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Mardi Gras in Oklahoma?

February 9, 1997

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ It’s Mardi Gras time! In Seattle, St. Louis, Galveston and Pensacola. In Dunedin, Fla., St. Mary’s, Ga., and Norman, Okla.

NOR-man, Okla-HOM-a?

Yep. It seems anymore that every Tom, Jacques and Harriet wants in on the fun.

Jeanne Flanigan, owner of Flanigan’s Costumes and head of Norman’s Mardi Gras, burst into laughter when a reporter called from New Orleans. It’s a common reaction among people who run the less-known celebrations.

``It’s kind of dinky compared to what’s going on there,″ Ms. Flanigan conceded. ``We wanted something to cure the winter blues, so we created this.

``We started off with about 35 people in the parade and 35 people watching it. It goes around the block, so our crowd of people followed us around the block the first year. ...

``Now we have about 200 people in the parade and maybe 3,000 or 4,000 people watching. We have a full-blown ball after the parade now instead of private parties.″

Mardi Gras parades and balls have been fixtures in New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., for generations. Seattle is celebrating its 20th annual Mardi Gras, St. Louis’ Soulard neighborhood its 18th.

But even Mobile, which claims to have been celebrating Mardi Gras since the 1700s, and New Orleans, where a disorganized street procession was noted in 1827, are late to the parade.

After all, the Louisiana Territory wasn’t claimed for France until 1682. Binche, Belgium, dates its first Carnival celebration to 1394.

In Rome, they say Carnival _ from the Latin for ``farewell to the flesh,″ in preparation for Lenten austerities _ dates to the second century, when Bacchus and Venus were deities for many people rather than Carnival parade groups.

These days, in New Orleans, Carnival is a thoroughly secular bacchanalia, a drunken $440 million party attended by millions. Private groups in New Orleans and surrounding parishes put on dozens of parades in the two weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, and a half-dozen on the day itself. People who ride the krewe floats buy plastic beads, aluminum doubloons and other trinkets to toss to the miles and miles of crowds.

Other cities around Louisiana hold parades or ``courirs du Mardi Gras″ _ drunken horseback rides around the countryside to gather chickens, sausage and other ingredients for a community gumbo. Mardi Gras is a state holiday.

In Mobile, a study five years ago estimated spending at $20 million, said Robison McClure, vice president of the Mobile Carnival Association.

``That’s figuring an evening dress at 80 bucks, which you couldn’t find if you went looking for it. Gas, insurance, dens, barns _ we low-balled everything, and yet it was $20 million,″ he said.

Norman’s Mardi Gras is more down-home and less serious than most New Orleans parades.

``We have the Lutefisk Krewe, the Norwegians. They entered our category of Unidentified Rolling Object,″ Ms. Flanigan said. ``They have a hospital gurney for a start.″

Then there’s The Banned of Oklahoma, a sort of marching band, she said. ``If you can get ’em pointed in the right direction, they march,″ she explained.

There’s also a lawnmower drill team and the Synchronized Readers, who turn the pages of Waldo books on command.

Seattle’s Fat Tuesday parade in the Pioneer Square district is preceded by a week of contests and live music at the bars and restaurants that sponsor it. The parade itself has no floats and ambles along for about eight blocks.

Anyone who wants to may join. Usually, a few hundred people do, with a thousand or so watching, said Tina Bueche, publicity chairwoman for the Fat Tuesday Committee.

Mardi Gras has even become a theme at some parties celebrating a Jewish child’s religious coming of age.

Party organizer Steve Wozniak of Los Angeles, who advertises Mardi Gras among themes for bar and bat mitzvah bashes, estimates he’s given about 10 such parties over 15 years.

He said it had never occurred to him that Mardi Gras had been exclusively a Roman Catholic festival.

``People just try to pick some fun-type activity,″ he said, ``and Mardi Gras is one of the funner type things.″

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