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Talking Mardi Gras

On this page, the Mask will publish an exclusive occasional series of conversations about Mardi Gras in south Alabama.

Talking Mardi Gras
with Archbishop Thomas Rodi

August 16, 2016: Mobile Mask editor and publisher, Steve Joynt, recently sat down with Mobile's Archbishop of the last eight years, Thomas John Rodi, in his office on Government Street to discuss a topic that will be covered in the 2017 issue of Mobile Mask magazine. Since the Archbishop grew up in New Orleans and even marched in Mardi Gras parades as a high schooler, the conversation moved on to Mardi Gras in general. This is the transcript of that part of the conversation.

MM: What do you think of Mardi Gras in Mobile?

AR: I love how Carnival is celebrated here in Mobile. It reminds me of Carnival in New Orleans when I was young. There were fewer parades at that time. I could to this day tell you which parades were on what day back then. It’s all changed now, but I remember what it used to be. I remember after school, going home hurrying up and doing my homework so I could go to the parade. It was just fun.

MM: Did your family have a particular spot you always went to?

AR: On Mardi Gras Day we did, but just for the other parades, no. As a kid you quickly learned which parades are going to throw a lot and which ones aren’t, and the bands, and the flambeaux – it was just great. I have a lot of fond memories.
    That’s before tourists discovered Mardi Gras or that it was marketed to the tourists. Starting in the late 60s and into the 70s, New Orleans began to market Mardi Gras and create new krewes that would appeal to tourists, and the mega parades, where people would come from all over the country and ride on the floats, the mega-krewes of Bacchus and Endymion and Orpheus.
    Basically, there was no parade on Sunday night. It was the tourist industry – the restaurants and the hotels – that got together and said let’s create our own parade on Sunday night, and they created Bacchus (founded in 1968 by Owen ‘Pip’ Brennan Jr. of the restaurant family). So tourists would come in and spend four days. Then, again, it was Harry Connick Jr., whose family is from Mobile, who created Orpheus on Monday nights. Let’s create these big parades where people come in and spend four and five days in New Orleans. Fill up the hotels and fill up the restaurants.
    Then what happened is that all these tourists come in to celebrate not Carnival and not Mardi Gras but what they thought was Carnival and Mardi Gras. They brought with them their own preconceived ideas of what they were going to, which was very different from what the reality had been. I remember the college students who came in the 60s and 70s. And the newspaper had an editorial about these college students, and it said Mardi Gras has survived Reconstruction, occupation, war, yellow fever epidemics, floods, depression, it can survive the college students.
    There was a time in the 1850s that the city council of New Orleans was ready to prohibit Mardi Gras, to abolish it.

MM: It was Comus that essentially saved Mardi Gras at that time.

AR: And Comus was founded by some young men …

MM: Who were former Mobilians.

AR: Yes, who were Cow, Cow …

MM: Cowbellions. They were Cows and/or Strikers, both New Year’s Eve groups.

AR: That’s where I presume when you ask people in Mobile, “When does Carnival begin?” some people know it’s Twelfth Night, but some people say New Year’s. I have a feeling it’s because of the parades that used to be on New Year’s Eve.

MM: And we don’t have a Twelfth Night tradition.

AR: No we don’t. And we didn’t have even have a king cake tradition until relatively recently. The people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, if you ask them – I was Bishop in Biloxi – “When does Carnival begin?” “Oh, January 6.” So they and Louisiana know that, it’s just a different tradition here.

MM: Talk to me about the view of Mardi Gras as on official of the Catholic church, this period of excess before Lent, especially since you grew up with Mardi Gras.

