Mardi Gras is not just about New Orleans. Cities like Mobile, AL, Galveston, TX and my hometown of Fort Walton Beach, FL also celebrate. In Louisiana, dozens of small towns host Mardi Gras parades and celebrations every year.
Long before his Mardi Gras posters, George Rodrigue painted the tradition on his own, recording favorite stories and focusing on Cajun towns. For example, he loves the history of Mr. Butcher of Lafayette, who famously dressed every year in costume during the 1940s while everyone else wore suits to the parades.
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“It’s hard to imagine today,” says George, “but people wore business and even formal attire on the streets. No one but the riders costumed in those days.
“Butcher’s son showed me terrific photos of his dad dressed as a harlequin amidst the conservative crowd. I liked the idea so much that I painted him three ways within one painting.” (1978, pictured above)
In Mamou, paraders ride horses in a group, moving from farm to farm collecting chickens. At the end, the chickens end up in a huge gumbo for the crowds.
(pictured, Mardi Gras in Mamou, 1985 by George Rodrigue)
“Although I represented Mardi Gras in my paintings,” explains George, “it was several years before I did a poster. Lafayette Mardi Gras krewes asked if I would illustrate their themes.
“One of the earliest I remember was Broadway Shows. It turned out to be very successful, because all of the krewe members bought posters. Also, the local people preferred it to my regular Cajun paintings because of the bright colors.”
From this success, George went on to produce posters not only for Mardi Gras, but also for festivals and events such as the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, the National Sports Festival, Ducks Unlimited, and Festivals Acadiens.
“Eventually, it seems like everyone came calling,” sighs George.
“I no longer make festival and event posters. Instead I implemented a Print Donation Program, beginning with Blue Dog Relief following 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. It’s been extremely successful in recent years, funding scholarships, art supplies for schools, art therapy, and other GRFA programs, as well as raising millions of dollars for other non-profits.” (details here-)
And to think, it all started with George’s Cajun Mardi Gras posters.
Founded in 1947 by the Cenac Family, Houma boasts the second largest Mardi Gras in Louisiana. Wayne Fernandez, Director of Development for the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, recalls his father as King in 1958:
“Houma borrowed the floats from the Krewe of Okeanos in New Orleans and shipped them on a river barge between the cities. It was magical.”
George Rodrigue’s hometown of New Iberia called its Mardi Gras a “Carnival Dance.” There was no parade until recent years, celebrated instead with a pageant.
(pictured, George Rodrigue with his cousin Arlene, dressed for New Iberia’s “Carnival Dance,” 1950)
Also unlike today, parades took varying routes. Mike Evans of Gretna recalls his favorite parade, Poseidon:
“It traveled on the Westbank from Gretna to Westwego on 4th Street, on the Mississippi River at the levee. My mom lived on Pailet Street and had a party every year – gumbo, hot dogs and chili. The neighbors gathered, and it was the one time each year that I returned from college and saw everybody. I miss those days!”
As a child I loved the Grela parade, a favorite in the small communities of Algiers, Gretna, and Belle Chasse on the New Orleans Westbank. With my cousins, we waited on the curb for the parade, eating crawfish from a cooler by 8:00 a.m. before moving on to tamales for lunch.
I dreamed but never imagined that I would one day ride on a Mardi Gras float. And yet for the past decade, I’ve ridden in New Orleans with the all-female Krewe of Muses. It’s not Cajun, but plenty of Cajuns ride, such as Cindy Cenac of Houma, pictured with me below for this year’s wondrous parade.
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