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How COVID-19 led to "Yardi Gras" along the Gulf coast

APR's Lynn Oldshue
Another Mobile area homeowner prepares for "Yardi Gras"

An APR news feature

Mardi Gras is going to look different along the Alabama Gulf coast because of COVID-19. The Mobile area prides itself as the originator of the annual event known as Fat Tuesday. There will be less revelry this year due to the coronavirus. This means a financial hit for business owners who design and build the colorful floats for the parades. They are finding work, however.

Credit APR's Lynn Oldshue
A Mobile area home decked out for "Yardi Gras"

The coronavirus has cut the number of parades for Mardi Gras this year. Some towns along the coast are scaling back. Others have cancelled parades altogether. In Mobile, the yellow signs warning about parking on parade routes are gone. Trees that are usually covered in colorful plastic beads are bear. Still, Mobilians always find a way to celebrate Mardi Gras.

"Watching the cancellations was like watching a slasher flick. We wondered which group would get it next,” said Steve Joynt.

He’s publisher of the Mobile Mask magazine that has covered Mardi Gras for nine years. Joynt kept reminding his readers that the parades and balls were canceled, but not Mardi Gras.

“They can't cancel Mardi Gras. You can cancel parades. You can cancel balls, but you can't cancel Mardi Gras,” he said. “A lot of this is happening in a grassroots fashion from literally from the ground up. This is coming from the people. This is coming from the creativity of the community.”

That creativity came with the start of what’s called “Yardi Gras” and the Mobile Porch Parade. Since there are no parades that need floats this year due to COVID-19, people are decorating their front porches.

“My husband and I ride in an organization and we marched in the Joe Cain parade and all that kind of stuff,” Lisa Valentine said.

She was the first in Mobile to rent parade sculptures and built a house float.

Credit APR's Lynn Oldshue
The Valentine residence decorated like a "Fat Tuesday" parade float for "Yardi Gras"

“It's been kind of sad, not being able to do that,” Valentine said. “So this is bringing a little bit of happiness back to us to be able to do something. We were happy to try to spend the money that we used to spend on throws to get this started and help a bunch of people out and hopefully keep their jobs.”

The display includes a statue of Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia, as well as dancing bears and a martini glass in her own yard. Valentine made her own olives to put in the glass and named her float “Long Strange Trip” after the popular Dead tune. Valentine’s neighbors on Palmetto Street joined the “Krewe of Palmetto” with Poseidon. That’s a rooster with a sign that says “Where’s the beef?”, and The Hungry Caterpillar. There is also Max and a monster from children’s book Where the Wild Things Are.

“I can't believe the momentum that it got so quickly,” said float maker Craig Stephens.

This new use for his float sculptures was an unexpected lifesaver for his business, Carnival Artists. Parade floats won’t be able to hit the streets until maybe next year. That left Stephens uncertain how he would keep his staff of ten employed until Mardi Gras in 2022.

“We have a very challenging, unsure year about what is going to happen here. I have to take care of all of these people. I've already gotten custom orders and that'll help plug the gap. I have seven parades and we're only rebuilding two this year and I have to keep my crew together. And, uh, so this, this probably is not a total solution by any means, but that is huge and it's a huge help,” he said.

Credit APR's Lynn Oldshue
Mobile area Mardi Float designer Craig Stevens.

Craig wanted to create the float house idea that was taking off in New Orleans, but didn’t know where to begin. He said a phone call from Lisa Valentine about her porch was all it took.

“I was well aware of this or in the very start,” Stephens said. “But nobody was taken seriously in Mobile. Then it blew up there. We started thinking how can we make that happen here?...Then Lisa called me and it blew up from there.”

Potential renters stopped by Stephens’ float barn to look through larger than life Ninja Turtles, as a well as sculptures of Mary Poppins, Bat Man, Chewbacca, bumblebees, seahorses and the Statue of Liberty. Soon the sculptures were hauled by trailer to neighborhoods and businesses around Mobile. Stephens says he took every order with the objective of keeping his staff on the payroll and building a new business model.

“I don't think this is going away,” Stephens said. “I know it's not. I think it's going to be a whole new aspect of Mardi Gras from now on and a really great aspect of Mardi Gras."

Many neighborhood krewes are also building their own floats. There is the Krewe of Bubbly Baby with king cake babies and yellow ducks in the front yard on Government Street. Down the street is the The Krewe De Loop with a float inspired by the Netflix shows Bridgerton and The Queen’s Gambit.

“I'd been watching Bridgerton fell in love with all the colors and the glamour, especially the fact that the cast was extremely diverse,” said Jamie Franco-Zamudio.

Credit APR's Lynn Oldshue
Jamie Franco-Zamudio, of Mobile, working on "Yardi Gras" decorations

She and her wife, Angela, usually convert their Christmas decorations into Mardi Gras. But, after seeing what others were doing, the recycled decorations weren’t enough. They hired local artists to help build the Bridgerton Float and kept adding to it.

“The fun thing is everyone's putting their own personality into Mardi Gras,” Franco-Zamudio said. “Usually there's an organization that will come up with a theme, but the fact that we're able to create our own themes around our own house and thinking who came up with that one...I just can't believe the level of creativity. So I keep thinking, Oh, what else can I do?”

Suzanne Sarver started the Mobile Porch Parade to encourage yard float participation. Excited about decorating her first home for Mardi Gras, Sarver’s husband asked her why bother because Mardi Gras wasn’t happening this year.

“That kind of lit a fire under me. I'll show you,” Sarver said. “Then I talked to my neighbors and my friends about who's decorating for Mardi Gras. People were barely able to take down their Christmas decorations. Nobody was acting excited about it. It is such a big part of this town and I decided to do it.”

Sarver’s idea for the Mobile Porch Parade quickly took off with the help of Stacy Welborn. It grew to 400 participants and a parade map that marks the location of each yard float. The balls and parades are missed this year, but there is a new excitement in Mobile with the spontaneous creation of a new tradition. Yardi Gras means parade floats that can be seen any time of the day, even by foot, bicycle, pulling kids in a wagon.

Editor's note: The outro music for our feature is "Ol' Slack" by Mobile composer Grayson Capps.

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