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Feb 2004 / games :: email this story to a friend

Chicken Wire, Tissue Paper and Beer
By Maryanne Dersch

For the past three years, my krewe, The Mystic Krewe of the Magical Herd, has built a float in the Mardi Gras parade. The first two years, we took top honors, and last year we came in a heart-breaking second place. This krewe is not a formal organization; we are just a group of friends who get together to design, create and have a great time. If you've ever watched the floats go by and thought, "I want to do that!" then here is all you need know about float building.

  1. Find 40 friends. Building a float, then getting drunk and throwing beads from it, is no easy task. Diversity is key here. You need those with a big, bold artistic vision and those that can handle the power tools to turn that vision into a reality. Our krewe boasts a good mix of the over-the-top artistic direction that only gay men possess and the tool-belt toting straight guys to pull it off. When our art director wanted a "diva bird" popping out of a tree and a giant giraffe head that turned and moved up and down, our brave construction team made that happen. Now that's teamwork!

  2. Raise money. You are going to need at least $3,000 to pull this off. There're entry fees, truck rental, porta-potties, and supplies (wood, chicken wire, paint) to pay for. And beads. Yes, those beads thrown at you during the parade are paid for by the krewes themselves. We spend about $1,200 a year on beads, or one case per person, to throw during the parade. Mardi Gras, Inc., has specific float guidelines that you must follow, like those concerning railings and sides of the float, and all that wood costs money (unless you have a way to get it donated). Krewes raise money in different ways. Some hold fundraisers or parties to raise money; some sell spaces on their floats. We charged each krewe member $75 for beads and float expenses.

  3. Stick to the theme. I know Mardi Gras is all about rebellion and chaos, but stick to the theme given by the Mardi Gras folks. First, it gives you some direction and second, it makes for a better parade if everyone has a float based on the theme. Our second year, the theme was "Mardi Gras Celebrates Cinema," and we were Little Shop of Horrors. The next year, the theme was "Let the Good Times Rock and Roll," and we were Lion Sleeps Tonight. We chose these themes after brainstorming meetings where we came up with ideas and voted on what one we thought would make the best float. Then a small group got together to design the float.

  4. Find a place to build the float. We have used our krewe leader's basement and another krewe member's empty rental property to build pieces of the float. We pre-build as much as we can, and then assemble everything onto the flatbed truck a few days before the parade. So if you know someone who owns or can get you access to a warehouse, get him or her on the krewe! Our dream would have been to have a space to both build the float and assemble on to the flatbed all in the same space, but that hasn't happened. We have built at the various locations listed and then assembled at a warehouse.

  5. Be clear on krewe responsibilities. Our krewe has everyone participate in construction. Other krewes have a few people build, and everyone else just rides on parade day. Either way, be clear on what's expected. We require two Saturdays of work time, and that each krewe member makes his or her own costume. Even though it required organization to make sure everyone had a job to do come work Saturdays, I think our krewe members enjoyed seeing the product of their labor — "Hey, I spray painted that tree!"

  6. Have riders and walkers. We have krewe members who love to walk and those who love to ride. I've been both places, and can honestly say I love walking. You get to interact with people and run around more...although the view down Broadway from atop the float, with both sides of the street packed with revelers, is an amazing sight. We try to take turns each year so everyone who wants to gets to either walk or ride.

  7. Costume everyone. Don't just throw people on the float in a wig and t-shirt. As I said, each krewe member was responsible for his or her own parade-day attire, but we also helped each other out. Last year everyone was an animal, and the krewe made 40 animal heads out of chicken wire covered with tissue paper and glue. Krewe members were responsible for completing the costume. This goes over well with my group, because each likes to put their own spin on the outfit. Other krewes have a few people make costumes for all members. However it works, the important thing is to be in the theme and slightly over-the-top.

  8. Hire extra parade-day help. You worked hard to make this float, now enjoy it! Get some extra parade day help to "wheel walk" (Mardi Gras, Inc. requires people to walk by the wheels of the truck for safety — these folks cannot drink or throw beads during the parade) so no one on the krewe has to do it. They can also run beads to walkers and get food and drinks to krewe members busy throwing beads and having fun. My nephews and their friends have served this role for two years and it worked out great. They wheel-walked, ran beads and even helped disassemble the float post-parade. In turn we gave them food and beer and lots of it. They had a blast in the parade, even if they didn't throw beads. Our goal was to have those who worked the hardest have the most fun and our parade day help made that happen.

  9. Revel in the glory and power of the bead. It all starts when you pull into "staging area," the parking lot off Broadway where all the floats line up. It's the weirdest cocktail party you will ever attend. Krewes park their floats and spend the next hour or two hanging out with their creations and checking out everyone else's work. If you are in the parade, this is the only way you see the other floats. After staging area, the parade starts and the glory begins. This is what you spent all those hours stapling and hot gluing for — the love of parade goers hungry for beads. The first year I was in the parade, I thought, "This is way too much power to have over other human beings!" while I ran from one side of the street to the other to see which side I could get to yell loudest for beads. It truly is an amazing experience. Well worth all the time and effort. You are a star, baby. BEEEEAAADDS! BEEEEAAADDS!

  10. Be prepared to see your creation dismantled quickly. This is the painful part. Within a day or two after the parade, everything you worked so hard to create has to be dismantled and either stored away for next year or tossed into a dumpster. We reuse lumber and some supplies each year, and it's stored in various garages and basements. But within a week, kind of like your wedding day, it's only about the photos. I'm just preparing you.

If your krewe isn't quite ready for the float thing, or you just want to see what the parade is like, try a marching unit first. All you need are costumes and beads. I have to confess: our krewe is a marching unit this year. Our float last year was ambitious and took a lot of time and energy. We had to admit that a lot of us were burnt out. So, for the sake of the krewe and for the love of Mardi Gras, we are walking down Broadway this year. But don't worry — next year, we will dust off the lumber, unfurl the chicken wire and be ready with another great float.

Maryanne Dersch is the community relations specialist and resident extrovert at 501creative, inc. She and her husband of 14 years, Jon Schmuke, recently adopted their son, Sir Patrick, out of foster care and are in the process of adopting again. She is an avid Rams fan and loves her dogs, her Mardi Gras krewe and singing karaoke.

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