“The story starts a million years ago when some caveman in order to impress his woman put on the skull of a dead animal and started dancing around pretending it was the dead animal,” Ray Kern says. “It undoubtedly impressed the woman because they mated and Mardi Gras was born.”
“And then the krewe was the amount of caveman it took to take down the woolly mammoth,” Lee Mullikin says.
“Wouldn’t the original Krewe du Vieux have been the people who got together to make fun of the krewe that killed the woolly mammoth?” I ask.
“Very good,” Mullikin says. “A quick study.”
Lee Mullikin is the Captain of the Krewe du Vieux (KdV), and Ray “Plaine” Kern is a former captain and a member of KdV since its inception in 1987. The walking parade through the French Quarter marks its 25th year as Mardi Gras’ irreverent opening act this year when it rolls on Saturday, February 19, with the theme “25 Years Wasted.” Its king will be Jazz and Heritage Foundation Executive Director Don Marshall, one of KdV’s founders.
Doesn’t the Krewe du Vieux story start with the Krewe of Clones?
Kern: That’s where we came from. That’s why we have Don Marshall as our king this year, because he was back at the Contemporary Arts Center, and he came up with the idea of doing an art parade. He found some people locally who were willing to produce it, so the Krewe of Clones was born. It’s late ‘70s—1978—and then it grew incredibly. The last year was “Celebrity Tragedies,” and my guess is that we had 1,500 people and 32 sub-groups. It was huge. It got too big, actually, and there were internal conflicts as to where to go next. Some people wanted to become more respectable, and we didn’t want anything to do with that. They raised their dues from $15 to $300, and I guess that’s one way to get rid of the riff raff.
For me, the beauty of Mardi Gras, which your story illustrates, is the degree to which people want to find a way to participate in Carnival beyond standing on the sidewalk.
Mullikin: Yes, it’s very participatory.
Kern: When I saw the Clones, I wanted to be part of it. I was a mathematician/engineer at the time, but I had a creative urge. When KdV started up and I got the call, “Want to join?” I was biting at the bit to do this again. I didn’t want this to die because it was a blast to do something like this in the Carnival context. The captain at the time, a guy named “Spoons” (Craig Johnson), he called me a week before to see if I wanted to get my krewe together and join in. I said “yeah” and had a week to prepare. A little over 100 people marched. Six sub-krewes. We lined up on Wilkerson Row, a one-block street between Decatur and Chartres—that’s how small we were. We didn’t have any floats per se; we pushed shopping carts.
We had very modest beginnings, but the impetus was creative—and satire, which is something that was lacking in Mardi Gras at the time. Momus was the only krewe in town at the time that was doing satire.
Mullikin: We’re unique in that we have four officers, but other than that, it’s a total democracy. It’s all mutual decisions.
Kern: It wasn’t always like that. With six sub-krewes, it was tough to get quorum. When it came to getting votes from the people, they didn’t care. They just wanted to do this. One of the things about Clones that we didn’t like was that it was an organization run by a handful of people, and they had to approve your theme; they had to approve your costumes. They had a vision that they wanted to execute. We didn’t like it, but we had so much fun that we went with it. When we formed KdV, we said, “We’re not going to do that. We’re going to keep the spirit, but let’s be more democratic.” We continue that to this day.
Mullikin: If two krewes come with the same theme, we separate them in the parade.
Kern: We don’t censor. There were two times I did censor because I thought it was too much—not too sexual, too hateful—and I regret those two times because in the context of the parade, it would have just been stupid and silly.
Was the first KdV parade legal?
Kern: Yes. We had a parade permit. It wasn’t like something that pops up out of the street and follows a parade and starts second lining. Hell, that’s part of our culture. You can do that any time you want.
We are organized up to a point, but there’s only so much organization you can do before you have to let the spirit free. I’ve always likened the role of the captain to a guide more than anything else. You can’t really control this energy.
Mullikin: It’s like Star Trek. There’s a Prime Directive: Don’t interfere in another sub-krewe. We go to a lot of their meetings, we listen. If there are questions about current events or things happening in the krewe, we’ll answer them. Other than that we watch, smile, bite our lip and see what unfolds.
Has a krewe done something that made you wince?
Mullikin: I’ve done something that made the city wince. Back when there was the scandal about all the priests and the little boys and the abuse, we decided to do a float called “Comatose Licks the Habit” with a priest going down on a nun. To my critics I said, “It could have been a priest and an altar boy.”
Kern: Before that, back in 1989, the theme was “KdV Predicts” and the Krewe of Underwear did three movies. One was a Ronald Reagan flick, Bedtime WITH Bonzo. A guy and his wife dressed in gorilla costumes were on an inclined bed on top of their float, and basically, they did it while they were going through the French Quarter. I was a little nervous about that, but in the context of Mardi Gras, it’s silly and not to be taken seriously.
