Mardi Gras in Cenla

Posted February 2012

By Holly Jo Linzay

Shouts of “Throw me something, Mister,” and chortles of glee will soon fill the air as parade attendees catch the doubloon and bead “throws.” Costumed revelers will waltz at masquerade balls. Music will fill the streets, and thousands of King cakes will be greedily gobbled up. It’s a time of magic and mystic.  It’s Carnival season in Central Louisiana as Alexandria, Natchitoches, Leesville and Marksville residents celebrate Mardi Gras.  “We will be letting the good times roll, and want to invite everyone out for a great experience with a family-friendly atmosphere,” says Chris Chelette, president of the Alexandria Mardi Gras Association.

Three days of parades, balls, and activities are planned for Alexandria, making the event the largest Mardi Gras celebration in the heart of the state. “We get so much positive feedback from the community, and it has quite an economic impact with bringing in millions of dollars,” notes Zina Ford, who has served 18 years on the AMGA’s executive committee.  “There were over 100 thousand people last year in attendance at the parade. There is a sense of pride in Central Louisiana in being a Mardi Gras destination. We hope everyone comes out and joins in the fun,” she adds.

Mardi Gras, which in French literally means, “Fat Tuesday,” has its origins in Medieval Europe. Historians note that the ancient Romans celebrated a festival known as Lupercalia in mid-February, honoring the pagan gods of fertility and of agriculture. The Roman Catholic Church adapted the traditions and rituals of the Roman festival as a way of converting the pagans to Christianity. The carnival-like celebration of Lupercalia morphed into Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday falls on the day before Ash Wednesday, the last day prior to Lent, a 40-day season of prayer and purification observed by Roman Catholics and other denominations. During Lent, that ends on Easter Sunday, the religiously faithful refrain from indulgence of the “flesh.” So historically, Mardi Gras was considered the time to indulge in “fleshly” revelry and rowdiness.

Current Mardi Gras celebrations can be traced to New Orleans. Some historians credit the French explorer Sieur d’Iberville, whose ship landed just south of New Orleans, as the father of the modern-day Mardi Gras celebrations. Others contend early French settlers to Louisiana are the ones who introduced Mardi Gras customs and traditions to the United States. Although Mardi Gras may have its roots in Catholism and religion, it has evolved into a celebration of the Louisiana culture and heritage.

Alexandria will kick off its 19th Anniversary Mardi Gras weekend with the College Cheerleaders-Classic Cars Parade on Friday, February 17th, at 4:30pm. The parade will feature classic cars paired with college cheerleaders from Louisiana and Arkansas, as well as including Rapides Parish high school and middle school cheer squads. In Alexandria, the parade route will start at Murray Street to Fifth Street to Jackson Street to Fourth Street to Third Street to end at St. James Street.

The grand marshal of the CC/CC parade is BG Clarence KK Chinn, a 1981 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Throughout his career, Chinn has served in a variety of command and staff positions in Airborne, Air Assault, Light Infantry and Ranger units. In 1983, he participated in the combat parachute assault onto the island of Grenada. After graduation from the U.S. Army War College in June 2002, Chinn served as the deputy commanding officer of the Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment. He later deployed with the regiment for combat operations in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Later, Chinn served in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. A highly decorated officer, Chinn has most recently served as the deputy commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division.  “There will be a huge military presence in this parade,” Ford says, adding that a special viewing area during the parade will be designated for current military personnel and their families in the Sears parking lot at the Alexandria Mall.

Josh Mercer, an Alexandria Senior High School graduate and athlete, will serve as the Special Guest of Honor for the CC/CC parade. At ASH, he was a starting linebacker his junior year, but suffered a concussion in the playoffs. This past May during Spring training, Mercer took a hard hit which caused a brain bleed and required surgery. Unable to participate in football on the field anymore, Mercer still contributed to the team on the sidelines as a coach. His “37” jersey was retired and the Josh Mercer Award for ASH athletes who display courage and character under adverse conditions was established.

The Louisiana Restaurant Association Cenla Chapter’s annual Carnival party, “Taste of Mardi Gras,” will be February 17th from 7:00pm to 9:00pm at the Alexandria Riverfront Center, located at 702 Main Street.  The party will feature “tastes” of some of the best restaurants in Central Louisiana, a silent auction and entertainment by the Baton Rouge band, “Stormy.” Last year, the event boasted 40 restaurants and vendors with more than 2,500 revelers. The “Taste of Mardi Gras” will benefit the local Children’s Miracle Network and the LRA Education Foundation.  Johnny Scalisi, Cenla Chapter president and managing partner of Texas Roadhouse in Alexandria, says “It is a wonderful party the whole family can enjoy with fantastic food and entertainment, all for a great cause.”

Admission is free to all three of the Alexandria parades. On Saturday, February 18th, at 10:45am, is the Children’s Mardi Gras Parade. The parade route will follow the same path as Friday’s CC/CC parade. Each year, the AMGA chooses people of distinction who have positive impacts on the quality of life in Louisiana to serve as Grand Marshals. Justine Ker, Miss Louisiana’s Outstanding Teen 2011, has been selected to serve as the Grand Marshal of the Children’s Parade. Ker, a Cedar Creek High School senior from Choudrant, is the Key Club president and a cheerleader at her school. She has received many awards and recognitions at the LMTA Music Rally and State Literary Rally. She has performed as a pianist at the Lincoln Parish Events Center and as a former first-chair violinist in the Monroe Youth Symphony.

