Even while hospitalized last summer after years of declining health, a frail Pete Fountain still hoped to recover in time for Mardi Gras. The New Orleans jazz clarinet legend longed to spend a final Fat Tuesday on the streets with his Half Fast Walking Club.
“He told me, ‘I’m gonna make one more,’ ” recalled Benny Harrell, Fountain’s son-in-law and longtime manager. “I said, ‘You better. I ordered your tuxedo already.’ ”
But it was not to be. The 86-year-old Fountain's heart gave out on Aug. 6. His funeral filled St. Louis Cathedral.
Nearly seven months later, the 220 members of the Half Fast Walking Club will set out Tuesday at 7 a.m. sharp from Commander's Palace on Washington Avenue. For only the second time in the organization's 57-year history, Fountain will not be there to lead them.
Instead, this year's stroll will be a celebration of his legacy and the Carnival tradition he cherished.
The Half Fast Club's 2017 theme, imprinted on souvenir cups, doubloons, beads and koozies, is "Walking in the Limelight with Pete." The members will wear matching lime-green tuxedos, hats and ties.
Already, Fountain has factored into this Carnival season. On Thursday, a Knights of Chaos float titled “St. Peter Street” depicted Fountain playing “live at the Pearly Gates Lounge.” A modified song title painted on the float, “A Closer Half-Fast Walk With Thee,” saluted one of his most cherished recordings and his Mardi Gras club.
"Mardi Gras morning was Pete’s favorite,” Harrell said. “All his life, he lived for Mardi Gras. He could miss other things and not care. Mardi Gras was something he looked forward to all year. He felt so close to people that day.”
As captain of the Half Fast Walking Club, Harrell is charged with shepherding the club into the post-Pete era.
“This is a big year for us,” he said. “We’re very excited about carrying on. It’s really all about honoring Pete and continuing what he loved.
“But it will be quite different without him.”
Tooting and scooting
On a Monday night in early February, the men of the Half Fast Walking Club met for the final time before Mardi Gras. At a banquet hall in Metairie, they ate red beans and rice and king cake, drank beer, received last-minute instructions, laughed and told tall tales, not all of which can be repeated in polite company.
True to club tradition, the mood was for the most part jovial.
Inspired by the Jefferson City Buzzards and other old-line Mardi Gras marching organizations, Fountain and some friends first hit the streets in 1960, not long after he returned to his native city following a two-year stint in Los Angeles for “The Lawrence Welk Show.” In 1961, they officially dubbed themselves the Half Fast Walking Club at the suggestion of his wife, Beverly.
The name clearly mandated “walking,” not “marching.”
“We can’t march,” Fountain once said. “If we marched, we’d die. We’d last about four blocks.”
Year after year, Fountain would “toot and scoot” with his band of merry men decked out in themed costumes — pirates, Romans, Egyptians, etc. One year, Fountain was a prince and his men were frogs. Another time, he sported a tutu.
Actor John Goodman and other guests sometimes joined in. Bound for the French Quarter ahead of the Zulu parade, they made numerous stops for “refreshments” while dispensing paper flowers, kisses and jazz to early arrivals on the St. Charles Avenue parade route.
Their wives, dubbed the Better Halves, gathered for a more civilized luncheon.
Costumes eventually gave way to brightly colored matching tuxedos: blue, red, purple, white, gold, coral, forest green.
This year’s lime green tuxedos were ordered in June, two months before Fountain died. The procession's corresponding theme, "Walking in the Limelight with Pete," was a deliberate choice.
“We picked something that could have gone either way," Harrell said. "We knew there was a possibility that Pete wouldn’t make it to this Mardi Gras. If he didn't, this could be a tribute to him. If he did, we’d celebrate with him. We would have preferred the second.”
In recent years, when he could no longer walk the route, Fountain rode on a streetcar-themed trolley. No matter how weak he was, once he’d been helped aboard, looked at the crowd and heard the band kick off, “he got that glint in his eye,” Harrell said.
Emergency bypass surgery in 2006 caused him to miss his annual Mardi Gras ramble for the first time, much to his dismay. But the following year, he was back.
And he made sure to attend Half Fast meetings. He was always willing to stay late to autograph memorabilia and interact with the members.
Each year, the club produces a new bobblehead figurine of Fountain. He would sign those, too.
