NEW ORLEANS — A new generation of parades is hitting the streets of New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and they're throwing away old traditions of big, glitzy floats and celebrity kings and queens for smaller, greener and sometimes naughtier floats with a hipster sensibility.
These smaller krewes, as the parades or marching groups are called, draw on the talents of local artists and satirize everything from politics to local customs.
One float, labeled "Benz Over," spoofed the recent sale of naming rights for the Superdome to Mercedes-Benz. The float carried a small replica of the Dome with large buttocks for a roof. Another krewe's floats are set atop people-powered adult tricycles fashioned from material salvaged after Hurricane Katrina.
A group called Krewe du Vieux chose "Crimes Against Nature" as its theme, and when it hit the streets recently as carnival season got under way, there was no doubt this was not the usual Mardi Gras parade. One of its floats made fun of surgical procedures used to "improve" on nature with a giant pair of inflatable breasts rising and falling throughout the parade. And instead of handing out traditional beads, some of the scantily clad krewe members handed out condoms.
But even though they're infusing the carnival parades with new ideas, in some ways the alternative krewes are drawing on very old Mardi Gras traditions that predate the era of automobiles and motorized floats. Krewe du Vieux uses mules, or sometimes bicycles, to draw its 17 small floats, which are built on boat trailers no more than 8 feet long and 12 feet high. Krewe members also march with their floats rather than riding on them, and each float is accompanied by a New Orleans brass band.
Compare that to some of New Orleans' biggest and best-known mainstream parades, where the floats might be 50 feet long and 18 feet high, carrying dozens of riders. Some massive floats — like the raucous Bacchus parade's Baccagator float, a giant alligator, 110 feet long — can hold more than 100 riders.
The alternative krewes see Mardi Gras as a chance for individuals to exercise their creativity and engage in satire. "The coolest thing is that people do it just to do it," said Jim Gelarden, a member of Krewe du Vieux. "It's just for fun. There is no social status at stake."
Smaller groups get regular parade permits, rather than Mardi Gras permits, said officer Ross Bourgeois of the New Orleans Police Department. This allows them more leeway in what they can do and where they can go. The regular Mardi Gras parades are so big they're no longer allowed to roll through the narrow streets of the French Quarter, but smaller groups can still navigate the city's oldest and most famous neighborhood.
"These are groups that fly way under the radar," said Arthur Hardy, a Mardi Gras historian and publisher of a Mardi Gras guide. "They don't have to follow the rules the bigger groups do. They are free to be a bit on the bawdy side, and to do very new and striking things."
Mardi Gras always falls on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Many parties, balls and parades large and small are held for several weeks before the holiday, which this year falls on Feb. 21, and streets are typically packed with revelers to watch the biggest parades roll the weekend before. These traditional parades offer glittering spectacles as well as a chance to scramble for tons of "throws," as the beads, doubloon coins and other items tossed to the crowds are called.
The smaller groups, in contrast, offer spectators a different, more intimate experience. "I love the offbeat parades," said Mary Ann Gautraeux, who said she tries to take in as many as she can each year. "The people in the parade are right there with the crowd. It makes you feel so much more a part of everything."
The number of groups that stage small parades or march before or during one of the bigger parades is growing, as are their memberships, said Ann Marie Coviello, a member of a krewe called Box of Wine.
"We started out as just a few people walking down St. Charles (Avenue)," Coviello said. "Now we have a real parade because our membership has grown so much."
Smaller groups also appeal to New Orleans' artists' community, allowing them to participate in ways that aren't possible with the larger parades, according to Karina Nathan, from the Krewe of Kolossos. "We hope to see more people use our local artists, especially for throws, instead of getting the ones made in China," she said. "We would like to Mardi Gras be greener."
Kolossos uses recycled materials to build its small floats, which are mounted on adult tricycles rescued from Hurricane Katrina debris. Their costumes and even the throws they produce are all made from recycled material.
The Krewe of 'tit R?x carries smallness to extremes. (The group's name is pronounced T-Rex but printed with an upside-down "e'' after the Rex organization, which sponsors one of the biggest parades, threatened to sue them.) The krewe's 25 floats, no bigger than large shoe boxes on wheels, will be pulled through the streets by krewe members in formal attire, who also hand out handmade throws. The small but elaborate floats are well-crafted takes on traditional Carnival floats. Some carry Barbie dolls dressed up as royalty, and many are decorated with tiny Christmas lights.
As with other alternative groups, membership in 'tit R?x has grown. Jeremy Yuslum, one of the founders, thinks that's partly because of Hurricane Katrina, which almost destroyed the city in 2005.
"I think that people who stayed through the storm, or left and came back, feel a much stronger allegiance to our traditions," Yuslum said. "I think people have taken a new look at the city and what we have here."