Posted 3/10/11 | © Photo by The Flash List
We rolled into Galveston an hour early on Friday.
We were scheduled to meet George Black, Captain of the Krewe of Gambrinus, for the group's Mardi Gras kick off party at Fish Tales restaurant on the Seawall; and with talk of an expected weekend crowd exceeding 200,000 people, we wanted to get a jump on traffic. As a result of its virtual nonexistence, we arrived at the restaurant well before the party was to begin.
With a quest to experience as much of the island's annual celebration as possible in one weekend, we took a seat at a table near the window and munched on deep-fried, bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed, shrimp
kisses while watching partygoers arrive two by two dressed in their feathery, sparkly, and sequined best.
Mardi Gras! Galveston
Mardi Gras Galveston is much like a huge outdoor street fest or an oversized tailgate party with a number of parades, parties, bands, vendors ... and beads.
To Kick Things Off
After finishing our appetizers (and then swapping ghost stories with a couple of bartenders) we eventually followed the long line of guests upstairs where our necks were ceremonially decorated with several strands of elaborate beads before we finally connected with George who then shared with us his perspective of Mardi Gras Galveston history.
He was a parade official in 1985 when businessman George P. Mitchell revived the celebration on the island. The first Mardi Gras event had been held in Galveston in 1867 with a masked ball and a theatrical performance of Shakespeare's King Henry IV; and although many festival celebrations had followed, almost all had eventually been discontinued in the early 1940's due to World War II. Four decades passed; and then, according to Black, it had been observed that Galveston was
so dead in the cold winter months, you could shoot a cannon ball down the Seawall and not hit a car. So floats were purchased from New Orleans, a parade was scheduled, and people were invited. A lot of people.
So many, that somewhere around 400,000 visitors descended upon the island to join the festivities. Black recounts that he was absolutely astounded as he rounded the corner and saw the throngs of people. He watched as the marching band reduced itself to a single file line in order to make its way through the crowd. Restaurants and vendors had run completely out of food before the merriment ceased.
By 1989, the Mardi Gras revelry had been expanded to incorporate two weekends as well as Fat Tuesday itself; and this year, 18 parades were held along with 5 masked balls, 13 balcony parties, and 26 concerts.
Mystic Krewe of Aquarius
Working Man's Krewe
The next stop on our party-hopping adventure landed us at the float den of the Mystic Krewe of Aquarius for their very popular annual Barn Bash. Held in an old Dr Pepper bottling plant and open to the public for a modest entry fee, attendees got a sneak preview of parade floats and were treated to delicious food, copious amounts of beer, and some great rock music by the dance band Bare Necessity.
Krewe Captain Johnny Lidstone and his 84-year-old father, Merle, are the remaining charter members of Galveston's second oldest Mardi Gras social organization since the revival. Described to us by its members as a
working man's krewe, the Mystic Krewe of Aquarius doesn't rake in big corporate sponsorships each year; rather, their volunteers create all their floats by hand. With modest beginnings (maybe three or four units in their first parade), Aquarius' floats have continued to get better and more elaborate every year. And after hearing from Merle about the sizeable amount of money they spent on this year's parade and festivities, we wondered if he'd ever envisioned that in 1985!
Traditionally, Mystic Krewe of Aquarius sponsors the Saturday kick off parade on the first weekend of the Mardi Gras celebration, and ends the season with the last big parade on Fat Tuesday. Since Johnny had so graciously invited us to ride aboard his float along with him and his dad, we met back up with his krewe early the next morning. Even with a noon start time, families had been gathering along the parade route since the night before; and some groups with RV's, trailers, tents, smokers, and lawn chairs had been camping out for up to a week beforehand right there on the street. And despite the hearty partying the night before, most of the people we saw seemed way too excited to be hung over.
During the parade which ran along the beach on Seawall Boulevard from 14th Street to 59th, thousands of beads were thrown, marching bands could be heard coming from blocks away, and the unending crowd cheered incessantly from both sides of the street and nearby balconies. Afterward, while riding along the quiet back streets on the way back to the float den, Johnny and Merle reflected on their years of parading and commented that this year's crowd had definitely been one of the biggest.
What to Do at Mardi Gras Galveston
Mardi Gras Galveston is a collection of great parties, fantastic parades, and entertaining events which are easily navigated with just a little forethought.
Stars On the Brazos Krewe
Party with a Purpose
Saturday afternoon we headed over to The Strand Historic District for a balcony party hosted by Stars On the Brazos Krewe where we met up with David Howarth and Steve Alford (both former krewe presidents). Like many other krewes, Stars On the Brazos is a non profit 501(c)(3) organization; and they've recently supported children's charities and other causes such as Project Graduation, Military Moms, Wounded Warriors, and more.