AR: I remember Archbishop (Philip Matthew) Hannan, oh, for more than 20 years was the Archbishop of New Orleans, he was originally from Washington D.C., and although he loved New Orleans, he never embraced Carnival. One time, at an event, someone was speaking who was from Mobile and said, “And Archbishop Hannan, you know Mobile gave New Orleans Mardi Gras.” And Archbishop Hannan said, “And if you ever want it back, you can have it!” He never made peace with it.
    I think it serves a wonderful purpose. In the book of Ecclesiastes, it says there is a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to mourn, a time laugh, a time to weep, and a time to dance. There is a time to laugh and to dance. I find that Carnival – Mardi Gras – can serve a very healthy purpose in preparing people for the serious days of Lent. To someone who doesn’t understand Lent, Mardi Gras makes no sense. It looks like it’s just a purposeless party. But if someone really says the 40 days of Lent are going to be a serious time for me. Before I celebrate the great event of my redemption, I’m going to take time to seriously look at myself in the three ways that Jesus recommends in the Bible: to pray, to fast, and to give alms. I’m going to do this before I celebrate that Jesus died on the cross for me and rose so that I may have eternal life. I’m going to take these 40 days – of course 40 in the Bible symbolizes a time of getting ready. Anytime we read the number 40 in the Bible, whether it’s Noah, Moses going up on the mount for 40 days before receiving the Ten Commandments, people wandering in the desert for 40 days, Elijah journeying for 40 days, 40 always means getting ready. Then it makes sense to have a party.
    I remember talking with a priest friend of mine, and he said, “Oh, Ash Wednesday snuck up on me this year. I woke up, and I realized, oh, today is Ash Wednesday! I’d forgotten.” In Mobile, we don’t forget it’s Ash Wednesday. The whole atmosphere changes, and that’s where Mardi Gras can serve a great purpose as a time to relax, to have fun, and then to know, OK, it’s Ash Wednesday, now it’s time to get ready. Now, can anything good be abused? Absolutely. Anything that’s good can be abused. Can people abuse Carnival? Absolutely. Can it be celebrated in excess? Absolutely. Can it be celebrated dangerously? Absolutely. And all this is wrong. So, like any good thing, it can be abused and is abused. But if we keep it what it truly is, a time to enjoy ourselves, it really makes it even more obvious when the 40 days of Lent begin – now we’re starting a different time – I think it’s healthy.

MM: Do you go out on the street to watch the parades?

AR: I’ll watch from the front porch. They can reach me (with throws). I enjoy watching the parades that pass right here.

MM: Do you go back to New Orleans for Mardi Gras at all?

AR: I do not.

MM: Do you still have family there?

AR: Oh, yes. In fact, my family this year will probably come over and spend a few days with me during the parade season. They’ve done that once before.

MM: Where’d you go to high school in New Orleans?

AR: De La Salle (a Catholic High School on St. Charles Avenue, about 12 blocks short of Audubon Park).

MM: Didn’t play in the band or anything, did you?

AR: Actually, I did.

MM: Did you play in parades?

AR: We marched every other night, and I loved it.

MM: What instrument did you play?

AR: That will remain anonymous.

MM: Aw, c’mon.

AR: I played a number of instruments. But we marched every other night because they would pay the school to march, so we could by some new instruments. But we loved marching in the parades. In those days, the parades went through the French Quarter, and when we turned from Canal Street onto Royal, the atmosphere changed. That’s where parades were meant to be celebrated. Because to march down those narrow streets with the two- or three-story balconied buildings with people on all of the balconies, the music would just reverberate. The sound, the intimacy, the crowd was there almost with you, the floats as they passed would throw down to the street or up to the balconies. That was magical. And I understand because of safety today that’s not possible. But to turn from Canal Street onto Royal, then we’d go down Royal to Orleans and then to the Municipal Auditorium (across Rampart, in Armstrong Park), it was electrifying for the members of the band.
    I’ve been gone now for 15 years, and so much has changed in that time. But the indomitable Mardi Gras spirit … I forget what year it was (1979), but there was a police strike, and all of the parades were canceled. Mardi Gras was canceled. The only time in my life that it was canceled. And people just went out on the streets anyhow. People would drive in their cars up and down the street throwing beads. People along St. Charles Avenue just had picnics on the neutral ground. It happened. People still had a holiday on Mardi Gras, and the people went on the streets. It was a wonderful Mardi Gras. We all regretted that there were differences of opinion that resulted in a strike. Certainly we were sorry the parades didn’t march, but it happened.

MM: Did you bring out an instrument?

AR: No (laughs). No, but we had a great time. We went out and just walked the streets and visited with friends, and it was a good time. There is an indomitable spirit of Carnival that people just like to have the time to be able to celebrate. It will survive, I think, pretty much anything.

Talking Mardi Gras
with Darwin Singleton

April 17, 2015: Shortly after Mardi Gras 2015, Steve Joynt, editor and publisher of Mobile Mask, sat down with Channel 15's Darwin Singleton - easily the most recognized media figure in Mobile Mardi Gras - at a west Mobile eatery. We talked about several issues, starting with Local 15's live broadcast of a large handful of parades this year on its sister station, UTV 44. Darwin hosted nearly all of those broadcasts, along with Colton Bradford of KSJ radio. Joynt actually joined Darwin and Colton one night to help call the Order of LaShe's parade. Since that lunch, Channel 15 has received the ratings for those parade broadcasts, and, according to Darwin, the numbers were double what UTV 44 usually gets in that time slot. One parade night, the numbers were even higher than Local 15's programming at the same time. So, here's a transcript of much of our lunch conversation:

By my count, UTV 44 did live broadcasts of nine parades on eight different days.

DS: That sounds right.

MM: What’s your post-mortem on that effort?

