When asked if they mind this year’s early parade date, Krewe of Chewbacchus co-founders Ryan Ballard and Kirah Haubrich burst out laughing.
“We’ve rolled on a different route, on a different day, every year,” Ballard says. “Backwards, the wrong way, on Saint Charles, towards Bacchus. On purpose. We were going up and another parade was going down. We couldn’t figure out who was in the parade and who wasn’t. I think we’re the only krewe to do that in the history of Mardi Gras.”
As a young parade, Chewbacchus isn’t as tied to a particular parade date. Although the City gave krewes ample notice, some early-rolling krewes feel rushed because their dates fall close to the holiday season. The City Council adjusted the parade schedule to accommodate Super Bowl XLVII, which is February 3, and give the city a nine-day break between parades. In effect, this gives the first week of krewes one week less of preparation and bonding time. The parade most affected by this rescheduling is Krewe du Vieux (KdV), New Orleans’ cheeky kick-off to the parade season. Locals know it’s Carnival when a fleet of dick-shaped floats rolls through the French Quarter, heralding the season with handmade throws, extravagant costumes and popular brass bands. This year, KdV rolls January 19, 23 days before Mardi Gras instead of the usual 17.
“It shortens what we consider the essence [of the experience],” says Dr. James Aiken, a longtime member of KdV. He wears scrubs and a Steelers sweatshirt inside the Den, which is the krewe’s workspace and storage area. The KdV Den is located in the heart of the Marigny, near the riverfront. Cats wander around Architects’ Alley, a small street of warehouses that includes the Den. It smells like grapefruit and hot glue. One of the members grows the fruit, which he shares with the krewe, in his backyard. “We think about what we’re going to do, we put all this together, and then through that process within this Den comes the parade.”
One week before the parade, KdV Captain Lee Mullikin, former captain Ray “Plaine” Kern and Aiken admire their fleet of 17 half-finished floats. They’ve kindly agreed to talk to OffBeat on a miserably wet January morning.
“They might be crappier than usual,” Mullikin jokes. He knows they’re not. The group points at one float, whose electronics have just been rigged.
On top of the float, a gigantic male figure stands behind a similarly large sculpture of a woman on her hands and knees. Her eyes, bordered by lashes as big as human hands, roll up at the ceiling while a cigarette the size of a baseball bat dangles from her lips.
One of the men, a local fire chief, presses a button. Smoke pours from her half-open mouth, looking like exhaled cigarette smoke.
He presses another button. The male figure thrusts his pelvis towards the female’s enormous bottom. But instead of genitals, the poor sculpture only has a plastic trout. His pointless thrust sends the trout swinging like a pendulum, smacking the paper-mache rump with a loud slap that echoes throughout the Den.
“To be doing this while we still have Christmas trees up in our houses, it really goes against what we normally do,” Aiken explains.
Volunteer krewes, like KdV and the young krewe of Chewbacchus, build their floats in their respective Dens. Each sub-krewe is responsible for a float. The krewe members, whose professions vary from teachers to artists to firemen, bond during this experience. By the day of the parade, krewe members have worked together for about six weeks. This year they have only five—and that’s if krewe members don’t procrastinate.
In traditional tongue-in-cheek fashion, KdV has embraced the move by adopting the theme “KdV Comes Early.” The usual target of the floats is Roger Goodell, who has the delightful distinction of being not only commissioner of the organization that made KdV come early, but also being the evil mastermind behind the bounty scandal and its aftermath. One float lists 10 reasons why Goodell hates New Orleans. The KdV newsletter theorizes that he has an unstoppable desire to copulate with cows.
“Our resentments, our anger, it’s what we do best,” Mullikin says. Behind him a giant float depicts Goodell and a bovine engaging in anal intercourse.
“But no matter what we think is going to happen, it all happens wonderfully,” Mullikin adds. “Maybe not always as we planned. But somehow nobody gets hurt. Somehow we find our way back. Somehow across the city are strewn our 17 floats. Somehow we gather them up. Somehow we bring them back to the Den.”
“I’ve seen so many things, so many times, and it always manages to work out,” Kern says. One year, the City padlocked his ballroom the night before the ball. The padlocks mysteriously disappeared, although no one will say how. In 1997, also known as the Year of the Cheeseheads, the krewe thought they wouldn’t raise a cent during their annual post-parade party. Aiken thought they would wind up $30,000 in debt. Then a barrage of well-dressed visitors rushed into their party, desperate to escape the dull NFL after-parties.
Ballard, who is also a member of KdV, is similarly unfazed. In the last week, he has caught fire twice while building his sub-krewe float for KdV and working on his contraptions for the Krewe of Chewbaccus. During builds he dashes in between the krewes’ adjacent Dens.
“Extremely dangerous,” Ballard says about a rickshaw in the Den. He found it in Hanoi. It now has wings and a UFO-shaped dome. It also has a maximum speed of 30 miles an hour.
“They’re more contraptions than floats,” he explains.
He points to a red and white cooler. “That’s a cooler. But it’s not a cooler anymore. It’s a 150-decibel sound system with an inverter in it. It can be used to power the contraptions or the kegerator.”
The Chewbacchus Den embodies the free creative spirit that propels volunteer krewes such as KdV. The sci-fi/fantasy krewe’s Den looks like a mad scientist’s lair or the studio of a sci-fi movie set. Like KdV, Chewbacchus’ floats are created by krewe members, not professionals. There are boxes of motherboards, wookies of every size and the Millennium Falcon. Peter Mayhew, the actor who played Chewbacca in Star Wars, will ride the Falcon this year as the King of Chewbacchus. Ballard has already fashioned him an ashtray holder on the throne.
“I don’t care which day we roll,” Ballard says with a shrug. “I don’t care how we roll, or where we roll. I don’t care, I just want to roll.”