Appearing In New Orleans:
Nightly during Carnival, live from the parade routes on WDSU-TV and WWL radio.
There is no “official spokesperson” for Mardi Gras, the planet’s largest party, but Arthur Hardy, publisher of Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide, is unequaled as Carnival’s reigning authority. Now in its 29th edition, the Guide, with its precise parade routes and concise krewe details (“Bacchus, the most innovative and imitated krewe founded during the 20th-century, resulted from a meeting of twelve businessmen who gathered in 1968 to explore new directions for Carnival clubs in New Orleans.”) is as indispensable to the enjoyment of Carnival as king cake, fried chicken or alcohol in go-cups.
No fact or figure is too obscure for a Carnival compiler such as Hardy: Rex, the King of Carnival, is preceded by a white-plumed captain on a white stallion and 33 mounted lieutenants; Le Krewe D’État’s Latin motto is “Vivite ut vehatis, vehite ut vivatus” (“Live to ride, ride to live”); in 2005, Proteus will re-introduce Czechoslovakian-style glass beads. How much spending does Mardi Gras generate for the local economy? Arthur’s got the numbers: one billion annual dollars and one million visitors.
Hardy is also the author of the lavish and dazzling Mardi Gras In New Orleans: An Illustrated History, an encyclopedia of New Orleans’ mirthful celebration. This volume includes such keen scholarship as complete lists of Active Parading Krewes, Defunct Parading Krewes, Oldest Active Non-Parading Krewes, African-American Ball Krewes of the Past and Present, Gay Carnival Clubs, Carnival Celebrity Guests, Walking Clubs and Royal Oddities (“Bacchus is a god, no queen” and “Babylon’s king called Sargon”). Hardy’s hobby, as might be expected, is collecting anything pertaining to Carnival, from ball programs to “bobble head” dolls.
We spoke with Arthur Hardy at his headquarters, just off Metairie Road, next to the railroad tracks. Twelfth Night, the commencement of Carnival, was but 48 hours in the future.
Arthur, what part of New Orleans did you grow up in?
Mid-City, not very far from where the Mid-City parades started, the corner of Carrollton and Dumaine.
What’s your first Carnival memory?
It actually is the Mid-City parade. It’s so strange—I know I was five-years-old and I know I cut out the newspaper picture of the king’s float the next day because there were two female pages on the king’s float and I fell in love with one of them [laughs]. I really did!
Were your parents big fans of Mardi Gras?
No, I think it was a pain in the behind for them to drag me to the parades so they weren’t but I loved it from day one. My earliest participation in a parade was in 1958. I was at Beauregard Junior High School and I was a trumpet player in the band. But I wasn’t good enough to play in the parades so the band director let me carry the American flag. It was the Thoth parade, which at that time was about 96 miles long. Then the next year, I was good enough to actually play. Then I went on to Warren Easton and played in the band there. So I got to participate in Carnival before I got to study it.
I graduated from Loyola University in 1970 and taught in the public schools for three years. Then I became band director at Brother Martin High School and I was there for 16 years and got to march in a lot of these parades. That’s really how I got access to some of the Carnival captains, through the fact that they were trying to hire my band. So I had some entrée when we started the Mardi Gras Guide in 1976 for the ’77 Carnival season.
What was the motivation to publish the Guide?
Initially, it was strictly money. It wasn’t to save the world or because I was that much in love with Mardi Gras. The more I got into it, the more I appreciated it. I really probably had no right to do the first Guide because I really didn’t know that much about what I was doing. But there was a need for it—I was certain of that and I figured if it would work, that I would grow with it. And I think I have. I’m glad that some of the opportunities that have come my way now didn’t come earlier when I was so ill prepared for them. I’ve been very blessed. I’ve worked hard but I’ve been very blessed.
And you’ve motivated others to cover Mardi Gras. Before you came along, the Times-Picayune hardly reported on Carnival.
