Minutes before the scheduled start of the 2016 French Quarter Festival’s kickoff parade Thursday morning, Executive Director Marci Schramm stood in the middle of Bourbon Street. She had been at work since 4 a.m., overseeing final preparations for the parade and the free, four-day festival that would follow.
Was she ready?
“If we’re not ready, we’re in trouble,” she said. “At this point, we just want to get it moving. Then it all settles in.”
Moments earlier, 80 third-graders from Lafayette Academy disembarked from a streetcar at Carondelet and Canal streets, en route to the festival. For many, it was their first streetcar ride, not to mention their first visit to the French Quarter Festival.
“This is the best field trip of the year,” said Jane Wolfe, one of the teachers escorting the group. “We do it every year.”
Back at Bourbon and Iberville streets, a cacophony of eclectic sights and sounds intermingled, waiting to fall in line for the festival’s kickoff parade.
Marching groups represented French Quarter Festival sponsors and fans, aspects of New Orleans culture or something entirely random.
A contingent of Black Storyville Baby Dolls strutted in short, frilly, lime green dresses and knee-length white boots.
Just behind the Baby Dolls were four miniature horses, a 3-month-old donkey and a llama named Lorenzo. They seemed unfazed as members of various bands tuned up trombones.
The giant Bubba Gump shrimp arrived late and was hustled into position. A bulbous, pear-shaped drop of blood costume, representing the Blood Center, challenged its wearer’s ambulatory abilities. The Tropical Isle Hand Grenade, equally unwieldy, opted to ride in the bed of a pickup truck.
At 10:14 a.m., only a few minutes behind schedule, the parade rolled. The sounds of a succession of brass bands — New Wave, Society and Big Fun, plus a trio of National Park Service rangers — bled into one another as three-deep crowds watched from either side of Bourbon Street.
Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, armed with a second-line umbrella, marched with the lead banner, his blue dress shirt sleeves rolled up, no tie in sight. Ahead of him, Darryl “Dancing Man 504” Young strutted and leapt in purple shoes.
Members of the International Allstar Kazoo Band handed out kazoos.
The NOLA Krewe of Pirates and Wenches, in full seafaring regalia, distributed beads. “Y’all ain’t got enough,” one wench exclaimed to a group of bystanders before remedying that deficiency.
Three dozen British tourists, waving Union Jacks, made their way toward a square named for Andrew Jackson, who defeated a British army in 1815. The Brits, members of the Southern Sounds organization’s 25th annual pilgrimage to the festival, appeared to harbor no hard feelings for what transpired on the Chalmette Battlefield 201 years ago.
Bringing up the rear of the parade was the Zapp’s Potato Chips company’s purple firetruck. Riders tossed bags of chips to the sound of an onboard calliope.
At the corner of St. Ann and Royal streets, a pair of ticket-writing “parking control officers” paused to watch the procession. Crowds thinned along St. Ann, then swelled once again as the parade turned at the recently fire-damaged Presbytere to head into Jackson Square.
As Lorenzo trotted past tarot card readers, a bystander noted dryly, “It’s just a llama.”
Once inside Jackson Square, marchers and onlookers alike could partake of the festival’s food and drink booths, the latter ranging from Jacques-Imo’s slow-roasted duck po-boys to Plum Street sno-balls spiked with booze.
Security guards gently discouraged patrons from bringing outside food and beverages into Jackson Square. One guard helpfully instructed a man to hide his water bottle in his pocket as he entered.
The stage at Jackson Square, sponsored this year by the anti-smoking coalition Smoke Free NOLA, was one of only five in operation Thursday. The festival’s soft opening is dubbed “Locals Lagniappe Thursday,” a modest day of music and crowds before what is expected to be a big weekend.
In 2015, three of the festival’s four days were hit by rain; attendance dropped dramatically. This year’s picture-perfect festival forecast promises plenty of sunshine and huge crowds.
The festival, which is produced by the nonprofit French Quarter Festivals Inc., expands to 12 stages on Friday, then its full complement of 23 stages on Saturday and Sunday.
Nungesser, Schramm, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and others spoke briefly during an opening ceremony at Jackson Square. A priest prayed for favorable weather, signing off with, “Enjoy the festival! God bless.”
He then joined the mayor, lieutenant governor and Schramm in a Champagne toast for pianist and festival mainstay Ronnie Kole’s 85th birthday. Kole announced his intention to keep going until age 100, then “go backwards.”
With that, PresHall Brass, the marching band version of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, kicked off the music with a set of traditional jazz.
Blocks away, veteran New Orleans entertainer Deacon John Moore, dapper in his trademark bow tie and fedora, opened up the festival’s main Abita Beer Stage at Woldenberg Riverfront Park.
Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, featured on one of the festival’s official T-shirts, was to follow Moore.
Years ago, Ruffins got married onstage at French Quarter Festival. The marriage didn’t last, but his relationship with the festival endures. And he has since remarried, in a less public setting.
Bruce Daigrepont was first up at the Chevron Cajun/Zydeco Showcase stage at the Bienville statue at Conti and Decatur streets.
Traditional jazz was once the French Quarter Festival’s bread and butter, but the event has greatly expanded its repertoire to include all forms of indigenous south Louisiana music.
On Thursday, the raucous rock band Cowboy Mouth and southwest Louisiana slide guitar ace Sonny Landreth were scheduled to make their French Quarter Festival debuts late in the day.
And there were still three even busier days ahead.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.