes. They march in pink satin and tights, in petticoats, kimonos and lingerie with protruding rubber spikes. (At least you hope they’re rubber spikes.) Ants come marching in and so do a dozen giant cockroaches, their Jansports spray-painted a glittery brown, holding their drinks of choice: rum, whiskey, soda, anything brown. Behind them comes the band, The Storyville Stompers. Behind the band, more people – ones clad in Leidenheimer poor boy bags, shards of broken mirrors or nothing at all. It is early Mardi Gras morning. The Krewe of Saint Anne has just left a private residence in Bywater, heading to Bud Rips at an hour of the day most patrons are exiting the bar with the same contempt for sunlight as well-seasoned vampires. It is going to be a long day, but you can’t tell by looking at them. They dance in the streets with parasols, silk dragons and things I cannot mention without a bottle of vapors nearby to revive you. Their heads and faces covered with feathers, golden babies, skulls, flowers and pride. Other things barely covered. They bring booze, talking George W. Bush monkeys, Sarah Palin bobble heads, razzle and dazzle, glitter and gold. Everywhere it’s sequins, spandex, body paint and eyelashes long enough to catch flies, walking canes filled with screwdrivers (the beverage), bottles of champagne, bags of brownies and confetti and the ubiquitous beer koozie – all this following a healthy breakfast. It is a good reason to wake up early on Mardi Gras morning.
Known for its fabulous costumes and colorful revelry, the Societé de Sainte Anne (aka Krewe of Ste. Anne or just Ste. Anne’s) has marched every Mardi Gras since 1969. Fueled by a healthy dose of cynicism, humor and a big love of Mardi Gras, friends Henri Schindler, Jon Newlin and Paul Poche founded the parade to rebel against an ordinance that removed traditional old-line walking parades from the Vieux Carré. Schindler named the parade after the street most of his friends lived on, but it’s only appropriate that they learned Ste. Anne was the “grandmother of god.” We won’t get into all the symbolism here. Thinking too much about such things can get messy. You can find all that meaningful stuff online anyway, along with myriad videos by both skilled and inebriated cinematographers, a brief history on the krewe’s homepage and quite a bit of information about Henri Schindler, a protégé of float designer Louis Fishcher and a writer who comes across as a self-assured godfather of modern Mardi Gras and a bit of an obsessive historian, entertaining in every right.
Schindler no longer parades with Ste. Anne, but his tradition of marching to Canal Street and watching the Krewe of Rex parade is still carried out today, though the route has certainly changed through the years and, in fact, seems to change a lot. It is easiest to find Ste. Anne at the R Bar on Royal Street in Marigny during the late morning (they have at least an hour layover there), then stroll with into the French Quarter on Royal Street to Canal Street. There they watch the Rex parade before heading back down to St. Peters Street and marching toward their last stop, the Mississippi River, where the tradition of honoring friends and loved ones who have passed by spreading their ashes in the water is shared by many.
There is a notion floating around that there’s no real membership to the Societé de Sainte Anne. You just have to know where to show up and you’re in, but that’s not entirely true. That just makes you a participant in a parade that Schindler himself stated as having no real spectators, just participants (apparently, he never noticed the throngs of horrified and mesmerized tourists in baggy sweatshirts and dismal beads visible while approaching Canal Street).
Show up in your costume and walk in the parade, sure, but don’t fool yourself: You’re not really in the Krewe of Ste. Anne unless you’ve helped pay for the ribbons and the band. The rest of us are just participants, poseurs really, who manage to tolerate the drunken blob outside R Bar long enough to witness the giant clown-faced claustrophobic nightmare straighten into a marching parade and depart – but it’s fun to pretend. Anyway, parties are meant to be crashed.
There are several tips to consider if you want to be part of the parade. First, know where you can use the bathroom. Hopefully you have friends on the Ste. Anne route, like Schindler did, or maybe you know of a restroom line that isn’t 20 deep with seahorses, ice princesses and that café-au-lait-and-beignet couple that won’t stop dancing. Never get in line behind people covered in what appears to be powdered sugar; or people in body suits; or some lady who looks like she has fallen asleep on the guy in front of her – you’ll be waiting all day.
If you don’t want to lose the parade, watch the tuba. This advice comes from Ste. Anne member Robyn Halverson. A resident of Bywater, she has been marching with Ste. Anne for 25 years. Her advice mainly pertains to the R Bar, where glittery locusts seem to swallow the trombones, drums and trumpets. After a while, everything sloshes into one big Miller High Life. But the tuba is the elephant of the party safari, easy to keep in eyesight and assuring the parade hasn’t left yet.
Most important of all, however, is your costume.
