Chewbacchus Reigns as NOLA’s Funkiest Mardi Gras Parade Band
Life’s ideal lived well lit up the night in New Orleans on February 5 when the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, a 2,235-member walking club, decked out in costumes depicting creatures from star warsdeceased movie stars, dragons, zombies, space Vikings, alien aerialists, characters from the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, a sequel to over 100 Wonder Women, marching bands and Glittering women in spinning hoops all paraded from the downtown district of Bywater to the French Quarter, giving bohemianism an emerging mark in the city where jazz began.
As the leader of the Leijorettes, Brooke Ethridge, a day-and-night nonprofit administrator, Chewbacchus Overlord in the person of Princess Leia Organa (of the Empire’s Rebel Alliance), wearing a white turtleneck dress, white boots and heels. She led five dozen members, each dressed as Princess Leia, including long-ago Saints lineman Chuck Comiskey, everyone rocking out to Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Feel the Heat with Somebody.” , among other sizzling loops.
“Getting love on a Saturday night has a big resonance when you’re dancing with friends you’ve had for a decade, or new friends,” Ethridge told The Daily Beast. “There are so many subgroups within Chewbacchus in memorable costumes. I love the women of Wakanda, who represent the intersection of black culture and futurism.
The parade is the heart of New Orleans; the themes, costumes and sometimes raucous satire of some krewes, as parade organizations are called, pump the town with rejoicing and, in moments of surviving against the odds like this, a sense of higher purpose.
Since the massive damage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the number of street dance groups has exploded. Some march in formation with the big-ticket krewes like Rex, Zulu, Muses and Bacchus, who have lavish tractor-drawn floats with masks throwing beads and trinkets. Large parades include high school and college marching bands and cheerleaders.
Among the handful of walking parades, Chewbacchus stands out for its pageantry and pop culture floats, including several made by local film industry set artists who spent nights and weekends working on these passion projects. Chewbacchus is $42 for long-time members; anyone can join, although the price increases in increments to $100 on the day of the parade. The krewe, which started in 2011 with around 300 members, is now the world’s largest walking parade, on a growth spurt to “save the galaxy, one drunken nerd at a time”. The core values of the krewe are inclusiveness, green parade and artistry – all throws and gear (small floats) are handcrafted by members.
Due to the coronavirus shutdown, it’s been nearly two years since parades have rolled here. Meanwhile, this city held by identity contests has been deprived of spectacle. The carnival season begins on January 6 with balls and parades culminating on Shrove Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday, which falls on March 1 this year. The last five days are a blow.
An editorial in Gambitthe alternative weekly, warned of excesses:
“We remind everyone to indulge responsibly by offering our annual list of the best ways to get arrested.”
* Do not pee in public. You WILL be arrested and spend up to a week in jail.
* Do not insult or talk to the cops and do not joke with the mounted horses of the cops.
* Do not jump on a parade float. You will go to jail, and not just overnight.
Krewe du Vieux, founded in 1987, is an age-old force in traveling parades, known for its army of high-profile marching bands and searing political satire. The most memorable tank several years ago featured a replica of the government of the day. Bobby Jindal with a huge procreative organ, sinking into the butt of an oversized pelican, the official state bird.
The theme for Krewe du Vieux this year was “Vaxxed and Confused”. The February 12 parade featured an unflattering effigy of Mayor LaToya Cantrell in the form of an octopus reaching for the city, which in real time has been struggling to pick up trash since Hurricane Ida made landfall on August 29. Another group marched past as flies buzzed and partied. a large dumpster float, which featured the tail of a dead alligator suspended – a reference to the real alligator that was found wrapped in a blue tarp and decomposing half in, half out of a pink dumpster vivid after Hurricane Ida.
Krewe du Vieux traditionally chooses a local celebrity as their monarch – bluesman Walter “Wolfman” Washington and author John Barry were former kings. This year’s choice as queen, Dr. Jennifer Avegno, is the city’s chief health officer who guided Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s masking and shelter-in-place policy. Avegno, however, withdrew from the royal float several days before the parade due to death threats.
At the krewe’s ball at The Sugar Mill, a Warehouse District venue, Dr. Avegno drew cheers when she said, “You have restored my faith in humanity.”
Avegno’s reluctance to step onto the lead float was one more sign of the bitter anti-science fervor generated in some corners of the city by pandemic politics. New Orleans has a 79% vaccination rate, while a 52% vaccination rate prevails in a state that Trump carried in 2020 with 58% of the vote.
The city still has a mask mandate in place for indoor spaces. But as the mostly unmasked crowds head to the parades, the viral impact is an open question. The bipolar nature of democracy down here is on full display on Lake Pontchartrain, about 30 miles from the town of Mandeville, in the Red Bastion of St. Tammany Parish. Shop in the supermarkets there and see freedom lovers glaring at you for wearing a mask. At least they keep their shirt on.
Like many cities, New Orleans is reeling from an upsurge in crime. A brazen wave of carjackings and rising gun homicides has brought to light a police force so understaffed that City Hall is offering signing bonuses to bolster the NOPD.
“A friend of mine had an accident with a drunk driver at 8am on her way to work,” a woman recently posted on Facebook. “The cops didn’t show up for 3 hours, by which time the driver fell asleep twice AND left the scene.”
“Living here, you can sometimes take for granted what Carnival means. On the surface, it may look like parties, but… it’s a real meaning of life.”
— Aryanna Gamble
As bad as the times are in this city of 384,000, with some side streets and even parts of thoroughfares cracked by subsidence as the Mississippi River seeps under the ground, window displays of the pleasure-loving populace are against any expectation. Carnival season brings back a sense of life as it should be.
“The past two years have been colored by an absence of joy for me and for many other people,” says Aryanna Gamble, one of two fellow Chewbacchus Overlords, who rode her tricycle in the parade this year dressed as Rainbow Mandalorian (a colorful game about the Outer Rim warrior race in the star wars universe), the iconic gold and silver helmet covered in glowing neon streaks and rainbow-adorned armor fur accessories.
Gamble, whose mother is from Guatemala and father from Tennessee, recalls “watching the big krewes parade down St. Charles Avenue when he was a kid. I never pictured myself as being wealthy or well-connected enough to One of the main principles of Chewbacchus is radical inclusiveness – the idea that you don’t have to be rich to be part of the carnival.
“I still choke thinking of the emptiness of what would have been our parade day in 2021,” she continues, her throat tight.
“Living here, you can sometimes take for granted what Carnival means. On the surface it may look like parties, but when you get into costume making for a krewe and marching, it’s a real sense of life. My husband, my brother, my sister, my nieces and my best friends are in Chewbacchus with me, meeting in living rooms, dens and garages, making art that we will give away. Riding on Saturday night, after two years without this bonding time, I felt like, finally, my cup was full. I will never take that for granted again.