Mardi Gras riders throw millions away during ‘free’ party

Published 7:10 pm Friday, January 25, 2008

Elizabeth Nelson ducked out of work early recently to indulge her new passion.

The 45-year-old nurse-anesthetist headed to a Carnival supply store to buy another gross or two of long strings of plastic pearls, which she soon will throw away as eagerly as she bought them.

“I know I’m going to be pretty hyped when we hit the streets and I don’t want to run out before the ride is over,” said Nelson. “I’m going to be throwing tons of stuff.”

Nelson, a New Orleans native, rides in her first Carnival parade, on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the pre-Lenten climax of Carnival season that falls this year on Feb. 5.

She is one of thousands of people who will don masks and silly costumes, mount papier-mache floats and play make believe as the season’s prime parade time kicks off Friday night continues for almost two weeks.

Despite the reduced number of parades in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina hit, there are continuing signs that Carnival is recovering. Among them, the glitzy Krewe of Endymion will return to the Mid-City route it used for years before Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city in August 2005.

Float riders such as Nelson will spend, spend, spend to toss trinkets, beads and a universe of other useless stuff collectively known as throws. No one knows exactly how much they’ll fork out, but merchants say it certainly is in the millions of dollars each year.

Nelson will be one of hundreds of riders in the Zulu parade, a predominantly black organization that has paraded on Mardi Gras since 1901. She paid $1,500 for her spot on a float, her grass skirt costume, afro wig and makeup — everyone in the parade wears blackface — and a stash of beads and decorated coconuts to shower on parade route crowds.

The supply of beads Zulu provided was not enough for Nelson.

“I’ve probably spent another $1,500 buying more beads,” Nelson said. “This is an incredible experience. It’s probably in the top 10 events in my life.”

Carl Brondum Jr., a firefighter, has been in Endymion, which parades the Saturday before Mardi Gras, for 27 years, and the Krewe of Bacchus, which parades the following night, for 24 years.

“I’m almost afraid to tell you what I spend on each parade,” Brondum said with a chuckle. “It’s $2,000 easy.”

Brondum’s house had minor damage from Katrina, but he had to repair rental properties he owns. Still, post-storm worries didn’t give him second thoughts about spending money on throws.

“The repairs are done, but I never gave a thought to them once Carnival season hit,” Brondum said. “We all need some Mardi Gras. The worse things are, the more we need it.”

Brondum will board his floats with 500 dozen 48-inch beads, 1,000 plastic cups, 400 to 500 Frisbees.

Adding to the costs are his dues for each organization, guest tickets for the party after the parade and other incidentals.

“I have a part-time job just to pay for it all,” Brondum said. “And it’s worth every penny.”

Besides throws, the Zulu organization supplied Nelson with the famous Zulu coconuts for $150 per 100. It costs an additional $1 each to then have them decorated.

Brondum buys signature beads with the parade’s medallions on them for his parades at $100 per five dozen.

“People who haven’t been part of Mardi Gras may see it as throwing money away,” Nelson said. “I don’t. I see it as an investment in one of the biggest days of my life.”

According to a University of New Orleans study, during the average Carnival season 53 parades roll across a three-parish New Orleans area featuring 1,061 floats, 588 marching bands, and 2,750 total parade units. Five dozen parades roll in the metro area of New Orleans during the 12 days before Fat Tuesday.

Parades also roll through cities and towns across Louisiana, in Mississippi and Alabama.

Mobile, Ala., has at least three dozen parades and other activities before Fat Tuesday. There will be another 20 parades in Mississippi, mostly on the Gulf Coast.

A pre-Katrina study done for the University of New Orleans by economist James McLain found Carnival in New Orleans generated a total economic impact of just over $1 billion. The total includes money visitors plunk down at the city’s restaurants and hotels in addition to the cost of parades, which are paid for by private groups.

Dan Kelly, president of Beads by the Dozen, a Carnival supply shop, estimates he and his 50 employees do about $5 million in business in throws alone this time of year.

Kelly, who also rides in Endymion, supplies other shops and parades throughout the state.

“The saying is, it’s treasure on Tuesday, trash on Wednesday,” said Kelly.