Right. Had anybody else been doing their job, there wouldn’t have been a need for the Guide. I worked at WSMB radio from 1965 ’til the late ’70s—a part-time job. And every Mardi Gras season, people would call up on a Sunday morning and say, “Can you tell me something about the parades today?” The only way you could get any information was if you bought the morning paper. It occurred to me that if you have a TV Guide to lay out a week’s worth of television viewing, why not a Mardi Gras Guide? It’s a pretty simple idea but it hadn’t been done.
So I basically tried to collect everything that had been published. I’m a “complete set” guy. If it’s comic books, I’ve got to get them all, even if I don’t read them. I acquired everything I could find and tried to synthesize it: let’s make this as simple as possible and let’s add something that’s never been done before. That element was throws. No publication or media outlet before that had told people, “Oh, by the way, this is what you’re going to catch at tonight’s parades.”
It was hard. We got off to a very rocky start. We printed 5,000 copies and only sold 1,500. We burned the rest of them, which was stupid. I don’t think we made money for the first five years. And it was all borrowed money, borrowed from the Archdiocese credit union [laughs]. But I paid ’em back!
I remember you used to stick a doubloon on the cover of the Guide.
We did that for about four or five years in the ’80s when doubloons were hot. One of the reasons I had to stop was I had no more friends to glue them in—it was friends and family gluing the doubloons. After a couple of years, people said, “Oh. I’m out-of-town that month!” Nobody would help me!
What happened to doubloons?
Over-saturation killed it. The krewes got greedy and said, “If we can make some money selling three colors, how much more can we make selling 20 colors or one for each float?” Collectors said, “Come on—we can’t keep up with this anymore.” It’s a shame because I think the doubloon is a perfect collectible. But they’re not in vogue anymore.
The rage for the giant pearls has gotten insane.
Yeah, and the crowds have become so jaded that they’re throwing the “cheaper beads” back at the floats, which is dangerous and against the law. It’s free gifts and you’re going to complain about the size and the quality?!
You talk to media corespondents from around the world. What are some of the big misconceptions about Mardi Gras?
Well, the biggest one, of course, is that it’s an X-rated orgy, thanks to the Girls Gone Berserk videos. Thankfully, most of those shenanigans are limited to the French Quarter. Some of it has seeped into the parades. There are people who come to Mardi Gras and never see a parade—they just stay in the French Quarter. That’s really unfortunate.
I understand your feelings but personally, I think that during Carnival, the French Quarter should be an adults-only zone. You could have nudity, very sexual costumes, whatever, and it would be like Carnival in Rio. There would be police officers at every corner and if you’re not wearing a costume on Mardi Gras, you couldn’t enter the French Quarter and that would be the law. That way, you wouldn’t just have drunk college girls flashing their tits because drunk college students wouldn’t have the wherewithal to costume.
Hey, I like that [laughs]. I’m against legislating Carnival but it surely would be fun and we need to see more costuming. And I think less flashing—it gets pretty boring. I can tell you, it’s definitely hurt the national image of Mardi Gras. It’s hurt krewes trying to get celebrities to come because they don’t want to participate in what they think is “an orgy.” I do a lot of media interviews and that’s the first thing they want to know: where does this happen and why does this happen? Is it true to get beads I have to expose myself?
It’s wacko and it’s not our Mardi Gras. I really resent it.
Although I remember as a kid, in the’50s, my parents wouldn’t let me go to the French Quarter on Mardi Gras because there were men wearing cowboy chaps and no pants. Nudity’s always been a part of Mardi Gras.
Sure. In the French Quarter, naughty is expected. But this in-your-face stuff has just gone over the top and I think it’s out of control. I don’t know if we can even do anything about it. As a friend of mine said, “The genie’s out of the bottle and he’s naked.” How do you put him back in?
Every Mardi Gras web site you hit is all about nudity.
That’s it. For the first time this year, our Guide will be on sale at Wal-Mart. It’s very hard to sell an item to Wal-Mart. Initially, it was rejected, sight unseen, because they assumed it was going to be a magazine with nudity in it because it’s Mardi Gras and as we all know, Mardi Gras is nothing but nudity. After they looked at the Guide, they said, “Oh, this is family stuff—we’d be glad to sell it!” So the image of Mardi Gras has gotten that far to corporate America. It’s pretty sad.
