Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! On Mardi Gras day, a window on ‘strange but true New Orleans’

Critic At Large

Welcome to a formal ball

Scene at a 2020 ball in New Orleans. (Warren Gerds)


Green Bay and New Orleans are both in the United States.

That much they have in common.

Each has a professional football team.

One more thing in common.

Each has people.

Another thing in common? Yes and no.

Yes, people in both places eat, sleep and do all the regular daily stuff.

No, they differ in culture. And I don’t mean polka versus jazz, cold versus warm or beignets versus paczkis.

I bring up paczkis – a tempting pastry of Polish origins – because it is part of a tradition savored around here today, which is known by some as Fat Tuesday. Today also is a HUGE day in New Orleans, the main whoop-dee-doo of Mardi Gras.

Most people around here, I believe, picture Mardi Gras as one large fancy parade.

No, no, no. Mardi Gras is much more than folks in l’il ol’ Green Bay can imagine. I was immersed last year and wrote about a slice of the FESTIVITIES for which schools shut for the week (see below).

Since then, something else came along, and I was invited back to the city that’s celebrated for its music and foot to continue a “sociological/anthropological study.”

So today, I offer a window on “strange but true New Orleans” – a formal ball featuring debutantes.

It’s a high-society thing way out of my league, and I got to tag along by default.

The local newspaper ran an account, which may have been supplied:

“Amid the sweeping Saharan sand, set within an ancient land, arose the god Osiris’ tent celebrating the 103rd Grand Ball. The lights were raised to reveal the magnificent throne of the Palace of the Sun overlooking the sands of Egypt. Abundant palms, ferns and flowers entwined with myriad glittering lights provided a lush oasis setting for the coronation of the new king and queen.”

Doesn’t that make your eyes water?

Green Bay has nothing close to raising debutantes, polishing them up and then presenting them for all to see in a special grand party.

One way Green Bay might relate to this is a car show, only with new vehicles rather than the collector models.

The ball my wife and I attended was put on early in February. It was kind of a warmup for the Mardi Gras mayhem.

People in New Orleans decorate their homes inside and out for Mardi Gras. Families with a young woman in a club’s formal ball add other festive decorative touches.

Seasonal decoration in a New Orleans home. (Warren Gerds)

The ball included lots of people costumed like they should be on a Mardi Gras parade float. Only there’s no float, just a ballroom.

At the event I attended, there also were some women in the next row forward who put on such a good show that I can’t write about it in this mass medium. They revealed a “strange but true New Orleans.”

The invitation required “Costume de Rigeuer,” which means dress to the nines – formal gowns and white gloves for the women and super-tux for the men.

I had never dressed to the nines. I’d worn tuxes before, but they would only count up to six or seven by comparison. The New Orleans rig consisted of this for white-tie formal:

+ White tie (bow; a snap on in my case).

+ White shirt with special short, pointed collar at the front that went behind the bow tie, with standard buttons at the collar (one) and belt line (except there’s no belt) and mother of pearl-faced buttons (four) to be installed in between.

+ Black silk stockings.

+ Black pants with a slightly shiny stripe along the side.

+ White, button-on suspenders (adjustable).

+ White vest adjustable at the waist with three large buttons attaching near there.

+ Black coat with long tails in the back, with two buttons on the front left and right that do not close so the front always is open to the white fest and shirt with an ornate fabric front.

+ Black patent leather shoes that really reflect up on ceiling fans and such.

+ A pair of white fabric gloves with attaching snaps at each wrist.

+ When done, I cut a figure whose portrait was suitable for framing in the National Portrait Gallery in the section titled “Latter Day Founding Fathers.”

All rigged up for a formal ball in New Orleans.

So that people who knew me would not be mistaken (chiefly my wife), during the course of the evening I completed the look of my monkey suit by slipping the gloves over the tips of my shoes and walked as if a chimpanzee. I was really into the “strange but true New Orleans” theme.

The invitation to the ball was from the son of one of my wife’s long-time friends. One of the son’s daughters was among the entourage presented in two levels, called princesses and maids.