DS: We were thrilled for a variety of reasons, that we were able to pull it off, and it became comfortable – the format we were doing – because we had to kind of throw something together fairly quick. We didn’t really plan this way far ahead, it was just an opportunity that presented itself. We’ve got a good production crew, and they really threw themselves into it. After it was over, the compliments were so plentiful that I could tell they were really proud of what they did, and they’re already thinking about next year and how can we make it better. But next year, we don’t know where we’re going to be. This set up was so good because we had two balconies, and we had a kitchen, and it almost dictated how we did things because it was so well set up, everything was so well placed. We ran our cables inside to protect us from the weather. So next year is a big question mark. We don’t know what we’re going to do yet. Maybe we can work something out for that same location.

MM: I thought it was a well put-together package each night.

DS: We were able to include that entertainment component that we like. That worked out because it allowed us to be flexible with the arrival of the parade. It just went so smoothly. We had great bands that were willing to come up there. The only downside was the closer we got to Mardi Gras, the less information was submitted by the krewes about their parades. The newer groups seemed very excited about getting their information on. But when we got up to Fat Tuesday, we just had to ad lib those. It only makes their krewe look better when they participate. That just leaves us to make it up as we go, and that doesn’t show their best side.

MM: Will you ever get any numbers on those broadcasts?

DS: It just so happens that this year it falls into a ratings period, and next year, it will fall into a ratings period. Doing them on 44, it’s going to be really interesting to see how people recognize the channel because it’s not one of the big channels, it’s a small independent. But from my Winn Dixie reaction, which is usually what I go by, I couldn’t go through the store without people stopping me almost every aisle and saying, ‘Love the parades’ or ‘Watching the parades.’ A few people saying, ‘I didn’t even know they were on. I had to find UTV 44,’ and they found it. So actually, it was a really good tool to get people to come to the channel who weren’t already watching sports and things like that on there.

MM: I’m bound to tell you, I was shocked how many people contacted me after I called the LaShe’s parade with you and Colton and told me they watched it. I mean shocked.

DS: That’s good to hear. The people we had on seemed genuinely happy to be on. We’ll see. We’ll see what the numbers do compared to what the channel usually gets. I look forward to it being really good. (It was. See the intro above.) I’m excited about it. This could be really big. If that happens, we could get a lot more sponsors, which will allow us to do more with it, expand it, make it prettier, better. Having Colton there was great. He is a budding personality and knows what he wants. That was a perfect venue for him.

MM: You absolutely should not watch me as I attempt to eat this.

DS: That is a good and messy sandwich.

MM: (After some chewing) Well, it’s not true of every single night you broadcast, but the vast majority of nights, the parades you broadcast had less attendance this year than they had last year.

DS: I noticed that.

MM: The LaShe’s had a shockingly lower number. (10,696 in 2015 versus 35,318 in 2014)

DS: That troubled me a little bit because I thought, ‘I hope people don’t just decide to eat their Mardi Gras at home,’ you know? I’d like them to Tivo it and come home and watch it later. That to me would be really cool. I love Mardi Gras. I don’t want to see anything put a damper on it. I guess to the groups like the LaShe’s, well, more people are watching – they’re here, and they’re at home, so it could be good for them, too. But you want that excitement on the street.

MM: They certainly do.

DS: Yeah. Yeah, they do. So, I noticed that because I was looking at the numbers, too, and the people on the street and wondering what’s the difference here. Well, it’s cold, but that didn’t used to stop people from coming out.

MM: And it wasn’t THAT cold. There was probably less rain this year than there has been in the last few years. It was remarkably rain-free. Certainly I’ve had a couple of people say it on the Facebook page – ‘Oh, people are watching it on TV, that’s why they’re not going out.’

DS: What do you think?

MM: I don’t know. I don’t know. I think it’s too early to know for sure.

DS: Well, if it happens again next year, then we’ll know.

MM: At the same time, y’all broadcast the MOTs, and they drew a bigger crowd than last year.

DS: Nobody would miss the MOTs. It’s the grand poobah, and it was a beautiful day.

MM: To me, even if it does hurt their numbers on the street, that’s a trade-off for all the people that you’re reaching who simply wouldn’t be able to go to the parades.

DS: There’s no negative to it, to me, other than that. People may build it into their lives where they decide, well, we’ll go to three parades a year, we’ll watch the rest on TV. If it’s a nice night, if it’s warm, people will go anyway. A lot of it depends on the weather, I think.

So what do you hear about what’s really going to happen downtown with the Civic Center?

MM: I don’t know. I don’t know. Everything I know is that all of this is contingent upon some developer with deep pockets coming forward and saying, ‘I want to buy that property, and I want to do this and such with it.’ I don’t think they have any expectation that someone will want to build an auditorium. What they’re looking for is someone who wants to build retail-slash-condos. My personal opinion is nobody will want to build condos with a view of the interstate and the county jail.

