Following are excerpts from St. Tammany Farmer Editor Andrew Canulette's recent interview with Mardi Gras Guide publisher Arthur Hardy.
Farmer: Many people here know your story, but for those who might not know you, maybe you can give them some details about how you came to be synonymous with Mardi Gras.
Hardy: Well, I’m a fifth-generation New Orleanian. I was a public school kid, and I loved Mardi Gras as a kid. I marched in parades in the band at Warren Easton in the '50s, and I was a music major at Loyola. I worked at WSMB Radio to help put me through college and every year, people would call and ask about what was going on in the parades that night. So, I’d get the morning paper and I’d read about it and tell them the news.
The idea for the Mardi Gras Guide came to me, and I thought it would be kind of like TV Guide, which told you what was on TV that week. But the Mardi Gras Guide would have a whole season’s worth of information in one place. It was a simple idea, but no one had ever done it.
Farmer: What was the reception when you first published the Mardi Gras Guide in 1977?
Hardy: It was a critical success, but a financial disaster. I printed 5,000 copies the first year, and we sold 1,500. I burned the rest of them. There were no ads and no color. It was just a digest-sized publication. But we rolled the dice again the next year and we made 5,000 of them again and we sold every one. I thought we were on a roll! So, I went out and printed 10,000 copies in 1979 and then … boom! Police strike. No Mardi Gras, and I’m in the toilet again.
Farmer: But something went right eventually. What happened?
Hardy: It finally took off, but we were not an overnight success, for sure. I was working on the guide from my kitchen table. We were living in Gentilly, and I was band director at Brother Martin. Much to the credit of the school, they allowed me to do this moonlighting gig making the guide. They could have said no and there wouldn’t have been a Mardi Gras Guide. But give the Archdiocese of New Orleans Credit Union its due. We owe them and the Brothers of the Sacred Heart a lot of thanks.
Farmer: When did you move to Mandeville?
Hardy: In 2007, and it had nothing to do with Katrina. We wanted to downsize. Our kids were gone, and we wanted a place on the north shore, near the lake, something convenient to the Causeway so I could get to town. I asked our agent to find something that had an office in the backyard, someplace I could handle the magazine … I’ll be darned if she didn’t find a place that had an artist studio in the backyard. It was fate. And, we really love it on the north shore.
Farmer: What’s your most vivid memory of Carnival growing up in New Orleans?
Hardy: Going to the parades with my mother. My father didn’t care for Mardi Gras much. I distinctly remember the 1951 Mid City Parade. I’m 5 years old and the king’s float had a male page and a female page on it. That little girl was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I fell in love right then and there. I cut her picture out of the paper and I saved it for years. I don’t remember much after that about Mardi Gras until I was a teenager, but that moment made me think how cool all this was.
Farmer: What’s your fondest memory of Carnival when you were a teenager?
Hardy: Marching in the (Warren Easton band into the) French Quarter, without a doubt. When you turned off Canal Street onto Royal, it was absolutely magical. The sounds bounced off the buildings, the lights from the flambeaux reflected everywhere. It was a whole different experience. We sometimes would (march in) two parades a day … No matter how tired you were, you always woke up when you hit the Quarter.
Farmer: You mentioned that the Mardi Gras Guide took some time to become popular. Do you get stopped all over New Orleans by people who recognize you?
Hardy: In 1986, my dear friend Angela Hill got me on WWL-TV. That was instant credibility. I’d be around town, people would say ‘Hey, you’re the Mardi Gras guy.' It really grew. My name wasn’t on the magazine for a long time, it was just the Mardi Gras Guide. Then it became Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide and eventually, we put my picture in the corner on the cover. But that wasn’t about ego, it was about promoting a product.
Farmer: I know you’re already working on the 2020 magazine. What happened in 2005 after Katrina when you were readying the 2006 magazine?
Hardy: Well, we almost didn’t have Mardi Gras. We were in a fight for the city’s soul, not my magazine. We took a lot of criticism from around the world with people questioning how we could have Mardi Gras when we were still picking ourselves up from the storm. People asked me ‘Are you crazy?’ and I said ‘Yeah, but that’s a story for another day.’ After the disaster, we had to celebrate. People were emotional. Instead of signs that said ‘Throw me something mister!’ the signs just said ‘Thank you.’ It still breaks my heart thinking about it.
Farmer: How’s the health of Carnival now?
Hardy: It’s never been healthier. It’s almost getting too big. We may have to start the parades a little earlier (on the calendar.) Everything is crammed into that official parade calendar which right now is 12 days. On some of those days, you have up to six parades. People get parade fatigue. If you’re paying to be on a float and there’s no one to throw to, man you have a problem. If anything, it’s an embarrassment of riches.
Farmer: What about Carnival in St. Tammany?
Hardy: Before we moved here, I'd never go to see a parade here because my job always had me in the city. But recently, I’ve been to the Eve parade in Mandeville and it’s pretty good! I’ve seen Orpheus in Mandeville, and Olympia in Covington is a really good parade. I saw Poseidon in Slidell and they've had a very impressive start … There’s no doubt about it, there are some good parades here, but there’s also room for growth. St. Tammany has the financial base to support it. Mardi Gras costs money, but man, is it good for the economy.
Farmer: How could St. Tammany grow its Carnival season, in your opinion?
Hardy: It takes leadership … These are volunteers who do it for the people. If a group of businessmen or women got together and said ‘We want to have a nice parade in Covington, in Mandeville, in Slidell, in Folsom,’ I don’t think anyone would say they couldn’t. In New Orleans, there are no more parade permits to give. That’s not a problem here.
Farmer: Does being Arthur Hardy get you entry into secret Carnival gatherings the rest of us can’t attend?
Hardy: I started riding Rex three years ago, and before that, I had never ridden in a parade. I was always covering the parades. I’m sure I get to see some things other people don’t. But you know, I’ve never taken advantage of that or flaunted it. It’s not about me, it’s about the celebration.
Farmer: It’s a celebration that you’ve covered now for more than 40 years. In another 40 years, what do people say when they think of Arthur Hardy?
Hardy: If I’ve done anything, it’s that I’ve provided a permanent chronicle of what goes on at Carnival. If you want to see what went on in a parade in the 1920s, you go through 700 newspapers and microfilms to find out. If you want to know what happened from 1977 until now, you go through 43 copies of our magazine. And I’m proud of that, because the parades are important. There’s all this work and preparation and in three hours, it’s gone forever.
It’s not a play that's on every night or a song you can listen to again. It’s a one-time event. In a small way, what I do memorializes it.