Say "parade" down here, and folks automatically get excited. The word is synonymous with "floats and throws," because here, Mardi Gras is a big thing.
South Mississippi children likely would be stunned to attend a parade that doesn't have float riders tossing beads, little marshmallow-filled cookie sandwiches or cups, or carefully handing plush toys to them.
Krewes' parades might seem to come together each year like magic, but there's a lot of behind-the-scenes work involved. For some organizations, the floats might spend most of the year tucked behind a krewe member's business or at home. Others have their own dens where floats hide for months, and still others bring in the work of talented float builders to wow their crowds.
The Krewe of Neptune, for example, boasts floats built by and rented from the legendary Blaine Kern's Kern Studios as well as relative newcomer Jack Rizzuto, both in the New Orleans area, Neptune president Gerald Everett said.
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"Jack Rizzuto is another big float builder over there," he said. "In fact, he's building three new ones we'll be using. They're his, but we'll have them in our parade."
Neptune's aim is to capture the look and feel of New Orleans parades, and by rolling at 5:30 p.m. the Saturday before Fat Tuesday -- this year, Feb. 6 -- they "want to bring the Endymion feel to the Gulf Coast," Everett said.
It gets complicated bringing floats from New Orleans to Biloxi, he acknowledged. Each Louisiana parish the floats have to pass through has its own regulations on number of paid patrol officers to escort the convoy -- even welders are required to accompany the floats.
"Once you hit the Mississippi line, it's a lot easier," Everett said with a laugh.
There will be about 60 units in this year's Neptune parade, with 30 to 35 of them floats. The parade will be led off by Southern Comfort, a 10-piece brass band from Jackson, and more music will be provided by school bands from the Coast and other parts of the state. On Neptune's float, all riders "must be in full costume and masks," he said. "About two or three years ago, we started with the masks, and the costumes came last year. That adds to the New Orleans feel, too."
Everett hopes to add LED-lit floats to Neptune's parade someday as well as have their own floats.
"We're hoping to have some of our own built for us and have our own den, but that's down the line," he said.
Gulf Coast Carnival Association does have its own den, in Biloxi. The current den replaced one 2005's Hurricane Katrina mostly destroyed, and the new one is large enough to allow floats to be easily parked and ready to roll in order of appearance. Doug Blom, who owns a sign shop nearby on Caillavet Street, is GCCA's float builder.
"Yes, it's me. And my son and grandson and a guy who helps when he's off work," Blom said, standing inside the cavernous den. "I've built every float in here."
Not all at one time, of course. Over "30-something years," he's built them, small and large, from the 15-foot ones of earlier years to the newer 30-foot ones.
They start with old cotton trailers.
"Normally they have that mesh side that holds the cotton in," he said, pointing to a float under construction for GCCA's 2016 parade, which starts at 1 p.m. on Fat Tuesday -- this year, Feb. 9. The mesh comes off, and Blom builds the basic structure of the float, with sides all around, steps to an upper deck and a tiny bathroom in the center.
"Used to, they didn't have the bathrooms," he said.
Blom started building GCCA's
floats through gentle coercion.
"My daughter went to Gorenflo (Elementary School), and Susan Hunt was the principal. And Tommy Newman was the GCCA captain, and I did some sign work for him. So " he said with a laugh. "You know, those two will get you to do most anything."
Thirty years later, he's still at it. The float designs have gone from simple painted sides to digital prints. "It's on that material that they use for billboards," he said. "I still paint some, such as the king's, queen's and captain's floats."
Yes, Blom paints the floats, too, and adds the metallic tinsel trim.
The float that had been carrying past GCCA royalty is being rebuilt for the new Scarlet Pearl Casino, and he's building a new one for past royalty.
"I paint all that will show before I put the wrap on it," he said as he painted railings black.