RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
You might know folks in New Orleans celebrate the rollicking Mardi Gras tomorrow, but the celebration also has deep roots in another Gulf Coast city - Mobile, Ala. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Carnival rules in Mobile this time of year, even in the city council chambers.
GINA GREGORY: Good morning, and happy Mardi Gras. (Laughter).
ELLIOTT: President Gina Gregory starts a recent council meeting by welcoming masked and costumed revelers in the audience. They've come for a proclamation marking 185 years of street celebrations in Mobile. One of them is Wayne Dean, the city's semi-official Mardi Gras historian. But he's not Dean today - he's in character.
WAYNE DEAN: I am Chief Slackabamarinico from Rag Swamp.
ELLIOTT: With a headdress of turkey feathers and an oyster shell hanging from his neck, Dean turns heads as he walks from city hall to the nearby Mobile Carnival Museum. His costume is a replica of the one worn long ago by city clerk Joe Cain, who paraded through town with his Lost Cause Minstrel Band after the bleak days of the Civil War when Mardi Gras was suspended.
DEAN: Union troops are still here, and he kind of revived the spirit of Mobile by getting out in the streets and just making all kind of noise and riding his wagon.
ELLIOTT: He was bringing back a tradition dating to the French settlers who founded Mobile in 1702 before New Orleans. Today, more than 50 masquerading groups stage formal balls, coronate kings and queens, and parade on elaborate floats.
ELLIOTT: Tens of thousands of people line the streets to see the spectacle and catch all manner of treats tossed by the maskers. Two young boys have set up early along a parade route. Eight-year-old Daniel Wright and his buddy, Breylan Broom, have a plan.
DANIEL WRIGHT: Catch some footballs.
BREYLAN BROOM: I'm going to catch some beans and moon pies.
ELLIOTT: Reveler Bill Mann says it's all about the memories. He, his sons and nephew ride together on a float.
BILL MANN: You're in your own little world or whatever, and the crowd's there and you're feeding off the crowd and having fun.
ELLIOTT: There are parades like this one by Neptune's Daughters in the weeks leading up to the culmination on Fat Tuesday. Schools and businesses are closed and the biggest crowds turn out for a final day of revelry. It includes the famously long Mammoth Parade, put on by the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association. Grand Marshall Marcus Catchings shows their signature Mollies Float featuring a giant papier-mache woman with outstretched arms.
MARCUS CATCHINGS: Big Mary right there. Joe.
ELLIOTT: Big Mary is buxom.
CATCHINGS: Yes, Big Mary's buxom. There's nothing wrong with a buxom woman, is there?
ELLIOTT: The group was first founded in 1938 as the Colored Carnival Association, a group for African-Americans who were excluded from white mystic societies. It's still a predominantly black organization, while the Mobile Carnival Association remains mostly white. Catchings says they're proud of their history.
CATCHINGS: Everybody's unique and different. But at the end of the day, everyone's Mardi Gras.
ELLIOTT: The final parade Tuesday night if the Order of Myths, a group dating to the 1860s. Wayne Dean says their emblem is a jester-like character, Folly, chasing a skeleton-looking fellow symbolizing Death.
DEAN: And, of course, Folly always wins on Mardi Gras.
ELLIOTT: Death doesn't have a chance. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Mobile, Ala.
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