But don't let all their fancy humanitarian accolades fool you - SOB Krewe is definitely your standard party crowd. Along with event ambiance similar to a nightclub or rock concert afterparty, guests were offered two days of come-and-go access to Galveston's Roof Garden (and its huge balcony overlooking the heart of The Strand) as well as beer, wine, set ups, and food ... lots of it. With donations from sponsors like Wal-Mart and Miller Lite, SOB planners lay out a buffet style spread of assemble-it-yourself entrees, meats, cheeses, salty snacks, sweets (including red velvet petit fours) etc; and they work diligently to ensure that the food will not run out. (Anticipating the off chance that it should it ever get close however, Steve and David showed us their secret stash of extra meatballs in the back.)
Through years of hosting parties (and general party-ing), Steve and David have accumulated enough experiences to refine their event planning to a science. From charging a dollar for cups (so people won't leave them lying around) to creating numbered badges that correspond to the sign in sheet (to curtail dishonesty) to incorporating a red/white/blue badge system (so that everyone gets a fair amount of time on the balcony rail for crowd-watching and bead-tossing should the balcony ever get overly crowded), your fun is practically
So eat, drink, dance, meet new people, and be merry as you toss beads to the beckoning crowd below. And don't worry about the balcony structure itself - according to SOB's Steve Alford, it's certified every year to standards higher than NASA's. And he should know - he used to work there.
What Is Mardi Gras?
Tossing beads, catching beads, masquerading, parading ... Mardi Gras has become a festival event celebrated by people of a variety of creeds and ethnicities.
Krewe of Gambrinus
It's Not Just a Season; it's a Lifestyle
The Krewe of Gambrinus (aka the
Krewe of Brew) is named after the patron saint of brewing and in honor of its founder, beer distributor Larry Del Papa. This group is a beer drinking, beer loving crowd; but not at all a frat boy, beer-can-smashing-to-the-forehead bunch. On the contrary, Gambrinus is made up of people you might see at the yacht club or the theater or even in church. Sophisticated, but really fun. They ribbed us mercilessly for leaving Friday night's party too early and missing out on their late night,
everybody-in Conga line. Yeah, we were sorry we missed that.
But we didn't miss their parade, though. On the first Saturday evening of Mardi Gras, the Krewe of Gambrinus hosts a fireworks display and a procession dubbed
King Gambrinus Lights Up the Night, one of Galveston's two
super parades. This year's line up was led by the Budweiser Clydesdales (naturally) along with Grand Marshal Deborah Duncan, host of KHOU's Great Day Houston, and included a spectacular assortment of flashy, lighted floats and costumed riders dressed in terrific variations of their Broadway theme. And since a dense, dramatic fog had rolled onto the island earlier in the day, the parade's entire fleet was engulfed in a surreal, theatrical effect like dry ice blowing across a stage set. It was quite a scene.
So, by now you might be wondering what it takes to become part of a krewe. Well, membership commitments vary of course; but you can become part of the Krewe of Gambrinus with the recommendation of a current member and board approval along with a $410.00 first year annual fee which gets you the opportunity to ride on one of those floats (which is an absolute blast) along with beads to throw and five parties to attend throughout the year which offer loads of food, booze, and entertainment. Yearly membership is reduced to $310.00 after that, a portion of which benefits children of Galveston and promotes tourism to the area.
it's not just a season, it's a lifestyle. - Stewart Smith, King Gambrinus XV, 2004
Of course Mardi Gras is a crazy, raucous festival during which people sometimes shed their inhibitions or celebrate to excess. Stay in the heart of the revelry long enough, and you're bound to see some form of public intoxication or indecent exposure.
But you might be surprised to know that it's not really prevalent everywhere.
Mardi Gras Galveston is much more like a huge outdoor street fest or an oversized tailgate party. With a number of parades, bashes, live bands, and vendor booths, as well as a very watchful police presence (who we never saw intruding unnecessarily), visitors could feel comfortable to mill about, meet other travelers, experience gulf cuisine, visit shops, stroll the beach, and enjoy the event overall with a reasonable expectation of general safety.
The scene does get very loud though; be aware of that.
We had the following conversation with a woman standing beside us on a noisy, crowded balcony:
TFL: So, where are you from? [Reply:
TFL: Really? What brought you to Galveston?
Her: Mardi Gras, of course.
TFL: Really? Have you been here before?
Her: Oh yeah, we've come every year for the past five years!
TFL: Wow! You don't sound like you're from Sweden. You sound American, even Texan.
Her: Oh, did you think I said
Sweden? No, I'm from
Sweeny, about an hour and a half from here!
So wow, we had a good laugh over that. But hey, people do travel from far and wide around the globe to experience Galveston Island's historic mystique on any given weekend during the year - why not this one? So you never know who you might run into - even if they are from just around the corner in Sweeny.
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