"He loved signing all those bobbleheads,” Harrell said.
During the prayer that opened this month’s meeting, someone shouted a request for good weather on Mardi Gras.
“We’ve got a few guys up there that are going to take care of it,” Harrell replied.
His voice cracking, he continued, “This year will be a really tough one. It won’t be easy. He was part of your family, and you were part of his family.”
On Fat Tuesday, the members should “feel what the city has to offer us, and give it right back to them,” Harrell instructed. “We want you to be safe, we want you to enjoy yourself, and we want you to celebrate what Pete brought to life, the Half Fast Walking Club.”
Its longest-tenured members are graying, but sons and grandsons are stepping up. Michael Riches, 38, is the son of longtime club officer Glenn Riches; his uncle, Tom Riches, and cousin Tommy Riches, are also members. Ten years ago, Michael graduated from “buggy boy” — pulling a cart containing beads — to full-fledged membership.
He and the other younger members have quite a legacy to live up to.
John “Boo” Thieler, a member since 1970, is famous for his dancing and infamous for distributing not only beads while walking but also parts of his costume. One year, he stripped off his kimono and gave it to a pregnant woman.
Jimmy Ponseti was 11 when he met Pete Fountain, then 15, who was dating a neighborhood friend of Ponseti’s sister. In 1957, when Fountain left for Los Angeles, Ponseti shipped out for the Navy. They both returned to New Orleans in 1959. Ponseti became a regular at Fountain’s Bourbon Street nightclub.
The arrival of three babies in rapid succession delayed Ponseti from joining the Half Fast Walking Club until 1966. He hasn't missed a year since. The unofficial club historian, he freely admits that some details have been lost. “There are two years that are unaccounted for,” he said: Nobody can remember what they wore, or anything else.
His first year, they were Vikings. Because Ponseti was a new member, his costume was one of the last to be made. Unfortunately, the seamstress was running out of material by then. Thus, he braved a 29-degree Mardi Gras morning in a short-sleeved Viking tunic.
Now 82, Ponseti walks part of the route, then rides in the trolley. He’ll continue “as long as I can make it. We’re going to keep it going in memory of Pete. He wouldn’t have wanted us to stop.”
Long before and long after he retired from the New Orleans Police Department in 1987 after 29 years, Harold Hand was a constant presence at Fountain’s side on Mardi Gras morning, providing security. Before barricades lined the parade route, fans and well-wishers would crowd in close.
“They wanted to greet him, touch him, say hello, nothing out of line,” Hand said. “He handled it very well. He was very respectful of people. He took time to talk.”
In recent years, Hand accompanied Fountain on the trolley. Now an “honorary member” of the club who proudly wears its signature black logo jacket, he plans to roll with the Half Fast krewe again this year, even though Fountain is no longer there for him to guard.
“Benny hasn’t told me my new assignment,” Hand said.
They won’t know what effect Fountain’s absence will have “until we get on the trolley at Commander’s Palace, and there’s Pete’s chair," Hand said. "I don’t know who will be sitting on the chair."
But the band will still play “Pete Fountain Mardi Gras music,” meaning upbeat, high-spirited, traditional New Orleans jazz.
Continuing the tradition
Fountain would always blow a whistle to signal the start of the parade at 7 a.m. outside Commander’s Palace. This year, Fountain’s two sons, Jeff and Kevin, will perform that ritual in honor of their father.
From Commander’s, they’ll proceed up Washington Avenue to St. Charles, then head downtown. They’re on a schedule at that point: They must cross Jackson Avenue before the Zulu parade arrives at St. Charles.
But once they hit Bourbon Street, they’re on their own time.
They’ll stop at 311 Bourbon to toast the bronze statue of Fountain at Musical Legends Park. They’ll turn on St. Ann, then take Chartres to Esplanade Avenue, before following Royal Street all the way to the Hotel Monteleone.
The Monteleone was also the final destination for Fountain’s funeral procession last summer.
But just as that second-line wasn’t an ending, neither is this year’s Half Fast walk. The members will walk again during a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Many will likely also attend an April 29 tribute and memorial parade in Fountain’s honor at the 2017 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
And they plan to be back for Mardi Gras 2018, and beyond.
“Mardi Gras was a day for Pete to let his hair down, even when he didn’t have any,” Harrell said. “It’s up to us to continue that tradition.”