Mardi Gras in Mobile

Sunday, January 30, 2005

MOBILE, Ala. -- Adrienne Curry takes her two children to the weeks of parades leading up to Mardi Gras, turning those events into a family reunion. But, she says, "Fat Tuesday is my time."

Curry, 31, said she has been attending carnival parades since childhood in Mobile, a tradition for many in this port city, where historians say carnival was first celebrated in the United States in the 1700s. Thousands flock to parades to catch trinkets and other treats tossed by maskers -- members of 30 different mystic organizations riding colorful floats.

This year, Fat Tuesday falls on Feb. 8. Besides Mobile's festivities, carnival will be a welcome relief to Gulf Coast resorts devastated by Hurricane Ivan on Sept. 16. Despite the wreckage caused by Ivan, Orange Beach and Gulf Shores plan separate Fat Tuesday parades.

Orange Beach special-projects manager Ken Grimes called it a "much-needed event" because of the hurricane losses, which included many guest rooms that were damaged or destroyed.

"We're hoping for a good turnout. The winter visitors are not here in full force," he said.

Carnival gives participants a chance to laugh and shout about outrageous antics in the streets and ballrooms. Curry laughs about having to explain a reveler's plastic breasts to her 5-year-old daughter.

"She asked me why that man had 'tah-tahs' on his head. That's the funny thing about Mardi Gras," she said.

While much of the hullabaloo can't be explained, many Gulf Coast cities and businesses spotlight Mardi Gras for its obvious economic potential.

Retailer Stephen V. Toomey travels to China to purchase the tons of float-throws and other carnival decorations sold in his stores in Mobile, Daphne and Metairie, La., and on the Internet. Toomey said some big sellers this year include small inflatable cows, Hula Hoops with beads that rattle, necklaces with colorful lights and stuffed animals.

Still, Mobile's carnival is known for its family atmosphere and quaintness.

"I worry every year they're building it up more into a New Orleans-type Mardi Gras. I think that's a minus," said Missy Fain, who enjoys meeting neighbors on the parade route.

Virginia Moseley of Pascagoula, Miss., shopping for beads to wear to a Mardi Gras ball, said she attends carnival in nearby Biloxi but prefers the smaller Fairhope parades for the children.

Mobile Marriott manager Tony Dugage, president of the Mobile Motel and Hotel Association, said carnival-goers will spill out of downtown hotels into Mobile and Baldwin counties in search of accommodations.

Dugage said the hotel industry got a boost from the hurricane recovery activity, partly by having rooms filled with cleanup crews.

Historians say the carnival was born in Mobile among French colonists in the 1700s, but it didn't really catch on until 1830, when a group of rowdies hit the downtown streets with cowbells and rakes taken from a hardware store. They called themselves the Cowbellion de Rakin Society.

Mobile's newest attraction, the William & Emily Hearin Mobile Carnival Museum, celebrates the city's carnival history. The museum expects a grand opening later in the spring. It houses the largest Mobile carnival collection under one roof, says museum curator Gordon Tatum. That collection includes rare Mardi Gras memorabilia, gowns, trains and crowns of coronation royalty dating from 1921.

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