Now, a program was presented, but there was no emcee who spoke. A fellow in a glittering outfit came out and gestured, bowed and gestured and bowed some more, and people moved around as if receiving signals from outer space for what to do.

There was a king who looked ornately kingly. There was a young queen whose train was so long it took six grown men to put into place and four youth in Star Wars kind of outfits to help the queen move (slowly) from place to place.

On the front stage were men who looked knightly, with feather-like plumes on their heads, fabric masks and something like kilts, though nobody looked Scottish.

All the young women wore gowns that looked like they were straight from a fashion magazine.

The princesses were introduced in one long line.

The maids came out one by one, each be led by somebody’s grandfather all dressed up.

Names of the young women were listed in a printed program. But, again, nuthin’ was announced about nobody, leaving this yahoo from Green Bay quite adrift.

All this took place in a giant tent at a country club.

The event was held, I was told, as the one-and-only function of a club… and this club was among many in New Orleans doing the same thing at this time of year. Wow – all those car shows!

Live music accompanied everything. The tempo might be called nap time.

Eventually there was a ball, of sorts, under the tent. Following the presentations, people kind of danced a bit on the floor, but most just hung around to chat. I just watched.

Later, in the country club building, a band played for the young participants – real live LIVE New Orleans rhythms and drive! The place was hopping after the formalities got done.

A dinner was served in the country club starting at 10 p.m. The menu was not very dressed up – scrambled eggs, grits, bacon and that sort of thing.

More seriously, these events are held important by young women and their families. For many, it is a rite of passage.

Remnants of a ball. (Warren Gerds)

For the young women, the events will be remembered for the rest of their lives.

For family, pride and reputation are palpable.

In the Green Bay area, large weddings come to mind. But with the New Orleans fetes, weddings are yet in the future.

The culture is wholly different from that in Green Bay, just as Mardi Gras is – and was for me last year. That experience was like this (to repeat a column):


Faraway View of Mardi Gras Dwarfs the Real, Enormous Thing

Passing is the illuminated Bacchagator – Alligator People, one of 32 floats in the Krewe of Bacchus parade held Sunday, March 3, 2019. (Warren Gerds)

Whatever your impression of Mardi Gras is from here in Northeastern Wisconsin, the reality of it is different.

“it” involves millions of people, each with his or her unique impression of what “it” is – and that impression changes by the day, hour, minute, second and nanosecond.

From the distance of Green Bay, Wisconsin, a common impression of Mardi Gras is this: One large, raucous parade on one day with a large residue of spirits-induced festivity in the wake – like a last-second touchdown by the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field that sends the team into the Super Bowl.


Not even close.

All exuberance of all the games in all 100 years of the Packers is like a thimble full at one Mardi Gras in New Orleans. To think that the New Orleans Mardi Gras is but one such event in the world is daunting in the inexplicialities of what is humanity. We are all mere mortals in the end, but there is no such thing as mere in the all of humanity.

When considering Mardi Gras, one deals with excesses, including of language. The thing is excessive. Even “overkill” seems meager.

Mardi Gras is more than one parade. It is more like 10 days of parades, large and neighborhood-type.

The day Mardi Gras – “Fat Tuesday” – falls the Tuesday before the Christian observance of Ash Wednesday.

In New Orleans, events surrounding that day take months to create and organize. And then there are layers upon layers of history and pecking order in the society types that astound and confound regular folks. Regular folks do such normal things as go ice fishing, sturgeon spearing, snowmobiling, deer hunting and Packers watching while wearing a foam hunk of cheese on their head.

In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is generations of weeks and months, now grown into decades, all imbedded into the fabric of society in a place where so many, many  people have that fluctuating impression of “it.”

One set of impressions is from one parade of Mardi Gras at the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Napoleon Avenue, where one night’s (March 3, 2019) parade makes a turn.

A theatrical perspective: In the Tennessee Williams play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the streetcar with the destination of Desire Street in New Orleans would ride along St. Charles Avenue, which has streetcar tracks in the heart of its tree-canopied boulevard.

