NEW ORLEANS -- From children clamoring for tossed strands of beads, to revelers dressed up as "blind referees" poking fun at the NFL, to high school bands marching down the street, people in New Orleans celebrated Fat Tuesday with flair and fun.
Mardi Gras season began Jan. 6 and featured weeks of parades, fancy-dress balls, king cakes and generalized frivolity citywide. Fat Tuesday is the culmination of Carnival. The festivities kicked off in Tuesday's pre-dawn hours with the Northside Skull and Bone Gang in skeleton costumes waking people to celebrate the day. The fun continued throughout the day and across the city with parades, costumes and balls.
"I feel like a rock star for a day," said Van Bender, carrying a sequined replica of the Death Star from the Star Wars movies and joined by friends carrying sequined images of Darth Vader, Boba Fett and a Stormtrooper. He said there's a sense of joy on Fat Tuesday. "It feels like peace on Earth. Everyone's filled with love. Everyone gets along. Everyone helps each other."
After rainy weather affected some parades Sunday, Tuesday dawned cold but sunny. People — some of whom came out before sunrise to stake a good spot along the parade route — bundled up under multiple layers. Lorenzo Bridgewater of Slidell, Louisiana, got out at about 4:30 a.m.
"I doubled up my jeans, doubled up my socks. I'm wearing a sweater underneath this and underneath that a thermal with a shirt over it. So I'm pretty layered up," he said.
Pete Fountain's Half-Fast Walking Group was again a crowd favorite. The clarinetist died in 2016, but the walking group he led for years still meets each Carnival Season at Commander's Palace restaurant and strolls the parade route. Lance Pierce, of Leonardtown, Maryland, got up early, ahead of friends, to see the group.
"I enjoyed watching Pete before he passed, coming down here and playing so that's my thing. Everyone else is kind of sleeping in, taking it easy, getting their costumes ready to go. But I like to come out here and watch the guys come by," he said.
Then the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club paraded, followed by the Rex Parade. Zulu's practice of wearing black makeup during its parade drew criticism amid recent national headlines that two Virginia politicians once wore blackface.
Zulu issued a statement in February saying their parade costumes bear no resemblance to those worn by "blackface" minstrel performers at the turn of the century. Rather, the group said, the costumes are designed to honor garments worn by South African Zulu warriors.
Zulu's custom-designed coconut throws are perennial favorites with fans who vie for the chance to get one.
The Rex parade stopped for a toast at a home along St. Charles Avenue that has been an important stop for the Rex king along the parade route since 1907.
A fire on Feb. 20 caused massive damage to the three-story, 150-year-old mansion whose occupants over the years have included four kings and a queen of Rex. Local media showed a sign that had jokingly been hung up outside the mansion, reading, "We are ready for Ash Wednesday."
This year's Carnival season also featured numerous jabs at the NFL and its commissioner Roger Goodell, over the now-infamous "no-call" during the Jan. 20 NFC Championship game between the Los Angeles Rams and the New Orleans Saints.
A Rams defensive back leveled a Saints receiver with a helmet-to-helmet hit at a crucial point in the game, and the Rams went on to win and go to the Super Bowl. They lost to the New England Patriots.
NFL officials acknowledged flags should have been thrown. That's done little to assuage Saints' fans who chose to express their anger and disappointment in costume. The French Quarter was filled with costumed "blind referees" wearing signs like "Blind as a bat" or walking with canes.
"It's been forty-four days since that day. And we're still mad," said Jerry Dellucky, from Hammond, Louisiana. He and some friends were dressed as blind referees and yellow penalty flags. "Football is our passion down here. And we don't get over it."
One parade featured a walking group called the "Robbin Refs" who wore referee outfits and black masks. On the back of their uniforms? A photo of Goodell with a red clown nose. The Krewe d'Etat parade featured a float called "Willful Blindness" with a blind referee on the front holding a cane.
Fat Tuesday ends each year at midnight, with police riding horseback down Bourbon Street to ceremonially "clear" the street. Then comes Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent and a time for many Christians to fast and reflect ahead of Easter.
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