When New Orleans’ mayor announced that the city’s legendary Carnival parades would be canceled on account of Covid-19, Megan Boudreaux wasn’t surprised.
Like so many, the mom and insurance manager had known in her gut that the weekslong fête would take 2021 off. Revelers of all ages packed at least three deep along routes that wind for miles seemed the textbook antithesis of social distancing.
Visit New Orleans' house floats wherever you are
“So, I kinda made a comment: ‘Well, that’s fine, I’m just going to decorate my house,’” said Boudreaux, who invited her neighbors to turn their homes, too, into stationary versions of the ornately designed floats that populate the four dozen or so parades that roll in the city each year. This way, she figured, partiers could stay 6 feet apart while visiting outdoors and enjoying the artistry of the annual countdown to Lent.
The idea, like a splay of bead strands hurled skyward toward an endless carousing crowd, has spread.
Nearly three months and 3,000 house floats later, Boudreaux said last week, “here we are,” with homes across New Orleans and its suburbs – even some as far away as Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates – dolled up for the inaugural Krewe of House Floats, this ever-resilient city’s answer to a deadly pandemic threat.
There’s a home with a sign that beckons, “Welcome to Wakanda.” Another features a Night Tripper theme in homage to funkman Dr. John. One house honors a health care worker alongside giant ivory beads. On a balcony, a cutout of the late chef Leah Chase stands, spoon in hand, at an enormous pot. Just off the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, a giant model dinosaur in a top hat grazes. Elsewhere, a set-up pays tribute to Alex Trebek with a “Jeopardy!” board, playable using a posted QR code. Human-size Lego figures approximate a float rolling by parade-goers on a front porch. A wooden pelican the width of two men perches at another.
All across town, papier-mache or cardboard and foil flowers of every hue, plus bunting of purple, green and gold and strands of beads the size of beach balls, adorn the homes where so many have been in retreat from the coronavirus since just after last Mardi Gras. That’s when 1.5 million people – including international visitors – converged on the city, almost certainly fueling viral spread that made the region an early hot spot.
Indeed, the purple-and-white house icons that dot a map on the Krewe of Float Houses website cover the city’s entire main footprint like a sidewalk littered with doubloons, those collectible metallic coins tossed by riders from traditional floats.
“In its essence, it’s not much different than when people drive around with the kids in the car and look at the Christmas decorations, holiday lights,” said Doug MacCash, who’s chronicled the house float movement for the local newspaper, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate. “Except this year, in 2021, it has such a spirit of triumph, such a spirit of defiance. It’s like, ‘Sorry, ‘rona. We’re not just giving up.’”
“Mardi Gras by no means is dead; it’s just different,” said City Councilman Jay Banks, who’s cast his own house – already painted yellow and black – with other trademark representations of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, the city’s preeminent Black Carnival organization, over which he once reigned as king.
“And what we’re forced to do this Mardi Gras, with Covid as the No. 1 consideration, … is how this whole house float thing got started,” he said. “And let me tell you, I am just giggly about it.”
How to turn your house into a float
Do-it-yourselfers – many already armed with hot-glue guns and glitter by the gallon for crafting annual Mardi Gras costumes – have embraced the home-design effort in earnest. Two private Facebook groups with more than 14,000 participants spew inquiries at all hours, most swiftly answered by a hive mind eager to collaborate after months of stay-at-home orders.
“Any recommendations on securing this? It’s top heavy,” one poster asked, referring to a photo of a homemade Lysol can prop standing several feet tall.
From another: “Has anyone had luck with using cardboard to make house float decorations? I already used some and painted and sealed with mod podge acrylic sealer but am wondering how it will hold up in the elements on a French Quarter balcony! Is there a better way of waterproofing, etc.?”
The exchange is not unlike in the bleak months after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when neighbors connected to trade recipes for bleach or baking soda concoctions to remove mold from items soiled by the flood.
Others looking now to gild their homes have turned to a regional cottage industry built over decades for precisely this sort of venture.
