My ability to stay at home with my kids and help them suffer through this long year of online schooling during the pandemic, has been funded by Mardi Gras. Their mother has paid all of our bills this year by painting floats, for a parade season that we all knew wasn’t gonna roll.
Thousands of artists like her work year-round, decorating over 50 parades for 50-plus Mardi Gras krewes. Each parade rolls for just one night, before it returns to the float den to be painted white, and redecorated for next year–ad infinitum, or until a pandemic hits. Krewe-members pay anywhere from $500 to $15,000 per person to ride on the floats, with much of that that money going toward art. Mardi Gras funds a vast artist economy that doesn’t exist in other cities. Cancelling these parades not only punches an almost half-billion dollar hole in the tourist economy, it jeopardizes hundreds of local businesses and jobs.
Throughout the pandemic, the Mardi Gras industry has mostly pretended that parades will roll as usual, just so that artists can keep their jobs. “Yes we were hopeful,” admits Richard Valadie, owner of Royal Artists, a New Orleans company that decorates hundreds of floats for a dozen of the city’s krewes, including “King of Carnival,” Rex. “The virus would come and go in waves and sometimes it seemed possible but, in the end… Cancelling wasn’t a popular decision, but there’s no way you could have parades in the present situation. People were lucky to have jobs this long.”
The Catholic calendar says Carnival officially began on January 6, yet Valadie currently oversees a small, unhurried staff at his warehouse stuffed with colorful parade floats. His den should’ve descended into madness by now, with 20 artists scrambling to finish up parades that should be rolling between now and Fat Tuesday on February 16. By now, even I would have called Richard asking if he had extra work for me, and he would’ve said Hell yes I do. Last year, last second, he hired me to restring all the lights on 20 floats. This year I didn’t bother to ask.
My partner and I still end each day wondering aloud when she’ll finally be cut from her job painting floats. Lucky for her, krewes in Jefferson Parish, St. Bernard Parish, Houma and Hammond still hope to roll as if 400,000 Americans have not died of coronavirus. Only the Mardi Gras industry’s sad hopes for normalcy have kept her painting, and kept our kids eating.
My family started to really worry though, back in October when our Algiers neighborhood’s official krewe, NOMTOC (New Orleans’s Most Talked of Club) became the second krewe to self-cancel, following Krewe of Oshun. An African American krewe born in 1951 as a reaction to racist Jim Crow laws, NOMTOC remains one of the Westbank’s only parades that didn’t jump ship to the east bank after 2013’s Super Bowl.
“In that community of Algiers, people are so attached to what we do,” my neighbor and NOMTOC leader Jim Henderson told me over the phone, since we can’t meet in person around the corner at their clubhouse on Newton St. “Anything we do is going to attract a crowd. Any time we go out the clubhouse, the neighborhood will be there. And we didn’t want to be a part of that. We even thought to do something small to commemorate Mardi Gras with just the 60 board members, but we couldn’t figure out how to guarantee safety for the people we’re attracting. So, we had to back off, decorate the clubhouse as best we can, and promise we’ll have a better show and better conditions in 2022.”
NOMTOC’s total shutdown made sense, given the outsized toll coronavirus has taken on African American communities due to poverty and poor healthcare options. But Henderson worries about the permanent damage this single cancellation will cause to his krewe. “We had built our ridership up to 600, and I am worried about bringing that all back,” he told me “We’ve had to cancel before for rain events, or big freeze events, and it took years to build our membership back up each time. If you don’t have those membership dues, you can’t pay for the parade. We currently have roots in ATL, and Houston, and Alabama, and I wonder how long it will take us to get all that back….”
Henderson also wonders if he’ll need to get into the business of custom float design and preparation, if his usual float building company, PFJ Parade Floats, doesn’t survive. “Reality has set in now that the pandemic is hurting these businesses’ sustainability.”
Finally, in December, three months after Brazil cancelled its carnival for the first time in a century, New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell gave her haters fits by officially cancelling all parades in Orleans Parish for the first time since the 1979 Police strike, and before that World War II. This completely warranted cancellation set in motion a crash within the Mardi Gras industry that will potentially reverberate for years.
“I’ve kept my core artists, but a lot of people I couldn’t keep on,” said Valadie of Royal Artists, who usually employs 20 workers, but foresees needing no more than eight for the next year or two. “I lost half my business this year, and will also lose half of my business for next year: Like, my Mobile, Alabama parades aren’t rolling this year, but we are still decorating them now for next year’s parades. We won’t be painting those again next year. The satire parades have to be new every year, so we stopped and had to trash what we were working on, and we’ll redo those. Then Rex has their 150th anniversary next year, so they will want us to redecorate, but using [pieces] we made for them this year.”
Trimming down to only his most experienced painters also means Valadie’s ceased teaching the craft to anyone new. “We had to cut all the new people who were learning,” Richard said, “so, whenever I do have the workload again, I worry I won’t have enough skilled people to do it. It’s gonna take a couple years for us to catch up.”
Biking through Algiers Point on my way to interview Megan Boudreaux who started the new, citywide Krewe of House Floats, I pass a dozen people outside their homes hammering away on elaborate tableu. A dog-sized, paper mache murder wasp, and a man-eating plant made from Great Stuff, comprise a “Little Shop of 2020 Horrors” scene that takes up the whole front of a two-story house. Pedaling past Crown-n-Anchor bar, I even hear the beer drinkers at the outdoor tables say to each other, “This house float thing is great!”
