Want beads at the Galveston Mardi Gras without catching any thrown from floats or flashing anyone? You start a new tradition on the fly and watch kindness and confusion take over.
A few years ago, some friends thought it would be fun to arrive early at the Galveston Mardi Gras and get up close spots for the Krewe of Gambrinus Parade, which covers a three-mile route starting at the Seawall and 57th street. To hold onto our front row seats, it looked we were just going to lean against the cold rail and wait until the parade got there. Waiting is not something I do well. Like a three-year old, I get restless when I’m bored.
Some people were walking around, showing off the bounty of beads they had caught at earlier parades, festivals, and parties. Now, not only was I bored, I was also beadles. I felt like the only girl at my high school homecoming without a giant, beribboned mum.
Galveston’s long Mardi Gras tradition
Galveston Mardi Gras parades had been staged intermittently since shortly after the end Civil War until the early years of World War II. In 1985, Galveston native, oilman and developer George Mitchell and his wife Cynthia revived the tradition with a one-mile parade to help celebrate the opening of the Tremont Hotel. The Tremont was one of the first restorations in the Strand, Galveston’s Victorian business district.
Now there were over fifteen parades of different distances over the twelve days leading up to Fat Tuesday and a last blowout before the sacrifices of Lent. It was a Saturday evening around 6 o’clock.
Emboldened by my mask
Masked behind purple feathers and sequins, I started calling out to people walking by, “Share your beads.”
“You have to earn your beads,” whispered my friend Rindy. “You run along the parade route and beg the people on the floats to throw them to you. Or, see those people up on the balconies? They all have beads and if you pretend you’re going to flash them, they’ll throw some down. That’s how you get beads,” said Rindy.
That would be too much work. “Share yours beads. It’s a Mardi Gras tradition,” I begged a group of drunken guys who obviously had plenty of beads to spare. They looked confused. They were supposed to be the ones asking for beads. It did not make sense to them – no parade, no boobs, no beads.
“Share your beads” I keep propositioning anyone walking by. A few people slowly responded and walked over to us. I inclined my head as if I were a princess at my coronation. After each one ceremoniously draped beads over my head and around my neck, I knew they and the equally bored crowd around us were waiting to see what would happen next. So, I very solemnly air kissed my benefactors on both cheeks. Making it all up in the moment, I then held up my hands in their leopard-print and fur-trimmed gloves, in the “touch-down Jesus” posture I remembered from church. “Bless you, bless you. In honor of Mardi Gras, I wish you many blessings,” I said.
“Share your beads,” I continued to call out. More people started giving us beads, lots of beads and returned blessings and air kisses. Pictures from that night show us each with many strands of beads.
One woman brought over a little girl around six or seven years old. The woman told the little girl that this was a very special tradition, that she was going share her beads. I squatted down low so she could put some of her beads on me. After blessing her, I whispered in her ear that she was kind and generous and that her generosity was the spirit of Mardi Gras. She bounced away with her mom, glancing back shyly. Our masks made it easy for complete strangers to give and get beads and blessings.
The bands are dragging
Finally, we heard marching music and crowd cheers. The parade was getting close and would end at the Railroad Museum, just a few blocks from where we were standing. The people riding on the floats and in convertibles were having a great time. The poor marching bands, on the other hand, were dragging and just wanted to get to the finish line. As soon as we could read the name of each high school band on the banner that proceeded them, we started cheering them on by name. While everyone else was petitioning the floats for beads, our group was shouting “Yeah, Waltrip High! Looking so good, You guys are the bomb!” “Way to Go, Bellaire High! Woo Woo! ”We are high on Milby High! Yeah Milby! ” The bands perked up, stepped a little higher, and played a little louder.
Like a private performance
Then something amazing happened. The parade flow backed up. The high school band in front of us had to stop moving forward and march in place. A half dozen band members of the drum section broke ranks and marched over to stand right in front of our area. They were just over the rail from us. The drummers were dancing, throwing their drum sticks up in the air, giving our section a show. The crowd went wild. Really wild. Wild with the prospect that tonight was one of the last nights before forty days without chocolate, red meat, sippy cups of wine or whatever you were going to deny yourself for Lent. “Milby, Milby, Milby,” we screamed as the drummers rejoined their ranks and marched off.
He should have worn a mask
Along came a few more floats including a spectacular, show-stopping one. A man was walking in front of the float with a television camera operator following his movements. Unexpectedly, he came and stood in the middle of our group and talked to the camera but not to us. We realized we were being taped for a commercial, recap video or maybe even a news story from the Mardi Gras.
The crowd was still rambunctious with excitement from the drum show. The man talking to the camera suddenly backed up and stood pressed up against the outside of the parade rail, almost inserting himself among the five of us. “It’s a great night at the Galveston Mardi Gras. Come down and join the celebration,” he said, or something to that effect. Then the man and the camera operator walked off for a few yards, stopped and returned to do another take with us.
During this whole time, he did not say “Hi” or acknowledge that we were all standing shoulder to shoulder. Turned out the only person who had not caught the Mardi Gras spirit was this guy – Tilman Fertitta. He was one of the men most singularly responsible to the resurgence of the party flavor of Galveston and cities from Lake Charles to Las Vegas.
He should try wearing a mask.