Are there some lost Carnival traditions you’d like to see come back?
Yeah, costuming being one of them. The biggest one is parades in the French Quarter. I’m still not convinced that it couldn’t be done on a limited basis, only certain krewes that have smaller floats. You’d have to really modify the route. I don’t think it will be done but it would be lovely to see those parades back on Royal Street.
Marching bands in the French Quarter sound great—the acoustics are incredible!
Oh yes—that’s the biggest tradition, to me, that’s lost and I’m afraid lost forever.
Do you think that some of the old line krewes, such as Momus and Comus, will ever resume parading?
Well, Momus is back really. They sold their floats to Chaos and it’s very much a Momus-style parade, under a different name. Comus has not come back and I think that’s a tragedy. There was a lot of talk that maybe they would come back for their 150th anniversary, which is next year in 2006, but I’m told that it’s not going to happen. Maybe they could be given permission to go just a couple of blocks in the Quarter, for historic reasons. From what I’m told, there’s no real interest in the organization to do that.
Do people from around the world ask you about this Carnival schism?
Yes they do and the Dorothy Mae Taylor business, which is 14-years-old now, is still an event that people want to talk about—its effect upon Mardi Gras and if Mardi Gras is significantly more integrated than it was then. In truth, Carnival was integrated long before Dorothy Mae Taylor because it was the right thing to do and it was time. That is something that people are still very much aware of. Is Mardi Gras more open now? Yes, it is. It was becoming more open, more democratic, every year. Does that mean that you and I could get into every krewe? Hell, no, it doesn’t. Not everyone can afford a Lexus either. It’s not discrimination—it’s can you afford, do you belong? I wouldn’t want to be in a club that wouldn’t want me as a member. I don’t think it’s so much discrimination as it’s just logical choice. You want to be with your peers. I have nothing in common with somebody who’s worth three-million dollars or whose great-grandfather was a member of this group. Mine was a longshoreman and I’m proud of it.
What advice would you give young musicians about to march in their first Carnival parade?
It’s interesting to watch the out-of-town bands because they have no idea. Most community parades are a mile or two miles long. Mardi Gras parades are six miles long. It’s fun to watch the local bands watch the out-of-town bands in the formation area because the out-of-town bands are doing these little mini-concerts and the local guys are just sitting back there, smiling, saying, “Let me see you in about a mile-and-a-half.” And the out-of-town bands fall apart. You must pace yourself. You can’t play every block.
When I was in the business, we demanded that all of the boys learn their music by memory so you didn’t have to carry sheet music with you. It makes you look better, makes you sound better and also makes you not step in things that you can’t see because you’re reading music.
When you think about it, several hundred thousand people may see your band in a parade. That’s 500 football games, 2,000 concerts—you’ll never be seen by that many people. So it’s a wonderful opportunity to create a positive impression of your school. We took it very seriously.
Did you have some well-known musicians come out of your bands?
We had quite a few. Stanton Moore was one. I didn’t teach him. The co-band director, Marty Hurley, was his percussion teacher so I take no credit for Stanton other than I’m glad he was in the band and he was a good guy. A super talent and a very smart kid, too. Did we know he was going to be this big? Not really. We’ve had others who went on to become band directors. Clarence Johnson, the tenor sax player, was a drum major. I taught John Boutté when he was a trumpeter, before he was known as a vocalist.
Finally, what do you do on Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday, other than going to get ashes, which I always do, is a sad and mellow day for me. I’m glad Mardi Gras is over, because I’m pretty beat up by that point, but at the same time, there’s a real letdown. Especially this coming Ash Wednesday because Mardi Gras will be more than a year away. It’s February 28 next year. That’s a long time to have to wait. I really love this business. I love the event, I love what I do. It is a business but it’s also a lot of fun. I think I’ve got the best gig in town. When it’s over, there is this letdown. Oh man, I want one more parade!