“Part of the consternation about canceling Carnival had to do with, well, there are people (for) who(m) Carnival is their livelihood – a lot of people: float builders, bead- and costume-makers,” MacCash said. “Some of the Carnival artists who find themselves out of work at what would have been a real scrambling sort of time, what they’ve done is they’ve found employment decorating houses.”
In a normal year, René Pierre right about now would be finalizing the books on some 75 floats that his company, Crescent City Artists LLC, decorates using lightweight utility canvas, bright house paints, hard coating, wood and Styrofoam, he said.
This year, Boudreaux’s house float vision, which Pierre caught on a local news report, proved to be his “ticket out” of a toned-down Carnival – and one that follows his and his young daughter’s recovery from Covid-19.
“Oh, man, in about three weeks, we were booked all the way up until today,” Pierre said last week of his house-decorating customers. “My wife and I were trying to sleep one night, and we kept hearing notifications coming from the website. It was like, “Ping ping ping ping ping.’ It was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ It was like instant success. It was incredible.”
The couple inked 53 house float contracts ranging from $1,500 to $3,000 apiece, a sum many riders in the city’s biggest parading groups typically would spend on bead strands and other “throws” to toss in a given year.
“It has really pumped my business into full steam,” Pierre said, noting he hired his cousin, a recording artist, to help manage the crush. “We have made more money in six weeks … and talk about Mardi Gras spirit.”
Of the commissions, Pierre’s favorites are a trio of painted pups fashioned after the homeowner’s own pack, a Buddha-themed display and one highlighting the Grateful Dead dancing bears.
Boudreaux, known as “Admiral B” of the house float fleet, aptly did her house in a maritime motif. “I don’t know if I want to know how much I spent,” she said: “definitely more than I meant to, less than a lot of people.”
How to lead (or join) a house float krewe
Beyond her own decor, helming this nascent krewe (local vernacular for a festival group) has become a second full-time job for Boudreaux. There are exchanges with lawyers over decorating rules in historic districts and weekly logistics meetings with the mayor to game out how to handle homeowners who want to, say, hire a band. There are now 50 captains, 39 subkrewes, a communications team and an effort to gather and edit together dozens of dancers’ at-home videos into a performance masterpiece for the website.
Yet another to-do list item got added shortly after the krewe named a New Orleans bounce star as its grand marshal, Boudreaux said. “Now Big Freedia’s house is a traffic jam. The house is so popular that even guerilla photograph-style, it still drew a crowd,” the one thing the Krewe of House Floats wants urgently to prevent.
The krewe also has launched a campaign to donate $100,000 toward those facing unemployment and food and housing insecurity largely because of this year’s Carnival limits: artisans, service industry workers, musicians, Mardi Gras Indians and other culture-bearers.
And, perhaps unsurprisingly, “this year plants the seed” for what’s already becoming an annual event, to endure long after the coronavirus is vanquished, MacCash said. (At last count, Pierre already had 28 house-decorating contracts set for 2022, and preregistration is open for next year’s Krewe of House Floats.)
For now, Chris Volion is looking forward to safely welcoming on Fat Tuesday, February 16, revelers who pass by his New Orleans home, adorned with enormous black birds inspired by local crows and Edgar Allen Poe in his personal Krewe of Nevermore. Volion, an institutional research analyst, and his wife, Janet, are making some themed throws to hand out and plan to join neighbors for king cake-flavored Jell-O shots.
“While it feels different, there’s still that excitement going on,” he said. This year, instead of swapping parade plans, “the conversation has shifted to: Have you been to such and such a block, or have you see this house? It’s so beautiful to see that the energy is still there.”
For Banks, the city councilman, the house floats offer a glimmer in an especially bleak season. In his own circle, Covid-19 has taken 23 lives and killed 17 members of the Zulu organization, he said, not to mention relatives and friends of the club. It’s stripped New Orleans – and the world – of the chance to socialize in person and to observe customs in the typical way.
But as is so often the case, he said, the city’s response in this dark moment offers a message far beyond its borders.
“We’re showing the rest of you that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Banks said. “As screwed-up as Covid is, we will not let it defeat us. … The lesson of New Orleans for the world is: You play the cards that you’re dealt.”