Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Best Wishes for Mardi Gras ... and a little something about throws

In honor of the occasion, here's an excerpt from The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook: this one covers the history of one celebrated party tradition - throws.  I will refrain from asking you to show me anything  before posting it...


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After putting all that effort into building a fine float and fancy costume, you want to make sure the audience appreciates your handiwork. And as everyone in the Crescent City knows, a little lagniappe (extra free gift) will always win hearts and minds. To that end, "throws" – gifts tossed into the crowd – are an intrinsic part of Mardi Gras parades. (An earlier custom of throwing flour and pepper into the audience wasn't nearly so endearing).

Some time in the 1920s the members of the Rex Crewe acquired a large number of inexpensive glass beads from Czechoslovakia, strung them into necklaces, and threw them from their floats as mementos. They were warmly received by the crowd and began a trend which has lived on: Mardi Gras beads. After World War II the beads were imported from Japan: later, plastic replaced glass and China replaced Japan as the primary supplier.  According to Fred Berger, owner of Mardi Gras Imports of Slidell, Louisiana, the average Mardi Gras krewe member spends approximately $800 on beads and "[s]ome people won't bat an eye at spending $2,000 or $2,500."

In 1959 New Orleans artist Alvin Sharpe created another famous Mardi Gras tradition: the doubloon. The Rex krewe ordered 83,000 of his intricately detailed aluminum doubloons. Unsure how they would go over, they asked him to leave off the date on all but a few, so that any left over could be used another year. But it turned out that they were a huge hit: between 1960 and 1970 Rex threw 2.75 million doubloons. Others soon followed suit: today collectors strive to acquire complete collections of their favorite krewes at the parade or at various online and offline memorabilia stores.

Other krewes throw plastic toys or cups emblazoned with their logo. But few gifts are as prized as the Zulu krewe's hand-painted coconuts. Originally the Zulu krewe became famous for throwing "golden nuggets," or gold-painted walnuts. Although these were cheaper than glass beads, they were greatly appreciated by the crowd since they could be eaten while watching the parade or at the tavern afterwards. (Bar owners along the route were less thrilled about the walnut shells which inevitably littered their floor). Later they began throwing coconuts that were painted gold and decorated with glitter: most featured the Zulu blackface design and some even featured hair and hats. After a number of lawsuits from people who were hit by thrown coconuts, the club briefly suspended the practice.  But to keep the tradition alive, the Louisiana legislature passed SB188 (the "Coconut Bill"), excluding the krewe from liability for injuries caused by coconuts handed off (as opposed to tossed from) the float. Over 100,000 coconuts are passed out during a typical Zulu parade.

But while the regular coconuts are treasured, those who are especially favored by the Zulus (or who wish to purchase one from their master engraver, Willie Clark) may get one of their special "Mardi Gras Coconuts." These are meticulously decorated and engraved: they may have as many as 37 colors and 68 color mixtures on their surface. As Zulu member Lester Pollard says "Our organization centers around the coconut --- the coconut is everything to us! Man, we've got laws passed concerning our coconuts!"