Here is the rest of the Mobile Mask’s interview with David Helms, who was the Press-Register’s Masked Observer for the first 20 years of the column:
Q: What were your thoughts after that first Mardi Gras as the Masked Observer?
A: I was amazed at everything that went into it, and I was amazed at how passionate people were about it and how much work they put into it and how much affection they had for it. That was all kind of new to me, so as a result, I kind of learned as I went.
Q: Eventually, it got to a point where you actually needed help.
A: When it got to be four balls a night, I said, OK, I can’t do that. So I developed this angel system, where usually young women in the newsroom would go to a ball and then send me a report on the ball. I would try to train them before they went, as to what to look for. I made it clear that we weren’t trying to say nice things, but we weren’t trying to say mean things, we were trying to give an honest, balanced view of what was happening. I got an amazing group of young women over the years who pitched into it.
Q: How much of you is in the Masked Observer?
A: It’s funny, because I always kind of considered myself to be more like Dark Hallway; Dark Hallway was kind of my hero because he was more earthy, and he was tough, and he was former military. The Observer was always this kind of pompous character. I loved all the characters in the column, and I think at one time or another, I felt like all of the characters in the column.
But, personally, I aspire to be more like Dark Hallway than the Observer. It always kind of tickled me, a lot of the women who read the column preferred Dark Hallway to the Observer. They kind of liked that tough guy thing rather than somebody who can dance as well as the Observer can. They sort of fit into each other, and I think that’s what makes a great partnership – they weren’t good at the same things. Floral Headpiece was the responsible one.
Q: Is Dark Hallway simply a takeoff on David Holloway’s name?
A: It wasn’t, weirdly. It came about – and this is true – because there was a guy, whose name I don’t even know, and he was always at the Civic Center, every ball, working, toting ice and liquor back and forth. He knew everything that went on at the Civic Center. And I always encountered him in a dark hallway because he was always taking things to the party rooms, so he became Dark Hallway. Because I knew so little about the ins and outs of behind-the-scenes Mardi Gras, he was an invaluable source.
But Dark Hallway is a lot like David Holloway. His mannerisms are certainly reminiscent of David, who is a good friend.
Floral Headpiece in my mind was always Cammie East, another beloved co-worker, who helped me out incredibly with connections and filling in blanks as to who was who in Mobile society. She’s an example of what used to make journalism possible in the days before databases and computers and instant information.
Q: Did you ever get any flak for something you wrote?
A: One year, I went to a ball, and it was a group that wasn’t that terribly old or storied – they were a very nice group – and that year they had decided to get a little on the wild side, and they had a presentation at the start of it in which strippers were used, who were undulating behind a curtain, so you were getting sort of a silhouette thing going on. But it was a little bit unfortunate because there were children in the audience. And we made some remark that perhaps with the kids around, this wasn’t the best thing to do. And they really took umbrage to that and blacklisted us for years, you know. I was sad that they felt that way, but there was nothing I would have changed. Eventually, they started inviting us again.
Q: Sometimes the column wasn’t about balls or even Mardi Gras
A: He (the Masked Observer) didn’t let facts get in the way of a good story. They never told me what to write. Basically they told me to disappear for three weeks, and if I came into the newsroom, they got annoyed. There was a segment of the fans who clearly weren’t that interested in what happened at balls. We tried to have a little something in there for everybody. One time, I did a column after Stan and I started fixating about things in the world with double names, like Boutros Boutros-Ghali or mahi mahi. Somehow I wrote a whole column about that, and people still talk about that as one of their favorite columns, and it had next to nothing to do with Mardi Gras. I think that was when I wasn’t drinking, which is the really scary part.
Q: How many sets of tails did you go through?
A: I’ve had four sets of tails in different sizes over the years. They said they didn’t want to buy me tails until they saw if the column was going to work or not. So as a result, instead of buying a set of tails for $250, our rental bill that first year was like $700.
Q: What ball did you always look forward to?
A: I always looked forward to the Conde Cavaliers because that was the first one. And I always thought the ladies did a good job with all the ones they did. The LaShe’s always put on an energetic event.
Q: Was there a group that never invited you?
A: Fifty Funny Fellows never invited me, although later on, I got to know some folks in their organization, and they said I could come by if I wouldn’t write about it. But I thought that was a silly offer.
Q: What was your favorite part of going to balls?
A: Initially, when I wasn’t drinking, I tended to leave earlier. In the years I was having adult beverages, I tended to stick around and listen to the bands. I got to be sort of a connoisseur of Mardi Gras bands.
Q: Any favorite bands?
A: The column always noted that Mustang Sally was a favorite because Dark Hallway was in love with the redhead. The Molly Ringwalds was always popular.
Q: It seems like the general impression is that balls are only for the rich.
A: A lot of those groups are full of very working class folks who have decided to spend their leisure money on this. And they’re as happy as they can be about that decision. God bless them, because they give the rest of us something to go to for two weeks out of the year.
Q: How can Mardi Gras balls be improved?
A: Looking on Facebook during this past Mardi Gras, it was interesting to see the people who were horrified at how long the tableaus were. My response to that was always, well, they’re the folks throwing the parties, so they should be able to do what they want. But there’s a balance to that as well. You want to be a good host. And tableaus had certainly gotten longer in the 20 years that I went.
Q: You must have some advice for anyone going to their first Mardi Gras ball.
A: Watch how much you drink, and make sure you have someone to drive you. It’s such great fun, you should just relax and let it happen. Respect the institution of it by dressing properly and behaving properly, but everybody’s there to have fun.
Q: Did you think the Masked Observer would last 20 years?
A: Well, I knew they liked it, and a lot of people gave me good feedback in that first year, and I think they just found it refreshing because nothing like that had ever been done. So I kind of thought it was going to go a while. And they would even tell me from time to time, if we fire you as the City Editor or even if you move to California, you’ll always have to come back and do this.
They made it clear that this would always be part of my job description at the Press-Register. Even in that first year, I started trying to figure out ways to control my own destiny, so I told them, “Well, I’m willing to do this, but I’m working every night for two weeks, so I want some time off after that.” And I would try to think of things that I wanted that they had to give me because I was doing the Masked Observer, and sure enough, usually they gave me whatever I asked for. Maybe I didn’t ask for very much.
Q: Will anything change, now that your secret is out?
A: Nah, I think life will just go on. In a way, it’s kind of fun to not have it be a secret anymore, but it still is because we don’t know who the current Masked Observer is, and I’m happy to let him worry about that and to just go on with things in my world and go back to being anonymous, which I always liked to begin with.