Mullikin: There was the year that Chaos’ float was a cocaine warehouse and they dressed as cops guarding it. That pissed off the cops.
Kern: Their costumes looked very real. They were directing traffic.
Mullikin: We emphasize all the time to our members and to our captains: “Three seconds, three hours.” If they can’t figure out what you’re doing in three seconds, then you’re too complicated. And you don’t need to build the float so fancy because it only has to last three hours. We’ve got people putting in bathrooms. Give me a break.
Why does the ball move around so much?
Kern: We always had trouble finding space. They weren’t big enough or they were too far away. We stayed at the State Palace Theater for six years—
Mullikin: —but it got too funky.
Kern: The ball was just something to do after the parade. What do we do with all that energy? You can’t just stop.
Mullikin: You’ve got the costumes on.
Kern: The parade is the thing. Ask anybody what they’d rather have, the parade or the ball, and they’d all pick the parade for what happens in the streets. In other Mardi Gras parades, the float riders are above you throwing down to the masses. We’re on the same level as those masses, and being at that level, there’s an interchange that would not be possible from a float, and that’s what makes it so personal.
Mullikin: Some people march with us once and it’s too overwhelming.
Kern: It’s the closest thing to Mardi Gras Day without being Mardi Gras Day, just the energy I’ve seen and felt.
Was there a point when you realized that you’d become an institution?
Mullikin: There are people who think we ought to tear the temple down and build it all over again.
Kern: I wanted to have this year’s theme be “KdV Stops in the Quarter” because of the changes that have occurred. It’s gotten big, it’s gotten popular and we were never meant to be exclusive and it’s become all of those things. We were never meant to be this way. What hurts me most is that we have to turn people away. People see us and want to be part of it, but we’re limited in size to the number of people we can cram through the Quarter.
Mullikin: I’m of a totally different mindset. I want us to last hundreds of years and not become victims of ourselves. We’re too smart for that.
I once had a member of a sub-krewe explain to me at length its theme, its classical allusions, its relationship to City Hall and city politics, and when they marched, that all manifested itself as big foam dicks. There have been times when it seemed like the parade existed to walk through the streets with big foam dicks.
Kern: Yeah, at one time we were known as the Penis Parade. We’re getting away from dicks. I had a dream in the heyday of penises; the theme would be, “KdV Don’t do Dick.”
Mullikin: Ellen DeGeneres would be our queen!
Kern: This was at the time post-Katrina when nobody was doing anything, and I wanted to not have the parade move. Have a stationary parade lined up on Elysian Fields with floats and brass bands ready roll, and then we don’t move. We don’t do dick. The spectators would go by us. I got that from Celebration in the Oaks; why can’t we do that. That would have been the one time that I’d have insisted on no penises.
Mullikin: This year, I want to do something to honor the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, so I want to advertise that Krewe du Vieux is going to be 3D for the first time ever. See these glasses? (hands over clear glasses in cardboard frames that produce a mild prismatic effect).
We’re going to give a shitload of these to the Musicians’ Clinic, and have them precede the parade and hand out our newspapers for free and sell the glasses. All the money goes to them. We’re also going to have a little thing where the women from the Musicians’ Clinic are going to go with me in a little fake Mafia group and we’re going to sell insurance and protection money to everybody along our route who makes money as a business, and all that goes to the Musicians’ Clinic.
How did the Treme version of Krewe du Vieux come about?
Kern: Treme called and they wanted to shoot the C’est Levee parade, and wanted to get our permission for it. So we had some discussions. It worked out eventually but it wasn’t an easy task.
Discussions with them or discussions within the Krewe?
Kern: Both. We didn’t know if that was appropriate for us, if they were going to portray us accurately.
Mullikin: One year MTV wanted to portray us, so we let them put two little hotties in the Krewe of Spermes and carry sperms.
Kern: Actually that was the second time they [covered us]. The first time was in 1989, but it was much more low profile. They just interviewed a couple of the key people about the parade.
What was wrong with having the MTV girls as part of Spermes?
Mullikin: They wanted to make it like a “Girls Gone Wild” thing, and we’re a little more serious than that.
Kern: The first time, it was respectful. But the second time around, MTV was going through an evolution of its own. We went based on our experiences with the past, even though it didn’t really apply. In fact, that applies to the krewe, too. The experiences that we’ve had in the past no longer really apply. It’s a natural occurrence—people are no longer willing to do more and more outrageous stuff. I doubt you’ll see priests going down on nuns anymore. Last year we had Bobby Jindal fucking a pelican!
Mullikin: This year it’s going to be Sarah Palin whipping him as the lead dog in the Idiot-a-rod. Bobby’s my favorite target.