Mobile Touts Family-Oriented Mardi Gras

From decorated trees and outrageous costumes to colorful parades and quaint traditions, it's Mardi Gras time on the Gulf Coast. And while New Orleans' celebration may be better known, Mobile's claims to be older — as well as more family-oriented.

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 streets with cowbells and rakes taken from a hardware store. They called themselves the Cowbellion de Rakin Society.

Today celebrations are held all along the Gulf Coast, from Texas to at least Fort Walton Beach, Fla., and small towns in between.

While Mobile has struggled lately with job layoffs, soldiers leaving for Iraq and related economic problems, the gloom has subsided a little for carnival in the port city, where about 30 different Mardi Gras organizations form the nucleus of the celebration.

"People are not spending like last year. Too many people are unemployed," said Carol Henson at Accent Annex, a Mardi Gras supplier. But she still has buyers for dancing jester dolls, crazy hats, designer beads, wreaths for doors and colorful sequined vests.

"Lots of people are decorating their homes with Mardi Gras trees," she added. A typical tree is decorated with strings of beads and carnival masks.

All-Out Party Mode

Poor economy or not, the season of frivolity and late-night cavorting in this 300-year-old port city is expected to fill the city's 5,700 hotel and motel rooms, particularly downtown where the major parades roll.

Police Capt. Joe Kennedy said about 833,479 people attended last year's two weeks of Mardi Gras parades. He expects a similar turnout this year.

And in response to past complaints about alcohol at the parades, an alcohol-free zone will be designated this year by roping off a block or more along the parade route, according to Mobile Public Safety Director Dick Cashdollar.

Mardi Gras falls on Feb. 24, but the first parades rolled Jan. 24 on Dauphin Island. The pace picks up Feb. 6 in Mobile, when the first of the city's 33 parades is held. For those raised in Alabama's 300-year-old port city, riding a Mardi Gras float is a dream come true and for many a family tradition, says 26-year-old Tim Anderson, loading a shopping cart with beads he will throw to paradegoers during his first float ride.

Float-riders traditionally throw Moon Pies, stuffed animals and trinkets at the crowds — giant plastic pacifiers, oversized sunglasses, and bags of colorful beads, beads, and more beads.

Royals Go For Ride

King Cake is another carnival tradition. Inside the cake is a small toy doll and the person who gets that slice has to buy the next cake.

There are kings and queens of carnival courts — and even some self-described royalty in the raucous Joe Cain parade.

Jenny Carden said she and her husband, Brad, will ride as the king and queen of the Tillman's Tricksters, a suburban carnival krewe with some 50 members.

"We're going to be riding in a carriage pulled by a Belgian horse named Moses," she said.

Stephen V. Toomey, a Mardi Gras store owner, said carnival arrives early this year and even earlier next year, Feb. 8, giving little time to rest after Christmas.

"We're blessed because Mardi Gras is a priority for folks. The show must go on," Toomey said. "People find ways to make it happen."

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