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Jefferson Parish’s future carnival seasons facing crisis

19th February 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Just what is the fate of the Jefferson Parish Mardi Gras?

Crowds, riders, and even some krewes have decamped to St. Charles Avenue. Only Mid-City’s Endymion draws attendance of equal measure to Uptown, and it may be in partnership with that Super krewe that Jefferson Carnival’s Samedi Gras salvation may lay.

Nevertheless, Parish President Mike Yenni and the Parish Council face difficult decisions to keep Carnival alive anywhere in the suburban parish for next year and beyond. Even allowing an alternative parade route through Old Metairie may not be enough. It might be necessary to push back “Family Gras” to the third weekend prior to Shrove Tuesday to keep participating suburban Krewe membership healthy.

Jefferson Parish boasted of only ten parades in 2018, with just one on the West Bank, compared with two dozen in the 1990s. Moreover, this dwindling number counts Mardi Gras Day’s two truck krewes and a children’s parade rolling on Vets. In fact, the Jeff Parish Council had to doll out $85,000 in public money to four krewes to help keep them alive. Athena, Caesar, and Centurions received $25,000, and Adonis, the lone remaining West Bank parade, got $10,000.

Partially, the subsidy sought to underwrite a regulation that the Parish Council implemented in the last decade, requiring that each parade feature at least eight bands. It is a hugely expensive mandate when most schools would rather march on St. Charles Ave. rather than Veterans Blvd; though the decision to use part of the Jefferson Hotel occupancy tax to give cash awards to the best bands (the so-called “Rhythm on the Route” prizes) has helped recruitment to Jefferson Parades.

“Our Carnival krewes are dying,” Parish Councilman Paul Johnston said to justify the payouts. “We need to help them.” Still, the payments might not be enough to save some of the Jefferson Parades. Recruiting new riders for the krewes—or just having people on the streets—on the final weekend of Carnival in Jefferson has become problematic at best.

The Jefferson krewes of Isis and Pandora (neither of whom received the Parish cash subsidy amidst many complaints) ride on the Saturday and Sunday before Mardi Gras, in the evening on the Veterans route, so they compete against Endymion and Bacchus. In the past, the pro-family atmosphere of Metairie was enough to draw crowds to see them, but in 2018, attendance proved anemic at best. The Orleans-based Super krewes drew people just as they have wooed younger riders from Metairie. Even having lead-in parades on Saturday, February 9 on Vets, and mounting no Lundi Gras parades on Vets this year, made little difference.

Only at “Family Gras” on the Veterans Route did this year’s crowds rival decades past, and mostly around the main music venue at the Plaza at Lakeside. The appeal of hearing and seeing Deacon John & the Ivories on Friday and Cyndi Lauper & John Oats (of Hall & Oats) as well as the other performers brought out the people on Friday and Saturday, February 2-3. Despite the rather boring appeal of a parade on the concrete, big box landscape that is Veterans Blvd., “Family Gras” works because it offers a family-friendly, musical party atmosphere in the center of the boulevard which is absent even on rival St. Charles Ave.

Regardless, even the concert-bolstered crowds have not stopped the largest and most successful Jefferson Krewe, Caesar, from falling from 800 members before Katrina to 550 today—despite the quality of the floats improving each Carnival season. This year featured a “Cartoon Rewind” theme led off with a giant Fred Flintstone and other anime characters and matching throws for each float. (Of course, dues paying members may think twice about renewing next year as the decision to rain-delay the parade to Sunday, riding in competition to the Superbowl, meant that spectatorship was very sparse. The “Family Gras” concerts concluded Saturday night this year for that reason.)

In contrast, Argus on Mardi Gras Day and the following Truck Parades on Veterans Blvd. have flourished by all accounts, in membership and attendance. For many suburbanites, of all races, braving the Orleans routes no matter how much Zulu and Rex call, is a bit too much on the day itself. Jefferson can continue to compete on Fat Tuesday, and following a suggestion to run at least one or two of the krewes on Metairie Road, the historic route effectively abandoned for over forty years, might bolster attendance on the weekend before Mardi Gras. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade just over a month later has no trouble drawing spectators to the affluent Old Metairie neighborhood.

The answer could be, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” It’s a two-fold solution. Primarily, schedule Jefferson’s “Family Gras” three weekends before Mardi Gras Day—when only the Krewe du Vieux runs through the French Quarter in Orleans that Saturday night.

Put simply, mount “Family Gras” at a time when no family-friendly Uptown spectacle competes. Such a move is not as radical as it sounds. In the years prior to Katrina, parades in Jefferson began three weekends out, with the non-defunct Krewe of Atlas often taking to Veterans Blvd. prior to any parade rolling Uptown. Carnival season starts on January 6 or Twelfth Night; what difference does three weekends or two weekends out from Shrove Tuesday really make?

The Inner East Bank would return to three weeks of family-friendly Mardi Gras rather than the post-Katrina two.

Orleans, which other than the Marigny to Vieux Carre satirical parades has no real riding krewes that weekend, surely would have no reason to compete. It would cost the new Mayor LaToya Cantrell nothing to pledge to keep “three weeks out” clear of parades outside of the French Quarter.

And, both she and Mike Yenni have something very real to gain—a reduction in policing costs. Of course, not every Jefferson Krewe is going to wish to give up its parading opportunity the weekend prior to Mardi Gras Day. So allow the Jefferson Saturday parades prior to Shrove Tuesday, which do not wish to move their parading day, to run prior to Endymion on the Mid-City route.

There is an economic motivation for Jefferson Parish to help this Orleans Parish parading route. Disproportionately, the visitors who come to see the Mid-City Super krewe often stay in hotels on the other side of the 17th Street Canal. Jefferson hotels are often closer to the beginning of the Endymion route than most Orleans Parish options, and often far cheaper.

In contrast, those attending parades on St. Charles Avenue rarely avail themselves of Jefferson Parish hotels. The distance is too far.

Moreover, Endymion has always been a Jefferson Parish-dominated parade. The emeritus Captain Ed Muniz was the Mayor of Kenner and a Jeff Councilman — as well as Mike Yenni’s political mentor.

Much of its leadership lives in the Parish. They would jump at such an offer, and so would the City Government upon reflection. Jefferson can convince Orleans to do this by offering to provide some token JPSO policing help to relieve the strained NOPD presence.

The compromise might even draw some krewes from St. Charles Avenue to join the fun. The krewe of Mid-City has long grumbled about being forced by the city from their traditional route to Uptown. Perhaps its leaders might seek to partner with Isis or Pandora to make the Mid-City route what Endymion declares it to be on its website, “Mardi Gras’ Main Event.”

This article originally published in the February 19, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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