“Nobody should be in front of the band if they don’t have on a good costume,” Halvorsen warns me in a way that makes me wonder if she’s seen some of my previous ensembles. Her colorful, ornate costumes are one of the reasons so many people turn up for Ste. Anne each year. She used to throw the magnificent Decadence Balls, with themes like “dress as your favorite cocktail” – imagine the car bombs, the buttery nipples. She tells me of the costumes she’s seen in years past, including two men who went as a giant stallion with big glassy eyes that actually moved. How a little boy stood in the street, dumbfounded, having never seen a horse so real.
Before the Sun
Costumes are the thing. To get inspired, I head to Jim Gabour’s house on a windy, overcast day, to see his collection of Mardi Gras headpieces and a video collage he’s put together. For Gabour, like everyone in Ste. Anne, a typical Mardi Gras morning starts before the sun comes up. He wakes and cooks breakfast in his kitchen for dozens of his friends, who come over to feast, imbibe and put on their costumes. Sometimes they walk from Marigny to Bywater for the start of the parade. Other times, Gabour has been known to rent a bus to take him and friends to the start of the parade. Chances are it gets rowdier and clothed less than a band camp on the way to a water park.
“It’s a long day of walking. Very tiring,” he admits. “The bus helps.”
Gabour holds an MFA in sculpture, which comes in handy during Carnival. The only time he really puts his degree to use is for his “A” and “B” costumes, for the parade and the ball. One look at his home and you understand his Mardi Gras costumes are works of art. They adorn walls, banisters, shelves and tabletops. All gold and glitz, bone and feather, his home is like anthropological-dig-meets-intellectual’s-Versaille. He assures me he never has a lot of spare time to work on his costumes. You start to wonder if the guy carries a concealed glue gun.
He shows me a headpiece constructed of hundreds of bones coated in gold, topped with a deer skull, flanged with feathers.
“I saved all the bones of the animals I ate for an entire year,” he says.
“Really, even at restaurants?” I picture him wrapping bones in napkins and stuffing them in his pockets like taquitos, various servers of disconcerted nature, ravenous dogs chasing him through the French Quarter.
“Well, no. Not restaurants. Just at home. I cooked a whole deer that year. I figure, you know, they died for me, why not do something to honor them.”
There is a lot of honoring the deceased in this krewe, both animal and human.
Gabour is a well-known documentary filmmaker and video production professor at Loyola University. He filmed the Spinal Tap reunion tour, so even Harry Shearer has marched with the Krewe of Ste. Anne. He sets up some video footage of past parades for me to watch, which is good, sure, but not as good as being there in person, penguin, rhinestone cowboy or whomever you are that day. For both Gabour and Halverson, their favorite part of the day is when the band strikes up the Triumphal March from Aida, around the Hotel Monteleone as the parade approaches Canal Street. Gabour and Halverson spoke of this very same hair-raising moment during separate interviews. Halverson also mentioned having to stop the band once when they started playing the wrong song. “I don’t know if they were drunk or what, but we made them stop and play the right song.”
Before I depart Gabour’s house, he pulls a final goodie off a shelf full of Mardi Gras and Day of the Dead ephemera.
“This is a bag of Mike,” he says. He holds up the sack of ashes. A friend of his had asked him to hold the ashes one Mardi Gras and as the day progressed he forgot they were in his pocket. “I don’t know if I’ll ever spread them in the river or not.” Then he places them back on the shelf, the curator and his artifacts.
While there’s no contractual membership to the Societé de Ste. Anne, there is the Ste. Anne’s Ball, which is thrown and paid for by the same gentleman every year and is invitation-only. You can stop checking your mailbox now. Not even Scooby Doo is allowed in this mystery machine. Nothing could begin to reveal how you get into this krewe, which is more elusive than the group of hackers that call themselves “Anonymous.” But the Krewe of Ste. Anne, despite all their secrecy, is now famous. HBO’s “Treme” portrayed their tradition of honoring their deceased friends at the river with a scene of people standing quietly during the pseudo-baptism as waters from the Mississippi are dripped onto their heads by those illustrious colorful ribbons. Then comes the spreading of the ashes in the river. It is an accurate portrayal, but the strange thing is, none of the key members from the real parade are featured in the scene or were even contacted by producers to be in the scene.
“Some of the Storyville Stompers kept saying that ‘Treme’ wanted to do a scene of us,” Halverson tells me. Her email and telephone number were passed around to producers of the show, but nobody ever contacted her. Turns out the shoot took place on Ash Wednesday and even if the krewe had been contacted, the likelihood of anyone willing to work a 12-hour day after Fat Tuesday was nil. The Storyville Stompers were somehow able to peel themselves out of bed and show up – or perhaps they just didn’t go to bed.
“I like the show. I like what they’ve done,” Halverson says. “But I wonder why they just didn’t shoot the real parade?”
Some things are better left unknown.