On the ground, police barricades – metallic, waist-high bars interlocked in segments – divide parade marchers on the floats from observers on the ground. On the roof of corner where floats make a turn are scores more revelers, many waving glow-in-the-dark plastic swords.

Movement is constant – people, colors, floats, imagery, helicopters, thrown bead necklaces (I only kept green and gold ones… Go Pack!), confetti, small footballs that blink, neon lighting, rotating balls of glare light – all mixed with blaring trumpets and thunderous drums of gaudily clad marching bands, one after another and another, and shouts and cheers from the miles-long crowd as excited individuals wave arms and holler for attention to be the recipient of a glittering necklace tossed in a towering arc into their possession to be preserved as a memory of this night at one spot in an instant of this “it.”

What is happening to you is like a large surreal dream that goes on and on and on. You cannot wake from this otherworldly vision. The calamity of another float passes as you hear another crescendo of arrr-rumps of thunder-drums and brass blitzes from another band, along with the sounds of large motors and rotors above (helicopters) – and you pay nothing to the attention of your body. You don’t feel your feet, arms, shoulders, head or any aches, bumps and tweaks of felt things you experienced on the day. You are distracted. Everything in your existence is focused on the exotica in your ears and eyes, especially the eyes. This seems so much to be a dream – one that hangs on and hangs on – yet you know this is one you can walk away from. You know you can wake tomorrow and remember this quasi-dream. In a way, the dream has the makings of a nightmare, but then again, not. Fright is not a factor. You have simply visited a massive mansion of imagination of off-the-wall imagery and enthusiasm for life set free by many lives.

So much for thoughts of a snapshot of one parade, for the organization called Bacchus. That parade include 32 floats. One of the local newspapers, The New Orleans Advocate, published a double spread (two full pages) of artist renditions of each Bacchus float in color. True to New Orleans Mardi Gras form (LARGE SCALE), the paper published such double spreads for 11 of the major parades that include Hermes, Orpheus, Zulu, Proteus, Iris, Endymion and Rex.

Rex is one of the biggie-biggies – day of Mardi Gras – parades+.

Here are thoughts from March 5, 2019, while seeing the 27 Rex floats, plus bands, plus costumed horsemen, plus tons of glittering necklaces, trinkets and toys tossed to bystanders along Napoleon Avenue.

To an outsider, one Mardi Gras parade may be plenty enough of excess. That’s just for starters for the locals.

Chatting up a man who lives in the neighborhood, I discovered his awareness of the outsiders’ impression of Mardi Gras – one day, one parade. He offered this count (perhaps exaggerated): “There are 100.”

This parade is more of the same from the other night for Bachhus, only in the sun and with more families – and very friendly.

No police barricades are up in this location. Revelers (parade goers) can stand close to the tractor-driven floats and be showered with necklaces, etc. from masked and costumed float riders (an honorary role).

Passing are floats with oversized heads/bodies of figures from real myths and made-up myths, which sound ridiculous, yet does have some sense to it.

Passing are bands made up of high school students, of military units, of community organizations. Harold Hill from “The Music Man” has been to town many times to sell 76 trombones – and whole warehouses of band instruments and outfits – many times over. Thousands of musicians play in the course of Mardi Gras.

Just when you think there isn’t enough of Mardi Gras, you turn on the TV to stations with local news and you watch live, ongoing coverage from a whole bunch of locations along parade routes and around the French Quarter.

When all the parading and arrr-umping and necklace tossing is done on this Tuesday, there is more. That parades+ referred to above includes live, ongoing TV coverage of evening festivities.

What you see is akin to the marriage of Kate and Prince William – ornate and splashy… very regal (regal-ish, the case of the New Orleans society).

There are kings (movers and shakers in real life) and their queens (blue blood young women) and the queens’ maidens, plus debutantes. The accomplishments of all and familial and societal attachments of all are listed on air in detail that’s almost to the point of what each had for breakfast.

It is all so, so much. This weekend, Northeastern Wisconsin has an Arti Gras, a clever play on the phrase “Mardi Gras,” for celebrating the arts in the region. Of course, there is no confusing Arti Gras and Mardi Gras. Neither could fathom the other anyway.

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