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The U.S. Navy may give Mobile a reason for "Tardy Gras"

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APR
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An APR news feature

COVID-19 canceled Mardi Gras parades on the Gulf Coast. There were no parades and the celebrations that did occur took place in the shadow of social distancing and the coronavirus. But, a bit of the good times will roll next month with what some are calling “Tardy Gras.”

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Credit APR's Guy Busby
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Mobilians don’t need much excuse to celebrate. Locals claim that Mardi Gras in the United States began here more than 300 years ago. But, COVID-19 canceled the parades for the first time since World War II. Now, the christening of a Navy ship in the city, named the USS Mobile at that, is a good enough excuse. Mobile will hold a Mardi Gras style parade on May twenty second to welcome dignitaries, celebrate the event, and give residents and visitors a taste of the way the port city parties during Fat Tuesday.

“The wheels started in motion, brainstorming, how can we make this really special?” asked Mayor Sandy Stimpson, who said plans for the festivities actually predate the pandemic.

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“When we were notified by Secretary Richard Spencer that Mobile would have a ship, an LCS ship, named for our city, the conversation was, it would be really neat to have a parade to entertain the Navy and the crew and all those who were participating in commissioning of the ship to have, let's say, a Mardi Gras parade,” Stimpson said. “So, as time went on and then we had COVID and we had no Mardi Gras parades, then people were looking for a way maybe to have maybe a micro Mardi Gras, just kind of put two and two together and said why don't we reach out to the Carnival associations and see if we can't organize a parade to be in conjunction with the commissioning of the ship.”

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House in Mobile decorated for "Yardy Gras."

The COVID-19 pandemic reduced some Mardi Gras fans to decorating their front porches like parade floats. The idea was called “Yardi Gras.” Stimpson said the Carnival organizations are eager to roll for next month’s “Tardy Gras,” but the real celebration is the USS Mobile.

“They're really excited about the city stepping out saying they're going to have Mardi Gras in May, but really it's more about the christening of the ship and a way to have some of the spirit of Mobile be a part of that ceremony,” Stimpson said.

Stimpson said the city will monitor COVID cases in the weeks leading up to the parade. The event is an outdoor celebration and will not include the balls and other Mardi Gras related activities that could spread the virus.

“The Mobile community's been very responsive to doing the things that have been asked of them trying to protect our citizens and I'm hopeful that as we get closer to the day of the parade that they'll continue to do that, so I feel optimistic that we'll be able to be in a good spot at that time and we'll have a good outcome,” he said.

“I think that our community at large is ready for a celebration. It comes at a great time,” said Judi Gulledge, executive director of the Mobile Carnival Association.

“This is before people are starting vacations,” she said. “It's before schools are out. So, spring has arrived and it's just a time where we can take a little bit of what we would normally have in our Carnival season.”

The parade will include floats from many of Mobile’s mystic societies that parade at Mardi Gras. Gulledge said parade organizations are enthusiastic about rolling.

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“There's great excitement in a lot of the mystic organizations to do this,” Gulledge said. “Mystic members missed out on their ride on their particular night, so there really is great excitement from what I've come across already. So, it's just a matter of matching up those particular groups that would like to participate and their members and then putting together really a traditional style parade. My goal and vision would be to make this a full 36-unit parade, which is what our parade permits here in Mobile allow.”

Gulledge said that while May isn’t the usual time for Mardi Gras, it will be a chance for Mobile to sample a little of the magic and the treats.

“To have a Moon Pie in May when you're used to just eating those Moon Pies in January, February time period. It's going to be special,” she said.

Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans includes the throwing of plastic beads and dubloons to the crowd. Mobile does that too, but the treasures that get tossed include Moon Pie snack cakes. Mobile’s Mardi Gras was revived after another hard time, the Civil War. The year after the war between the states, a man named Joe Cain got to work. He dressed up as Choctaw Chief Slacabamarinico and rolled through the city on a coal wagon. He was determined to keep the Fat Tuesday celebration going. Wayne Dean has carried on that tradition for several decades as the fourth Chief Slac.

“I'll be there either in the crowd or if we can get the mule wagon, I'll ride the mule wagon,” Dean said.

Dean said Mobile has had parades at times other than Mardi Gras in the past, to celebrate the city’s tricentennial, Junior Miss pageants and other events, but with no Carnival this year, many Mobilians are excited about this parade.

“So, it's not unprecedented,” he said. “It's unusual now in the sense that we didn't have anything last Mardi Gras. So it's very possible that there are people that might come to it that wouldn't normally come to it because they've missed their parade fix during Carnival.”

Dean has studied Mobile’s Mardi Gras for years. He said that after setbacks, the celebration has always returned stronger than ever.

“But after every major event like World War I, World War II, there's a resurgence in Mardi Gras as we call it today or Carnival activity, not only in participation, like more people getting out and participating, but in new organizations and groups being formed. You can look back at the ones that are even still in existence,” said Dean. As with the postwar celebrations, Dean said this parade could generate a lot of enthusiasm. “From just doing research, again, it was different in that it was Carnival coming back. They had, for that time, pretty good crowds wanting to get back out and start celebrating,” Dean said. “The one difference in this one is that they're ready to celebrate, but that COVID is still lingering in the air. So, there will be some folks that want to come out for it, but are not going to come out for it because of the virus.”

Dean said the parade is a good chance to once again keep the festivities rolling, a chance that he won’t miss.

"If there's a spot, the chief is always ready to ride in something, especially something that would help get the celebration kick started again,” he said.

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