DS: They were going to do that over by the Convention Center, they had that big plan, and then the economy tanked, and that fell through.

MM: Yeah, that was more than the economy. If it’s not RSA doing it, then nobody’s going to do it. So what’s going to happen is they’re going to padlock the doors come April 2016, and that facility is going to remain empty and unused for the next 10 years. That’s my guess. Or council’s going to force them to keep it open.

DS: That’s the part I keep coming back to: These facilities are not meant to make money, they’re meant to serve the community. It’d be nice if it broke even some day, and maybe it will. But it’s a perfect setup (for mystic societies). They don’t want to have to go all the way out to west Mobile for their ball. That’s what it is. The parade starts, ends, ball, all in the same place, and that's how they like it. I don’t blame them for that, it’s a great setup.

MM: It seems like Channel 15 has done more with Mardi Gras in the last few years.

DS: That’s our news director, Bob Noonan (hired in 2011). He’s from New Orleans. He knows Mardi Gras is a huge part of our lives, and he loves it and takes his family to the parades. He wanted to do Mardi Gras like the New Orleans stations do Mardi Gras. He wanted us in costumes – I was the only one doing it. He’s the one that said everyone will be in costume. There was some grumbling at first, but after the first Fat Tuesday, everybody got it. And they couldn’t wait to get their costumes for the next year.

MM: I guess you’re hoping that next year, there will be even more parades on your schedule.

DS: Well, success begets success. If we get some good numbers, then we’ll sell all those nights out and have even more sponsors to pick up additional parades that we didn’t do this year. That MOT thing – we had already set the schedule, but we said, ‘How can we not do that parade?’ (Initially, they were only going to broadcast weeknight parades, which would have left out the Mystics of Time.) So we went to our GM, and he said OK, let’s do it. If we can get a sponsor for every night, we can afford the overtime needed to put them on.

MM: I know you’re familiar with New Orleans Mardi Gras – I also consider myself to be biCarnival. Do you think there’s anything going on there that we should take note of and possibly even incorporate?

DS: What I like, and I think we’re starting to see a little bit more of it, is costuming and people in their own communities doing their own things. I would love to see every neighborhood take possession of their own Mardi Gras celebration and show it to the rest of us. Everybody has their own thing. I like that uniqueness. What I always say about Mardi Gras is that everybody owns it, and nobody owns it. Everybody takes it and makes it theirs. It would also be neat to get some hubbub going with celebrity grand marshals. I think we may be on the verge of that.

MM: What about after Mardi Gras is over?

DS: You know, down there off Virginia Street, we have all these Mardi Gras warehouses, where they are building Mardi Gras floats all year long. Clean that area up and put up signage – and you have a walking tour of Mardi Gras. The doors are open, you can stop, look in, ask questions, see floats being built. Everybody likes the idea, but nobody knows how to make it happen. Maybe do it every weekend for the month of so-and-so. Most people have never seen a float being made. Everyone I mention that to says it’s a great idea.  

MM: Where are you from, by the way?

DS: I’m from Appalachia: Hazard, Kentucky, way up in the mountains. I’d love to take Mardi Gras back to the mountains some day.

MM: I think if you asked anybody, anybody, in this town, name a media person you associate with Mardi Gras, the answer would be, ‘Darwin.’

DS: Because I stayed longer than anyone else, probably (27 years). And I just love it. I don’t know why, but the minute I got here, they started talking about Mardi Gras, and I said, ‘Oh, New Orleans. Do we cover that?’ They said, ‘No, we do it here. You’ll see.’ This was at Channel 5. And I just went nuts over it. It was a big adventure. I thought, ‘Oh, when I’m 50, I’ll be over all that.’ Well, I just turned 57, and I’m still just as crazy about it. When it was all over this year, I was so tired.

MM: I bet.

DS: I’m going to have to figure out a better way to pace it next year.

MM: Because you were still doing the morning newscasts and the parades. What time do you get to the station?

DS: I get up at 2:45, and I get to the station shortly after 3.

MM: And you were going home after the parades.

DS: I was getting to bed about 9:30. The mistake I made this year is my features that I ran - because I was still doing my Making Mardi Gras features every night at 6, and I’d introduce them before the parade - I was producing those in between. I shot some of them in advance, but they hadn’t gotten edited. So I was basically working all day, then going home and changing clothes to host the parades. And then on the weekends, I was emceeing balls in Mobile or Pensacola or New Orleans. When Fat Tuesday rolled around, I was having trouble keeping my head up. So next year, I’ll do the morning show, leave straight from there and go home and sleep, then go down to the parade that evening. I’ll get those other stories done ahead of time so that between the morning and the evening, I’m not there.

MM: Sounds like a great plan. I hope it works (laughing).

DS: It’s going to work. It is going to work.