It’s a chilly Friday afternoon inside the Castillo Blanco Art Studios on St. Claude Avenue, and Ryan Ballard is drilling a rubber lizard onto the hood of a French electric car.
Of course he is.
What else would the “High Priest” of the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus be doing this close to the Saturday, Jan. 30, parade?
Ballard, a conceptual artist, is practically beaming as he scans this work in progress, the foundation of which is a ZENN electric car donated by a krewe member. It’s being tricked out practically as we speak, with fellow krewe member Sarah Rose helping out adding rubber snakes and lizards and glowing lights.
He points to the back of the car, where two monstrous black exhaust pipes will spew fog from a tank. He’s proud of the seat he’s set up just underneath the cut-out top, from which the “Lizard King” (this year’s monarch, Keith Greene) will sit as he rides in the car, which he calls a “Reptilian DeLorean.”
Nearby is a green spray-painted coffin, which Greene will open at the private coronation dinner Friday night. Inside is a skeleton wearing the monarch’s costume.
“Chewbacchus,” Ballard says proudly, “has finally conquered time!”
Keeping up with the ethos and various mythologies spouted by Ballard in discussing Chewbacchus and its 2016 theme, “Chewluminati: Nerd World Order,” requires a master’s degree in European history with a focus on the Enlightenment, an immersion in conspiracy theories and a love of pop-culture irony.
Ballard likes to court controversy and chaos while helping lead one of the most popular Carnival parades on the downriver side of Canal Street.
He raised more than a few eyebrows in 2014 when he successfully applied for tax-exempt status for Chewbacchus (a melding of the “Star Wars” Wookie Chewbacca and superkrewe Bacchus) as an “organized religion,” named the Cult of the Sacred Drunken Wookiee, which was the theme of the 2015 parade.
Ballard says there was no criticism from Christian groups. But to his surprise, others grumbled that “we are too powerful.” A Change.org petition, calling for more financial transparency, fizzled.
So-called conspiracies, in his mind, inspired a parade dedicated to the “Illuminati,” an umbrella term that alludes to conspiracy theories and secret societies such as the Freemasons.
So this year’s Chewbacchus parade will feature such familiar illuminati-inspired iconography as pyramids, the number 42 and, yes, lizards. This year’s king, Keith Greene, won what Ballard described as an illuminati-themed, “nine part meta-conceptual scavenger hunt.”
The notoriety hasn’t diminished the krewe’s popularity; if anything, it’s increased.
The original Wookiee himself, “Star Wars” actor Peter Mayhew, rode in the parade in 2013 and 2015. The krewe earned a mention in last season’s “NCIS: New Orleans” Mardi Gras episode — nerdy scientist Sebastian Lund (played by actor Rob Kerkovich) is a fan. The cast and crew are expected to participate in this year’s parade. Living Colour frontman Corey Glover also is expected to ride.
Membership ballooned by 500 over the past year to give Chewbacchus 1,500 members. (Compare that with the 300 who showed up for the first parade in 2011.)
The krewe generated off-season interest with two inaugural events in 2015: the “Shoeboxus” shoe-box float parade May 4, and October’s Ignition Festival, a riff on the counterculture Burning Man festival at the Filmworks New Orleans movie studios — complete with the burning in effigy of a 60-foot-tall Wookiee.
“I think that brought a lot of people into the fold,” Ballard said. “Everyone had a good time, and we met all kinds of new people. You let all these people hang together and you burn a Wookiee, pretty soon you’re all best friends.”
On Saturday, they will ride as part of as many as 100 separate groups as far-flung in the galaxy as Chew-Bake-Us, the Leijorettes, Ladies of Star Trek, Krewe du Who, and the Rolling Elliots.
Speaking to the illuminati theme will be a pyramid-shaped float that, according to Ballard, will look like it’s, well, floating as it oozes smoke from a fog machine while playing an interactive video showing images such as a human eye morphing into a lizard’s eye.
And of course, there’s that “Reptilian DeLorean” to squire the Lizard King along a reconfigured parade route.
The parade will start at 7 p.m. at Krewe du Vieux’s den at 42 Architects Alley, wind around Faubourg Marigny and Bywater, including a long stretch of St. Claude Avenue to end at the Castillo Blanco Art Studios for the Chewbacchanal party. Entertainment includes The Morning 40 Federation, DohmStar Collective, Tristan Dufrene, DJ Mic Phedusha, DJ GenEric and Rick Grimes.
In another hint at innovation, the krewe is working with NOLArts, Preservation Hall and iDIYA to help make the parade amenable to children with autism.
“We’ve proved ourselves to be a very forward-thinking group of conceptual tricksters,” Ballard says. “We’re doing Mardi Gras a little big different than anybody else is doing.
“Chewbacchus,” Ballard adds, “is kind of a creative juggernaut.”