By Andi Oustalet
Mardi Gras is one of the most wonderful times on the Coast. Thousands of revelers line parade routes and dress extravagantly for balls, but most of them likely don’t completely understand what goes into the development and execution of Mardi Gras.
I have been involved with Mardi Gras for more than 20 years in every capacity, from simply attending balls and parades to assisting my family when they were royalty for Gulf Coast Carnival Association. But in some circles, 20 years still make me a novice.
Mardi Gras has an amazing history. Mobile has the distinction of holding the first festival in 1703, the oldest in America. New Orleans followed in 1718. The Gulf Coast Carnival Association will celebrate 111 years in 2019, making it the oldest on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But there are many organizations that celebrate the fun every year, and both Gulfport and Biloxi have several krewes that are celebrating more than 90 years.
But the question remains, how do these organizations put on the celebrations to honor these traditions? How can you become a member? How can you become royalty? Well, here are a few answers to those questions.
Over the years, events definitely have evolved to become more lavish and detailed. At the core of what happens is management. The captain, lieutenant captain, ball chairs or presidents of these krewes who have been elected by the boards ultimately are responsible for making Mardi Gras what it is today. And the planning begins for the next year the week after Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras day.
These extremely dedicated and unselfish individuals donate their time and talent. Their families and jobs must be 110 percent supportive because this kind of dedication is really unbelievable. I have witnessed it firsthand for many years through several organizations.
They must develop the theme for the year; work on the logistics of putting on a coronation ball for hundreds, if not thousands, of members and guests; work with a seamstress for months getting the beautiful costumes custom-made for each member of the royalty; coordinate a host hotel where in most cases the ball or other related functions are held; organize a parade, working with city officials and float designers; assist in the choosing of royalty for the year and several additional events that occur year round. That is just the beginning of what the captains, lieutenant captains, ball chairs and presidents do to ensure the fun for all of us. So if you run into one of these folks, be sure to thank them for their efforts because I can assure you, it is a massive undertaking.
I am more familiar with Gulf Coast Carnival Association, so I am going to elaborate on how Mardi Gras happens for this organization. First, a theme must be established for the year. This is no small feat, as this theme must be entertaining and exciting for all ages and many genres. The most recent theme was The Ride of Your Life. There were eight sub-themes under it: Rollercoaster Rides, Apollo 13, Surfing the Baja, Paul Revere’s Historical Ride, The First Barrel Ride over Niagara Falls, The Ride of the Pharaohs, Evel Knievel and the First Riverboat Rides.
Costume designs follow with the very talented Sheila Gray and Angela Polite at the sewing machines, and many details are applied by hand. These women have been the royal seamstresses for GCCA for years and have done an outstanding job crafting a theme into a wearable costume. Fabrics are purchased from New Orleans to New York, and hundreds of selections are made to craft these masterpieces. The costumes require months to create and large spaces for sewing and fabrication. They work closely with the captain and lieutenant captain to ensure the themes are translated for the court to wear for the coronation ball, parades and many special appearances throughout the year.
While the costumes are in the early stages, the court must be selected. For GCCA, this process begins in the spring soon after Mardi Gras is over. The nomination and vote for the king and queen is a well-kept secret until their identities are revealed right before Mardi Gras week. Several names typically are offered for king and queen, and a majority vote of the Board of Directors determines the final decision. Then, the association will select four dukes, and the king will select four. The queen also chooses four maids, and the association chooses four young ladies as well. Then the fun begins, and the bonding between court members and new friends creates memories that last a lifetime.
More than 50 different krewes and Mardi Gras organizations operate along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and each is unique in history and style. Les Cavaliers revelers have their coronation and ball at a host hotel, where members decorate the tables in high style according to the theme. It can get quite competitive for the members who participate. The court is announced at the ball with great anticipation from the crowd, where a dance follows with a live band until the early hours of the next day.
Les Masque, a women’s organization in Biloxi, chooses a queen by vote at an annual meeting, and then she chooses her court — which remains a secret until the ball during the season.
The Krewe of Athena, another all women’s krewe, has a dance revue-style ball with members dressed in costumes that perform routines in groups before the royal court is introduced.
The Order of Mithras is the oldest men’s organization in Biloxi, and a king or queen is not chosen until the night of the ball — which typically is held on the Friday before Mardi Gras day.
So how you can become a member? Many krewes are capped by a number, and usually potential members are submitted to the membership for a vote when a spot becomes available. These are harder to join. Many others simply add members who are willing to pay the dues, but they must be voted in by the general membership or the board.
So, ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to enjoy this fabulous time of year. The best advice is to dive in and enjoy it, whether that’s simply going to a parade or a public event or joining an organization and potentially becoming royalty.
The all-important phrase to remember is “laissez les bon temps rouler”. Translated, that means let the good times roll!
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andi Oustalet has been organizing events and fundraisers for over 30 years in numerous capacities. Mardi Gras is among her passions because of her family’s involvement and the impact it has for so many businesses on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Her husband, Butch Oustalet, was King d’Iberville in 2011. Her daughter, Kimberley Rushton Wilson, was a royal maid to Queen Christina Carter Burks in 2012 and reigned as Queen Ixolib in 2016. Kate Rushton is the reigning Queen Ixolib for 2018 and was a royal maid for Queen Katelyn Watts Braswell in 2014. She served as a maid for Les Cavaliers Organization in 2017 with Queen Alina Goldin