Editor's note: The original version of this story ran in 2010.
Today is Fat Tuesday, but in Baton Rouge, for most people, it’s just Tuesday.
While schools and most government offices are closed today, most businesses in Baton Rouge are open. By contrast, the day is an unquestioned holiday almost everywhere else in south Louisiana.
Covington, Houma, Lafayette, Lake Charles and, of course, New Orleans all have parades rolling today. That’s not to mention the smaller parades in dozens of other towns throughout the state.
Baton Rouge residents interested in Mardi Gras head out of town. New Roads, for instance, has long counted on traffic from Baton Rouge to help fill out its parade audience.
In fact, for most of its history, Baton Rouge held no Carnival-season parades at all.
Modern Mardi Gras celebrations in the capital city date back to 1976. That year, the Knights of Ninevah and the Ladies of Antiope held their one and only parade along Florida Boulevard with 14 floats and seven bands on the Saturday before Mardi Gras. The parade attracted an estimated 100,000 people.
The next year, those krewes merged and re-formed as the Krewe of Mystique de la Capitale.
Now, several parades in Baton Rouge crowd the Carnival-season calendar, including the Spanish Town parade. An estimated 200,000 people turned out for the 30th annual Spanish Town parade this year — held as usual on a Saturday.
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None of the Baton Rouge parades as yet roll on Fat Tuesday.
Joy Campbell and her husband, Bruce, moved to Louisiana in the mid-1970s from New England and quickly fell in love with Carnival. She joined a krewe in New Orleans; she still has a room of her house devoted to Mardi Gras memorabilia.
But in her adopted hometown, Baton Rouge, Mardi Gras largely happened somewhere else, and many of her neighbors were indifferent to the revelry.
“I don’t know how to describe it: It was, ‘There’s Mardi Gras ... so what?’ ” Campbell said.
She decided to do something about it, helping form what became the Krewe of Mystique.
Diane Silarais, also a founding member of Mystique, has long noticed local ambivalence about Mardi Gras.
“Some people really like it, and some people think it’s just foolish and extravagant,” she said.
Silarais is among the former. She remembered being among many Baton Rouge families that would head down to St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans to watch the parades.
Like the Campbells, she and her husband, Olie, were already members of New Orleans Mardi Gras krewes. They decided it was high time Baton Rouge held its own parades.
“The krewes that were here, they were more interested in the balls and all that kind of stuff,” Silarais said. “We were more interested in doing something for the community.”
Still, the Krewe of Mystique could never get the status that New Orleans krewes take for granted, she said.
“We just never had the money or the backers that were willing to put the money in that they have in New Orleans,” Silarais said.
Old newspaper clippings reveal a colorful history of failed Baton Rouge attempts to join the Fat Tuesday fun.
The most prominent attempt was from 1949 to 1956 when the Young Men’s Club and the Intercivic Club put on a night parade that mimicked the pageantry of the Krewe of Rex parade in New Orleans.
In the 1930s and ’40s, Baton Rouge’s black community held its own version of Zulu, marching through the western edge of what is now known as the midcity area. Like the more-famous New Orleans parade, King Zulu would dress in a full Zulu warrior costume.
From 1928 to 1935, the Fireman’s Pension Aid Association held an annual “royal regatta” on the City Park lakes during the Mardi Gras season, though a 1949 Morning Advocate story that mentions the floating parade doesn’t say which day it occurred.
In late February of 1891, a fire broke out in what was then the small river town of Baton Rouge. As the alarm sounded, calling volunteer fire …
For much of the 1800s, up until 1914 and the start of World War II, the biggest annual parade in Baton Rouge had nothing to do with Mardi Gras: the annual Fireman’s Parade. It was held on Feb. 22, the birthday of George Washington, and was put on by the then Volunteer Fire Department. At least once during that time, Mardi Gras fell on Feb. 22, but that was just happenstance.
A 1952 Morning Advocate story said the competition to win the award for best float in the Fireman’s Parade was so fierce that the judges were traveling salesmen, enlisted because they would have left town by the time the winners were announced.
Other newspaper stories indicate how in the 1800s steamboats, and later trains, would stop in Baton Rouge on the way to New Orleans to pick up Carnival-goers.
Local historian John Sykes said the railroads specially catered to the season.
“They’d run these Mardi Gras specials that would take people to New Orleans in an hour,” said Sykes, who works as education manager for the Louisiana State Museum.
The larger indifference to Mardi Gras stems from Baton Rouge’s cultural heritage — one much different from the rest of French Catholic south Louisiana, Sykes said.
“Even though we’ve had this French name of Baton Rouge, we’ve been a Protestant-Anglo dominated society from the beginning,” Sykes said.
Pointe Coupee historian Brian Costello, who has written four books on Carnival and is a member of one of New Roads’ two Fat Tuesday parading krewes, echoed Sykes’ assessment.
“Baton Rouge was more of an Anglo-Saxon community, and New Roads is more of a Creole community with the majority of people being of French and African-American descent,” he said.
In contrast to Baton Rouge, New Roads has had Fat Tuesday parades since 1922, with one organized primarily by the black community and another primarily by the white community, but audiences for both are mixed, Costello said.
Baton Rouge residents, both black and white, have long taken the 45-minute drive up the river to enjoy the small-town family atmosphere of the parades, Costello said.
“We have folks from Baton Rouge who bring floats up here as well,” he said.
Not everyone has given up on a Fat Tuesday Mardi Gras for Baton Rouge.
Perhaps the most famous recent parade attempt was the Krewe of Grease, which rolled from 1970 to 1991 along Highland Road.
The parade originated at The Cotton Club, a restaurant on Highland Road north of LSU. The parade would roll a few blocks up and down Highland with a small convoy of trucks-turned-floats. The king would wield a scepter that was really a long fork with a large meatball and crawfish attached.
The idea grew out of boredom. Glenn Constantino, one of the four brothers who ran The Cotton Club, remembers that several judges and a lawyer — it was a half day at the courthouse — were “juicing it up,” talking about their resentment of having to go to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras and decided to do something about it.
The parade ended when the family finally closed The Cotton Club in 1991.
“Everybody was sad to see the place go,” Constantino said.
The Fat Tuesday spirit in Baton Rouge is still alive if dim.