In the Carnival season of supersized floats, a trio of revelers gathers inside a Bywater corner store, closed for the evening, to build a float using tiny parts and big imaginations.
When their mission is complete, they will roll out their finished parade-ready project like a child pulling a little red wagon.
“I was charmed by this parade the first time I saw it from the sidelines,” said Karen Crain, now a team captain, in the Krewe of ‘tit Rex (pronounced “T” Rex).
The shoebox-sized floats of 'tit Rex — ‘tit is short for the French petit or petite — offer sharp contrast to Carnival's many grandiose events on wheels that require spectators stand on tiptoe, jump to catch throws in mid-air or climb ladders to get closer. At this lone micro-parade, you look down, not up. Crouching, kneeling or leaning over are required for viewing.
‘Tit Rex, now in its ninth year, limits floats to 28. The number of spectators may be growing, but the compact concept of the event is intact.
“We easily spend a good month to six weeks on the float and the throws. Each one of us contributes at least 60 hours. It can be very intense closer to parade,” said Crain, an art consultant who joined the krewe in 2010.
On a recent night at Bywater Bakery on Dauphine Street, Crain and her team stood over tables of tiny figurines (ranging from a bobblehead Trump to Dora the Explorer), packages of cotton balls, glue guns and LED light strips.
During the day, the corner bakery serves up king cakes, grits and sandwiches, but at night, it turns into a temporary Carnival den on the scale of an elves’ workshop.
“I had a strategy when I chose my team,” said Crain, who thought her DIY-approach to float building needed the refinement of artistic execution and engineering skills. She called on graphic designer Claudia Lynch, known for her “ShoeStories” illustrated books, and Steve Walkup, musician and owner of an IT company and co-owner of the bakery that serves as their evening studio.
The float-in-progress, already mounted on a shoebox, has been fortified and decorated with carved wooden trim and mounted on rollers, its centerpiece a ‘50s toy roller coaster with all metal parts and hand-painted details. Walkup is a collector of vintage toys. Even though the team was first thinking of escapism and whimsy, the three concurred that the circus theme lended itself to political satire. Thus, the name of the float: Ride the Wild Trump.
In tune with the circus image, Crain decided to make doll-size cotton candy replicas as throws. She was almost finished handwriting “‘tit Rex 2017” on 1,000 popsicle sticks, to which were glue-gunned cotton balls that had been pulled and twisted to look like spun cotton candy (suspiciously akin to the presidential coiffure).
Lynch had created a tightrope with opposing platforms edged in traditional circus fringe. Using an assortment of wooden dowels, wire, Styrofoam, salad-dressing, take-out containers, and bits of velvet and gold cord, the local artist had built a swaying tightrope with a rope ladder made of string and straw.
A green, plastic Statue of Liberty figurine was standing by for her precarious balancing act.
Walkup had strewn tiny color-changing LED lights along the toy roller-coaster’s rails.
A remote control was readied for the human command center, the team of three who would don understated black formal wear with krewe sashes, walking beside the float the day of the parade. The focus is on the float, not on the builders of the float, the team is quick to point out.
“We can do a lot more detail when we are working on something this size. If we were working on something large scale, it would be way too expensive to make,” Walkup said.
But all this was just the beginning. Tiny handmade floats are a work in progress, and there is an underlying challenge that cannot be ignored. Meet a street parade’s worst enemy — New Orleans potholes. A miniature parade facing caverns in the asphalt calls for a design necessity.
“Indestructibility,” Walkup said. “You have to make the floats as rugged as possible because the float’s ride is rougher than that of a car on these streets.” Crain had learned the hard way with her first float, when “it almost disintegrated” before the end of the parade through the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater neighborhood. The floats are pulled by team members using a dog-leash or lighted rope.
“Throw me somethin’, Mister!” appears to be a safe request at the ‘Tit Rex parade. Currently, there are no reported injuries from tiny airborne throws.