A Ride On A Mardi Gras Float

Boy at Mardi Gras parade ©2010 Rick Olivier

Boy at Mardi Gras parade ©2010 Rick Olivier

A couple of years ago our band, Creole String Beans,  was asked to provide live music for one of the floats in the Krewe of Endymion (which is one of the biggest Mardi Gras parades, fyi if you’re not a New Orleanian).  Most of us in the band had never ridden on a float before, especially not in a parade as gigantic and spectacular as Endymion. 

Mardi Gras Float throws ©2010 Rick Olivier

Mardi Gras Float throws ©2010 Rick Olivier

Most of the floats are pre-loaded with all the throws for the parade.  Thousands of dollars have been invested in these throws.  If they are not disbtributed to both sides of the float the float will actually lean.  The beads and trinkets are worthless shiny plastic; the process of screaming, pleading, demanding, and finally catching them is priceless…

Flambeau before Endymion Parade ©2010 Rick Olivier

Flambeau before Endymion Parade ©2010 Rick Olivier

There’s something magical about the flambeaux that some parades still use.  Maybe it’s the connection to traditions past or maybe its just the elemental power of fire.  Most of the flambeaux carriers in modern parades carry a propane tank on their back to fuel the fire, which looks a lot more dangerous than it actually is, and would make Hank Hill proud…

Higgins High School Band ©2010 Rick Olivier

Higgins High School Band ©2010 Rick Olivier

Local bands are enlisted to march and play in most of the parades.  Some, like the L.W. Higgins marching band only have to cross the Mississippi River to participate but others travel from far corners of the country to be part of the excitement.  As the parade gets ready to roll the band will start to warm up and go over their songs and routines.

Endymion Riders, 2009, ©2010 Rick Olivier

Endymion Riders, 2009, ©2010 Rick Olivier

The parades never really move at a continuous pace, its more of a start and stop, and some of the stops can last for quite a while.   Here the anxious riders are looking ahead to see when the show will hit the road.  Endymion fans have already lined Orleans Avenue and some have camped out for several nights to secure their spots with (non-legal) yellow tape…

2009 Endymion crowd ©2010 Rick Olivier

2009 Endymion crowd ©2010 Rick Olivier

This is what it really looks like from the float as you look down on the crowd.  The people are all screaming the Mardi Gras mantra of “throw me something mister” and kids sit atop ladders hoping for a catch.  It’s amazing that more people aren’t completely crushed under the float wheels when you see how close they’ll get for some beads.  The whole scene lit yellow from streetlamps…

Endymion rider with beads ©2010 Rick Olivier

Endymion rider with beads ©2010 Rick Olivier

The krewe members will often dangle some of the more desirable beads just out of reach like a fisherman tempting his prey.  It never seems to stop anyone from begging, jumping, and finally snatching the beads away if they’re able to grab them.  Seldom is the temptation done in anything but a playful manner, as long as the alcohol consumption stays in a relatively safe zone…

2009 Endymion reveler ©2010 Rick Olivier

2009 Endymion reveler ©2010 Rick Olivier

Much like at a rock concert, there’s no shortage of people (most of them small and lightweight) who will jump on a friend or relative’s shoulders to get a better shot at catching beads.  Sometimes you can actually have a conversation with them if the float is stopped but mostly they fly by hour after hour in a blur of reaching arms, hands, and incessant screams for more beads…

Endymion ladies ©2010 Rick Olivier

Endymion ladies ©2010 Rick Olivier

Our 2009 parade only had one major stoppage near Canal and Jeff Davis Blvd.  That’s also when the p.a. system bit the dust and we thought we’d be the Silent Mardi Gras band but magically someone brought it back to (gasping) life.  It did give us the opportunity to chat with some of the assembled revelers for a while and I got to make a posed portrait with great lighting…

2009 Endymion on Canal St. ©2010 Rick Olivier

2009 Endymion on Canal St. ©2010 Rick Olivier

When Endymion crosses under the Claiborne overpass and rolls into downtown the magnitude of the event really hits you.  Thousands and thousands of screaming people line the streets and the sound is like being inside a jet turbine.  I snapped this image just before we launched into “Morgus The Magnificent”, a local crowd-pleaser celebrating our own mad scientist…

Parade Catch ©2010 Rick Olivier

Parade Catch ©2010 Rick Olivier

People love to show off the crazy stuff they catch and they’ll hold it right up to the float as if to say “you got anything THIS good for me”, like this guy with the hot pink undergarment.  The twinkle in his eye conveys all of the good-natured excitement that makes Mardi Gras in New Orleans a worldwide attraction…

Endymion riders exit ©2010 Rick Olivier

Endymion riders exit ©2010 Rick Olivier

Seven hours after boarding our faux steamboat for a ride down the Mardi Gras Mississippi we rolled into the Superdome staging area, exhausted and exhilarated.  A light drizzle had begun to fall as if to wash away all the chaos and craziness, or maybe just to make our load-out that much harder with limbs of lead and reeling heads.  Step off the glowing steamboat, back into reality…

Rick Olivier on Endymion float, 2009

Rick Olivier on Endymion float, 2009

Even if we never get to play on another float I’ll never forget what it felt like to lean against a fake styrofoam piling aboard a fake 19th century steamboat and bang out R&B on my cheap Korean Telecaster for fifty thousand people all screaming, laughing, and begging for beads.  It’s one of those moments you look back on and think “THAT was a TRIP!” and smile at the memory.  You can see more New Orleans photography at rickolivier.com.

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This entry was posted in Mardi Gras, New Orleans Music, Photography. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Ride On A Mardi Gras Float

  1. Cordelia Cale says:

    Rico, this is a great piece. Accurate writing and charming pictures. After the flood and all my Dad said, “You think we’ll still call them ‘floats’?” Still one of the most bizarrely funny things he ever said.
    Cheers!

  2. rickolivier says:

    Thanks DD, and yes, they’re even more “floaty” now pre-K! p.s.- we’re playing this Thursday a.m. on the WWL Ch4 Early show, promoting Best of the BEat gig..

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