"I think we'll be OK," said Dave (on-board chief of libations) as our two-story float, "The Duke," with its massive figurehead of John Wayne, took its place in line for the annual Krewe of Gemini Mardi Gras parade in Shreveport, La. "That is," he added, skeptically looking up at the darkening sky, "unless it rains."
This was my first experience with Mardi Gras, having always been reluctant to throw myself into the festival madness that annually grips New Orleans between Epiphany and Fat Tuesday.
"Don't you worry, Shreveport is different," I was assured by my jovial float hosts, Charles Seyfield and Marilyn Creswell, who were both masked and decked out in shimmering red satin cowboy regalia. "Our Mardi Gras is much more for families."
The city of Shreveport is located on the Red River in the northwestern corner of Louisiana and is the third largest city in the state behind New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Established in 1836 and named for its founder, Henry Miller Shreve, the port boomed as a cattle town in the years leading up to and following the Civil War.
As a music center, Shreveport was home to Huddie William Ledbetter (Leadbelly), the famous folk and blues singer, and in 1953 a young rock 'n' roller named Elvis Presley got his start as a regular guest on the city's popular radio show, "The Louisiana Hayride."
In the 1990s the introduction of riverboat gambling helped lift Shreveport out of an economic decline, and more recently the city has experienced the arrival of a new community of residents driven north by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.
Unlike New Orleans, which can trace the roots of its Mardi Gras celebration back to the formative days of the city, Mardi Gras in the Shreveport-Bossier region is a relatively new phenomenon. The idea was first floated (so to speak) in 1989 and led to the formation of the city's two largest "krewes": the Krewe of Centaurs and the Krewe of Gemini.
The first "official" Gemini Mardi Gras Ball was held on Feb. 17, 1990, and was followed on Feb. 24 by the krewe's first parade, which featured 12 floats. Today the Shreveport-Bossier Mardi Gras celebration is one of the most popular in the region and attracts thousands of visitors.
When our float finally took its place in line, we found ourselves sandwiched between the Pirates of the Caribbean, with its giant figurehead of Jack Sparrow (played in the movie by Johnny Depp), and a grim visage of Gen. George Patton. The sky, however, was growing ever more threatening.
I thought back 24 hours to the festive gathering that had taken place at Krewe of Gemini's storage facility, where hundreds of people had gathered to celebrate the traditional "loading of the floats." When it was completed, every float was filled to overflowing with strands of multicolored beads and an array of small toys that would be dispensed to the thousands of revelers who were expected to line the parade route.
Now, here we were jolting along, being greeted by kids and teenagers, parents and grandparents who were clamoring, waving their arms, shouting, screaming and cajoling and begging, all in hopes of snagging yet another strand of glittery beads.
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