Zulu Mardi Gras Group Faces a Struggle

One of New Orleans' best-known Mardi Gras groups, the Zulu Organization, has seen membership drop since the hurricanes. Corporate sponsorship may be needed to pay for February's celebration.

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I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

When the levees broke in New Orleans, high water wiped out many of the city's predominantly African-American neighborhoods. The flood destroyed not only lives and property, but also a core part of Mardi Gras. One of the African-American clubs that makes Carnival shine is the historic Zulu organization. Now Zulu is struggling to find a way to carry on. The story from reporter Susan Roesgen.

SUSAN ROESGEN reporting:

For weeks, Pete Sanchez, a Zulu leader, has been stuck at the Comfort Inn in Baton Rouge. Sanchez's home in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, like so many others, was wiped out by the flood. Zulu's 500 members, most from the city's working-class black neighborhoods, are now scattered across Louisiana and across the country.

Mr. PETE SANCHEZ (Zulu Leader): We're going to need some support. Our concern is pulling together first of all our homes, then pulling together our membership. At that point we will try to ascertain as to how do we proceed.

ROESGEN: The Zulu parade got started in 1910 as a spoof of the high-society Rex parade, put on by the city's most prominent white businessmen. Zulu began with a few pranksters wearing grass skirts and empty Crisco cans for crowns following behind Rex. But in recent years, Zulu has become the crowd favorite. Now it is Zulu that rolls first on Mardi Gras while Rex follows behind.

To keep the parade rolling, Zulu depends on several hundred dollars in dues from each member, plus hundreds more from non-members who pay to ride in the parade. Pete Sanchez worries that there just won't be enough people left in New Orleans to help finance next year's event.

Mr. SANCHEZ: So are we going to be able to put a parade together of the 52-float-plus parade we had with maids and just all of it that makes up our parade? That's the question.

ROESGEN: One solution may be something that has rarely been talked about so openly before: commercializing Carnival. While a city ordinance prohibits the corporate sponsorship of the actual parades, placing corporate logos on barricades, for instance, could be allowed. Barry Kern is the vice president of Mardi Gras World, a New Orleans-based company that stages parades for many Carnival crews. Kern says corporations like Coca-Cola, Budweiser and Red Baron Pizza would like to sponsor some Carnival events. But he insists that would not mean putting a pizza logo on the side of a float.

Mr. BARRY KERN (Mardi Gras World): We're not talking about the commercialization of the parades themselves. We're talking about allowing commercial entities to come into New Orleans during Mardi Gras, which they already do, and channeling some of the money from these big companies into directions that could help some of these parades parade.

ROESGEN: Pete Sanchez says Zulu is open to that option.

Mr. SANCHEZ: We are considering, of course, participating, but we do realize that we're gonna have to draw on a different base this time and corporate sponsorship may be that additional base.

ROESGEN: Zulu's leadership will try to meet in the coming weeks to talk about potential corporate sponsorship and to discuss Zulu's role in the annual Carnival that has long defined New Orleans.

Mr. SANCHEZ: I can't speak for our organization right now because we're just in the beginning stages of just getting our families back together, but we do understand the impact of Mardi Gras as it pertains to the city of New Orleans. And we are New Orleanians and we want to participate.

ROESGEN: Sanchez says Zulu has overcome obstacles before, and he believes their nearly 100-year-old club can overcome the effects of Hurricane Katrina, too. For NPR News, I'm Susan Roesgen in New Orleans.

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