Consul General Leo Herrera-Lim of Manila will serve as the International Guest of Honor for the Children’s Parade. A career diplomat, Herrera-Lim has represented the Philippines in the United States as Second Secretary and Consul at the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. He is also a member of Philippine delegations to the United Nations, Association of South East Asian Nations and treaty negotiations.

The Alexandria Mardi Gras Parade, which will feature numerous massive floats with hundreds of revelers and several high school marching bands, is set to roll on Sunday, February 19th, at 2:00pm. The parade route will start on Texas Avenue; continue on to Masonic Drive to Memorial Drive to North Boulevard to end at Alexandria Mall.  Author and comedian David Luck will be the Grand Marshal. A Central Louisiana native, he has written short films, screenplays, and news stories for television. From bartending and behavioral therapy to interviewing hundreds of celebrities as an entertainment reporter, David uses humor to explicate life. His first novel, “Too Fat To Dance,” showcases characters who face awkward social situations, painful loss and bizarre entanglements, yet they dance through life.

From 11:00am until the end of the parade, there will be an Alcohol/Tobacco Free Area. The designated area is in the old Circuit City  parking lot across from Target on Memorial Drive. Within the area will be several “zones” for families to enjoy that will feature inflatable jumpers, free face painting, chalk art and story time. The Teen Zone will have a bungee run, jousting, contests and games. In the Music Zone, revelers can line dance and sing along with DJ Rick Kise.

The Krewe of Antiqua Mardi Gras Masquerade Party will be February 9th from 6:00pm to 10:00pm at Our Lady of Prompt Succor Catholic Church Olinger Hall in Alexandria.  Tickets are $1.00 for seniors age 60 and over, and $3.00 for guests 59 and under. The party will feature a live band and hors d’oeuvres. Call (318) 487-1561 for more information.

A King Cake Party will be celebrated on February 18th from 2:00pm to 4:00pm at the Alexandria Zoo, located at 3016 Masonic Drive. A regular zoo admission will be charged. There will be king cake, music, costumed characters and up-close encounters with zoo animals. The Alexandria Animal Shelter will be on hand with dogs available for adoption.

The Rotary Club of Avoyelles will sponsor the eighth annual Krewe of Cyllenius Mardi Gras Parade on February 12th at 2:00pm in Marksville. The parade route will be approximately 2.2 miles long. “The parade provides family entertainment, and has become quite a tradition in the community. People have been coming for years and they know where their friends will be sitting along the parade route,” explains Misty James, parade chairman.  This event is being held not only to provide a source of family entertainment for Avoyelles Parish and Central Louisiana, but also to remind folks of Avoyelles’ French heritage and some of the traditions associated with the “Cajun” culture, James adds.  The parade route will start at East Ogden to North Main to Tunica Drive to Acton Road to South Preston to East Mark Street, and end at the Red River Grill.

In Leesville on February 18th, beads will go airborne during the annual Mardi Gras Parade at 2:00pm. The parade will start at the high school, run downtown to Main Street, and then south to the Museum in downtown Leesville.  “Mardi Gras is a celebration of Louisiana culture. It has its roots in religious observation. The people come together in a happy place, and to quote a popular button, ‘It’s all about the beads!’” laughs John Crook, director of Leesville Tourism.

Last year, about 3,000 attended the parade. Crook says the parade offers area residents the opportunity to engage in masking and participate in the family-friendly atmosphere.  “Mardi Gras is real contagious. Once someone comes to a parade for the first time, it doesn’t take long for them to catch on, and yell for them to throw them something,” adds Crook.  Besides the parade, the Knights of Columbus are sponsoring a ball on February 11th at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Marksville.

Natchitoches will host the Annual Krewe of Dionysos Mardi Gras Parade on Saturday, February 18th at 5:30pm. Bobby Hebert, who was inducted into the NFL Sports Hall of Fame, will serve as the Grand Marshal. He is a retired Pro Bowl American football quarterback for the New Orleans Saints.

The nighttime parade features super floats and other floats and winds its way through east Natchitoches into the downtown area. There will also be the Krewe of Waguns, a children’s and pet parade, on February 18th, at 1:00pm. The children’s and pet parade will begin on the North end of Front Street and end on the downtown river bank. Live music featuring the band, “Luke Jazz Trio” will play from 3:00pm to 6:00pm at the Front Street bandstand.

Rick Calvert with the Krewe of Dionysos said the night parade will start at the River South Common Shopping Center and end up in downtown Natchitoches near the Church Street bridge. “Mardi Gras is just plain fun,” smiles Calvert, “And it is easy to get into the spirit of it all.”  He remembers the first time he rode as a Krewe member in the parade, “The first time you throw beads to a child or to a 90-year-old man, and you see their face light up, you realize it’s an awesome thing. All ages enjoy Mardi Gras because it all brings such joy.”

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