Spanish Town Mardi Gras is quirky, obscene and almost out of control.
And it’s all Baton Rouge’s creation.
The parade, now in its 35th year, pulls thousands of spectators into the yards and tiny streets of Baton Rouge’s oldest neighborhood to party with floats and dance troupes representing all subcultures of south Louisiana.
“It goes everywhere from Bohemian to rednecks,” said Charles Fisher, 67, one of the parade’s long-time organizers. “It does a pretty good job of covering everything.”
The parade has eviscerated Louisiana and national politicians and taken a twisted view of the news from the beginning with themes like “Louisiana Purchase — Name your Price” and “BP Blows and Wiki Leaks.” This year’s theme is #PinkParty.
An early parade theme could neatly wrap up the parade’s ethos: “Poor Taste is Better Than No Taste at All.”
Kitschy decoration like the plastic pink flamingo, risqué costumes and double entendre-filled signs have long marked the celebration. While children love the parade, many parents stop taking their kids when they learn to read the float banners and signs.
In 1986, in a letter to the editor of the State-Times newspaper, a father took the parade to task after his young child caught a condom along with beads and other throws.
“They don’t hold anything back,” said Duz Hamilton, 69, one of the parade founders. “It’s as loose as a goose in some areas.”
That looseness grew from the neighborhood’s personality, said Fisher, who moved from Pennsylvania in the 1970s after he “accidentally” made a left turn leaving New Orleans and ended up in downtown Baton Rouge.
“Spanish Town was always an eclectic neighborhood, and the parade is pretty much an eclectic group of participants,” Fisher said.
Situated between Interstate I-110 and downtown Baton Rouge, the neighborhood is the oldest in the capital city. It was founded in 1805 by a group of Canary Islanders seeking to stay in Spanish territory after the United States bought much of the region through the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Baton Rouge and the Florida Parishes were still part of Spanish-controlled West Florida then.
While Spanish Town is a relative newcomer to a Louisiana Mardi Gras tradition established in the 1800s, some historians say the parade represents the raucous, impromptu celebrations in New Orleans prior to 1857, when the first krewe organized and created highly regulated parades.
“The roots of it are in disorderly street parades and people refusing to follow the rules,” said Alecia P. Long, an associate professor of history at LSU who has studied Mardi Gras.
Long, who witnessed her first Spanish Town parade last year, was “blown away” by the size of the celebration’s floats, its dance crews and the crowd.
“Mardi Gras has some rough edges,” she said, “and Spanish Town has some rough edges.”
In 1981, the parade began as nothing more than a bunch of kids walking the streets, banging on wax-coated cardboard fruit boxes from the neighborhood grocery.
“Then we came back and drank a bunch of beers,” Hamilton said.
The idea of a “poor man’s” parade was born from a group of guys sitting around their kitchen lamenting that no one was having a Mardi Gras party the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, Fisher said.
Hamilton said he and others “didn’t have the money to go to New Orleans” for Mardi Gras.
“We did it and we started doing it every year, and it only took a couple years for the rest of the city to find out about it,” Fisher said. “We were the only show in town. So this is what you get.”
For 1982, the parade expanded to three “floats” — two pick-ups and a boat, Hamilton said.
Soon, the parade added floats made of 16-foot lowboy hay trailers, Fisher said. Four years in, the parade was growing large enough that the rest of the city took notice.
Organizers created the Society for the Preservation of Lagniappe in Louisiana, a nonprofit organization, in late 1984 to give a little guidance to the raucous event, and they began getting proper permits and buying insurance.
While the parade grew more organized, the high jinks continued. Early on, the parade’s judges openly accepted bribes. Today, they even give an award for the best instance of graft.
“Some of the bribes have been pretty cool,” Fisher said.
Fisher’s favorite bribe story begins one night at his favorite bar on Main Street downtown. A float organizer walked in and said, “Your limo awaits,” and led several judges to a stretch limousine. He then drove them in style to a night of drinking at Phil Brady’s and the Southdowns Lounge.
Eventually the hay trailers grew into almost-proper floats with room for dozens of riders and a port-a-potty. Float riders look forward to drinking during the parade, Hamilton said, but there’s no time.
“You can’t drink because you’re constantly throwing beads,” he said.
Early on, the Spanish Town Mardi Gras kings and queens usually included a local celebrity or member of the media (a strategic public relations decision, Fisher said) and a neighborhood local. But one year the king wasn’t even a human.
In 1996, Rubin, a stray dog adopted by a neighborhood artist, joined queen Lurline Hamilton in the parade. The canine was a logical choice that year, Fisher said. Rubin was everyone’s pal.
“Rubin started running around the neighborhood and was friends with everybody and bummed food from people sitting on their porches at night,” he said.
Today, Spanish Town is Baton Rouge’s largest Mardi Gras celebration, attracting 70,000 to 100,000 spectators. There’s no room left for it to grow, Fisher said, without moving it away from the small streets with dense tree canopies that force a shorter maximum size on floats.
Even the waiting list for new floats and krewes is comically long.
“I think somebody described it as the waiting list is longer than the statute of limitations for murder,” Fisher said. “And there is no statute of limitations on murder.”
The parade’s size hasn’t made the experience any less enjoyable to Fisher and Hamilton.
“It’s fun no matter what,” Fisher said.