Three weeks before the first rider steps aboard a Mardi Gras parade float, a different kind of ride happens — the ultimate streetcar ride.
This Saturday, Jan. 6, Twelfth Night will once again be heralded by the masked celebrants of the Krewe of the Phunny Phorty Phellows. Since 1981, a ragtag band of revelers has donned costumes, many with a satirical twist, and ridden a raucous, decked-out streetcar on a route that starts at 7 p.m. on South Carrollton Avenue in Uptown New Orleans and continues down St. Charles Avenue to the Lee Circle turnaround before heading back to where it started.
Clad in a banner proudly proclaiming “It’s Carnival Time,” the streetcar carries approximately 70 riders (the most it can fit) who dance and sing along to the music of the group’s official band, the Storyville Stompers.
In 1982, the Phunny Phorty Phellows were proclaimed the official heralds of Carnival season.
“We don’t have too many seasonal signs here,” said Carnival historian and longtime member Errol Laborde. “The trees don’t really change color, we don’t have winter really ... so this is our way of marking the change of the season to Carnival season.”
The original Krewe of Phunny Phorty Phellows was actually a parading group that appeared for the first time in 1878 following the Rex parade.
For eight years, the group’s sometimes satirical, sometimes just-for-fun floats and participants thrilled the public so much they became known as the “dessert” of Carnival.
Now they function more as an amuse-bouche.
One of the krewe’s original riders, Laborde says the group never anticipated they’d garner the following they have.
“There’s typically 1,000 or so people we’ll see on the route spread out across the neutral ground that just wait there for us to pass by,” he said, noting that the annual ride is what really “put Twelfth Night on the map.”
Steeped in so much history, it’s natural that the Phunny Phorty Phellows would include a nod to New Orleans’ 300th year.
“I’ve already heard of several groups who are planning costumes with a tricentennial theme,” said Laborde. “With the fireworks set for that night too, it’s going to be a great night.”
New Krewe in Town
While this year continues a long-held tradition for the Phunny Phorty Phellows, it marks only the second year for New Orleans’ latest, and second Twelfth Night streetcar riding krewe, The Societé de Champs Elyseé.
The man behind the new ride is local musician David Roe, who says he was inspired after participating in an accordion flash mob a few years ago on the new Rampart-St. Claude streetcar line.
“I live about a block from the Elysian Fields Station and a friend of mine invited me to join about a half-dozen musicians with accordions to ride to Union Station,” Roe said. “I thought it sounded fun so we went and had a great time.”
Apparently, not everyone on the streetcar enjoyed the party.
“Someone complained about the noise,” Roe said. “As a musician, I just thought it was wrong to be told you couldn’t make noise on a streetcar so someone suggested we do like Phunny Phorty Phellows and rent out a streetcar, so I did just that.”
Roe said it only took a week to fill the car with riders, including Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, who will be back to join the festivities this year. The fun will begin in Buffa’s Back Room at 5 p.m. with a performance by the Davis Rogan Band featuring Johnson.
At 7 p.m. there will be a short second line to the Esplanade streetcar stop, led by Catie Rodgers’ Elysian Brass Band. The ride begins at 7:30 p.m. and travels to Union Station and back again, ending at Elysian Fields and St. Claude Ave.
A masked ball will follow at 9 p.m. at Siberia Lounge with music by the Elysian Brass, Gina Forsyth’s Mid City Aces, and Caesar Brothers Funk Box. There will also be featured performances by Big Chief Kevin Goodman, of The Flaming Arrows, and Johnson. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door. Costumes and masks are required.
“For those that have not had enough, there will be an after-party at Kajun’s Pub,” said Roe.
Phunny Phorty Phellows
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Start is at Willow Street Car Barn, Uptown
For the full route, visit phunnyphortyphellows.com
Societé de Champs Elyseé
When: 5 p.m. Friday pre-party; ride at 7:30 p.m.; ball at 9 p.m.
Where: Pre-party at Buffa’s Bar and Restaurant (1001 Esplanade Ave.); ride starts at Elysian Fields Station, ball at Siberia Lounge (2227 St. Claude Ave.)
For tickets and information, email firstname.lastname@example.org