Megan Boudreaux’s idea of people turning their homes into stationary parade floats has grown into not only a phenomenon and likely a new Mardi Gras tradition; House floats have provided a silver lining for many freshly-unemployed Mardi Gras artists.
“People keep emailing me this week asking, ‘Is it too late to get my house decorated?’” said Boudreaux. “And I keep having to explain that we don’t do that. You do that.” But once the idea began gaining momentum, Boudreaux’s thoughts turned to helping out. “We compiled a public resource list on Facebook of artists, and local businesses that sell supplies, so you could avoid ordering everything on Amazon, and maybe pay someone to create and build a house float for you.”
Inez Pierre credits the house float phenomenon with saving the Mardi Gras decorating business she owns with her husband Rene, Crescent City Artists. “We would be closing our business down otherwise,” she told me. Rene and Inez usually represent CCA’s only two fulltime employees, alongside several part-time helpers. “Now that we’re doing the porch floats,” said Pierre, “we employ a full-time staff of eight artists and master carpenters, all making above minimum wage. Our smallest has been a $500 float, and our largest was $4,000. We have done at least 54 in a month—we got our first order the day after Xmas–and we’ve donated one to the McDonald House, and one to the Homeless Center for Children.” Instead of a fatal season, Inez said, “The house floats have allowed us to have a better than normal Mardi Gras season despite the pandemic.”
Pierre said she’s already booked for house float jobs next year: “It’s growing! We have a couple coming from Houston today to pick up theirs. And I’ve gotten calls from D.C., North Carolina, New York. This is definitely something we’ll incorporate permanently into our business.”
Devin DeWulf then took the concept a step further and focused specifically on job creation with his website HireAMardiGrasArtist.com. “Caroline Thomas knew that I had organized Feed the Frontline NOLA, which brought 90,000 restaurant meals and 10,000 coffees to local health workers as a moral boost. We hired unemployed local musicians as delivery people,” said DeWulf, who is also the organizer and founder of the Krewe of Red Beans, and the charity project Feed the Second Line.
“Red Beans has a lot of members who care about the community and are very grass roots, so when Caroline Thomas had the idea to crowdfund Mardi Gras worker jobs back, she turned to us,” said DeWulf. HireAMardiGrasArtist.com collects donations of all sizes. “And every time we raise $15,000, we raffle off a house float to someone who donated. We also take commissions from people and businesses who want to hire artists to create $15,000 projects. We’ve raised a quarter of a million dollars in just a month, and are currently employing 45 full-time artists at a minimum of $30-per-hour. We’ve completed 22 float houses since December 5th when we announced the idea.”
MOJO Coffee co-owner Angee Estevez self-financed the first of these large scale projects, and had her façade converted into an homage to New Orleans musician Dr. John’s “Night Tripper.” Years before the pandemic, Estevez began an extended PR campaign to gain notoriety for the Mardi Gras float artists. “No one knows their names!” says Estevez, every chance she gets. Last year, Estevez began changing her Magazine St. boutique, Miette, into a gallery where Mardi Gras artists could sell their wares and get their names out. “I started seeing a lot of great Mardi Gras artists leaving to take movie jobs, and quitting carnival all together because the money wasn’t good enough,” Estevez told me. “There are a lot of talented people who have a passion for Mardi Gras and I hated to see them leaving, and I was sure the pandemic would make that worse. I always wanted to help grow the Mardi Gras artists a supplemental income, and this house float thing has been that dream come true. It’s been the Mardi Gras artist PR campaign I could never afford for them.”
DeWulf agrees that the house floats come with an education in Mardi Gras culture. “Everyone doing their house floats DIY is learning how hard it is to do,” he said. “They will come to appreciate the professionals, and learn about the real costs associated with float-building. And I think now, the demand will always be there to hire people to build house floats.”
Mardi Gras historian, media commentator, and all around New Orleans Carnival guru, Arthur Hardy, almost didn’t publish this year’s 45th edition of his famous Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide. “We made the difficult decision to publish even though we had not very much advertising revenue this year. I thought it was important to publish anyway,” Hardy told me when I called. “My fear was: Out of sight, out of mind. If I take a year off, I may never come back.”
Hardy maintains great faith in Carnival’s healing power. “But it’s gonna take a while for the Mardi Gras economy to return, as it will for the whole city’s economy to bounce back,” Hardy predicted. “It will be a longtime recovery, and there is concern that a lot of krewes won’t get back on the street. A lot of people have lost their disposable income to covid, and Mardi Gras is a luxury, and if you don’t have money, you can’t put on a parade, and if you don’t have members, you don’t have money. It’s a ripple effect. The krewes that are big and expensive to ride in can maybe lose half their members and still remain viable. The size of the super-krewes will shrink. But I think we’re gonna lose a few of the more intimate parades, sadly.”
As Hardy projected to me the grandeur and pathos of next year’s Mardi Gras on March 1, 2022, it suddenly seemed strange to be talking about a better coronavirus situation, when things only seem to be getting worse. Hardy doesn’t want to think about the possibility of cancelling Mardi Gras next year too, admitting only, “I don’t know if I could survive two years.”
In the meantime, the Mardi Gras guru prescribes contribution: “Participate on some level, whether it’s buying a king cake, or a Mardi Gras Guide, or decorating your house. Just don’t let this get you down, and figure out some safe outlet to celebrate Mardi Gras. Treat this as a on-off, and we’ll be back next year. That has to be the attitude. Even if that might not be our reality.”