Mardi Gras: Celebrating 35 Years of Revelry
2/6/2014 4:17:11 PM

Reports indicate that the Momus, King of Mardi Gras, landed his royal yacht at the foot of Pujo Street in 1882. After this landing, Mardi Gras was celebrated in a spirit which included ‘runs’ in Lake Charles and the surrounding areas.

The colorful occasion went ‘underground’ for many years with the onset of a World War and was almost forgotten by the generations that had not experienced the festivities of the season first-hand. There were a few who aimed to keep the tradition alive, however, and this is where the festivals modern day history begins.

First you make a krewe.

Today, Mardi Gras in Southwest Louisiana is celebrated by the young and old, rich and poor, those in krewes and those who are not. However, it was area krewes who worked together to bring Mardi Gras to the general public.

"In the 1950s Sammy Navarra helped form the Sulphur Fiftys Club which eventually went on to become the Krewe of Cosmos,” says Anne Monlezun, president and founder of Krewe of Krewes.

The Krewe of Cosmos was formed in 1951 by Mr. and Mrs. Clifton Woods and Etie Lopez to provide entertainment and merriment for the public as well as its members. The krewe was originally sponsored by the "Fifty's Club" and all of its members were Fourth Degree Members of the Knights of Columbus.

A little more than 10 years later, Navarra and several Lake Charles businessmen went on to form their own krewe called the Krewe of Contraband.

The krewe got its start at Russell Tritico's 1963 Oak Park housewarming celebration when Navarra mentioned his desire to form a krewe and Ernest C. "Chuck" Schindler handed him a check stating that he was the first member. Navarra sent out 150 letters to local businesses asking them to join the krewe and he received 103 acceptances. The primary purpose of the Krewe of Contraband is to honor the women, daughters and sometimes granddaughters of its members. Any descendant who has reached her 18th birthday and is unmarried is eligible to be chosen to serve on the Royal Court. The Krewe of Contraband held their first ball in 1964 and celebrated their 50th anniversary last year.

In 1972 Krewe of Omega, the area’s first African-American krewe, formed and a few years later the wives of the men in Krewe of Contraband founded their own group, the Krewe of Mystique.

It wasn’t until 1979 that Mardi Gras in Lake Charles experienced a full revival. This was the year that several krewes, including Krewe de La Famille and Krewe of Barataria formed.

"Prior to the formation of all of these krewes, the only way to get into Mardi Gras was to be a member of one of these elite groups,” Monlezun adds. "With the formation of these new krewes in 1979, the doors opened up for more people to get involved. This was also the year that the captains of these krewes came together to form Krewe of Krewes with the primary purpose of parading and promoting Mardi Gras in the Southwest Louisiana area.”

The Krewe of Krewes parade was held later that season on February 19, 1980. The parade was followed by a public ball. Food booths and a carnival were also part of the festivities. At the conclusion of the festivities that year, organizers collected $5,000 from Matt Armstrong Carnivals. This money was used to fund the festival the following year.

"The first year’s parade featured floats from six krewes, including Mystique, Contraband, Barataria, Cosmos, La Famille and Leus,” says Monlezun. "Krewe of Leus folded after a few years, but the rest are still going strong and actively participating in Mardi Gras each year.”

The parade ran for several more years with new events being added each year, including a Cajun Mardi Gras Run, Miss Mardi Gras in 1983, a senior citizens party and miniature float and mask contests. It wasn’t until 1985 that Mardi Gras in Southwest Louisiana faced its next big change

"Paul Savoie was mayor at the time and he called us into a meeting,” Monlezun says. "We met with several area business leaders. The festival had grown so much that it was really too much for our small group to continue to tackle on our own. Mayor Savoie could see the growth potential and wanted us to have a group like Contraband Days had, one that would help us secure the financial backing needed to continue to grow the festival. Mardi Gras of Imperial Calcasieu was born.”

In 1986, the first Twelfth Night Celebration was hosted to kick off the season.

"From there we added new events every year, current events like the Gumbo Cook-off, Children’s Day and the Royal Gala,” Monlezun adds. "Our goal all along has been to open Mardi Gras up to the public and in 35 years, I feel we’ve accomplished that.”

Today, Mardi Gras of Imperial Calcasieu is known as Mardi Gras of Southwest Louisiana Inc. and the group, still comprised of civic and community volunteers along with krewe members, puts on 13 events that are open to the public.

The area boasts more than 60 krewes. This number, in combination with the number of events, makes it the second largest Mardi Gras celebration in the state behind New Orleans. The festival brings approximately $18 million to the Southwest Louisiana economy each year, making this celebration a key part of the area’s economic fabric.

For more information or a complete list of events, visit www.swlamardigras.com.



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