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Nerdi Gras 

Alex Woodward on the new Krewe of Chewbacchus, New Orleans' first science fiction-inspired Carnival krewe

click to enlarge Nancy Hartman goes robotic with the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus. The science-fiction walking krewe makes its Carnival debut on Sunday, March 6. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Nancy Hartman goes robotic with the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus. The science-fiction walking krewe makes its Carnival debut on Sunday, March 6.

Whether furry, scaled, tentacled or metallic, all are welcome. Just one rule: No elves."And no unicorns," Ryan Ballard adds.

  Make that two rules.

  The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, a first-year Mardi Gras walking krewe hitting the streets on Bacchus Sunday (March 6), invites all science-fiction enthusiasts, tech wizards, space cases and, obviously, Star Wars fans. Fantasy costumers — witches and warlocks, dungeons, dragons and elves and unicorns — need not apply.

  "Hopefully someone's inspired by Chewbacchus to start, I don't know, like 'DionysElves.' That'd be awesome. I'd join that krewe," Ballard says, addressing the potential for both krewes to face off on the parade route. "Never bring a sword to a phaser fight," he adds, laughing.

  The krewe is the brainchild of Ballard (of pyrotechnic puppeteer Razzamataz Productions) and 3 Ring Circus' The Big Top director Kirah Haubrich. "The concept is to combine traditional Greek bacchanalian Mardi Gras revelry with sci-fi," Ballard says. "So Chewbacca, plus Bacchus — Chewbacchus. ... We're saving the galaxy, one drunken nerd at a time." Organizers say Chewbacchus is where science fiction meets arts collective.

  Krewe members encompass all facets of science fiction ("All sci-fi is good sci-fi," Ballard repeats). "The puns are out of control," Haubrich says; the krewe's other Star Wars costumers include a Chubaccacabra, Obi-Juan Kenobi, and a Han Solo pirate dubbed Han Solarrgh. ("And a little Chewbacca is the parrot," Ballard says.) So why make Chewbacca the face of the krewe?

  "If it was called Gornbacchus," says krewe captain Brett Powers, referencing the Star Wars lizard aliens, "not everyone might get it."

  Chewbacca they get. Handmade throws include Chewbacca dolls and bandoliers and furry Wookiee panties.

  And riding as King Chewbacchus is Chewbacca himself: actor Peter Mayhew, who wore the walking carpet costume in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. "I'm building him a crown," Ballard says. "It's this beautiful, plush crown with Wookiee fur with grapes and leaves — and a scepter that may get turned into a lightsaber."

Two weeks before the krewe's debut, a few dozen krewe members fill the Big Top for the second-to-last costuming session, with krewe members navigating overflowing bags of fabric. The room smells of hot glue, beer and a soldering iron. There's a brief lesson in DIY neon lighting. A projector screen flashes British science-fiction comedy Red Dwarf, and the radio blasts a warped remix of the Doctor Who theme.

  A Ghetto Fett costume — a take on the Star Wars bounty hunter Boba Fett — is bejeweled, with red and yellow arm gauntlets and hair weaves. Dominic Graves is finishing his color-bursting Mothership Connection, a Bootsy Collins-funky, glittering robe with matching silver platform boots.

  Paul Patecek is one-third of the way through 30 hand-stitched and -stuffed Chewbacca dolls, and he has yet to finish the float for his remote-controlled K-9 robot dog inspired by the Doctor Who series.

  The grand marshal (or Grand Moff, playing on Star Wars military parlance) of the subkrewe the Death Star Steppers, is hot-gluing his white silk sash. From the neck down, his costume is second-line attire: red and white lace and silk. It's topped with a Star Wars imperial stormtrooper helmet.

  "We were inspired by the homemade, do-it-yourself, on the street-level — back to the ancient times, the original way of coming out with your neighbors," Ballard says. The krewe took notes from other DIY krewes like Box of Wine, Krewe du Craft and Royal Revelers of Discordia. Ballard honed his parading chops in the Krewe du Vieux subkrewe Krewe of C.R.U.D.E. — its 2011 theme was "Crude Lubes NewOiLands," in which Ballard dressed as a mutated "Gulf walrus."

  He established Chewbacchus as "open source," granting its members to do whatever they want, however they want.

  "I don't even know all the floats and contraptions we have," he says. "There are tertiary warehouses with groups of mad scientists and sci-fi fans. There's a Death Star float being built I haven't seen yet. There's a (Doctor Who) Tardis, an indoor speeder bike."

  And the list goes on. The krewe, now at more than 200 members, opened its membership in August 2010, and the subkrewes and costumes — from cardboard Doctor Who Dalek aliens to homebrewed robots — keep adding up.

  "The question was raised last Mardi Gras by a person who wasn't from New Orleans, saying 'I was kind of surprised, I would think there'd be a lot more ... sci-fi people. I didn't see anything,'" Haubrich says. "I came up with the name Chewbacchus, and I know the genius man to run it. We're releasing our inner nerds."

  Interest spread via Facebook, the fundraising website Kickstarter.com and the krewe's appearance at the New Orleans Wizard World Comic Con in January. Within a few months, the krewe attracted members from England, New York, Colorado and Missouri, as well as dozens of locals. Deciding the membership fee was the krewe's most obvious decision.

  "The dues need to be somewhere bigger than $20, so we can actually build some cool shit, but we want to make it accessible, so we picked the magic number from the Hitchhiker's Guide (to the Galaxy): $42, 'the answer to life in the universe and everything,'" Ballard says. (The krewe also spray-painted the number on throw towels, a must-have item in the Hitchhiker's series.)

  Dues include costume-making supplies, food, and entry to and drinks at the Chewbacchanal after-party — which follows the krewe's parade.

click to enlarge (L-R) Nancy Hartman, Steve Merlan and krewe captains Ryan Ballard and Brett Powers finish the King Chewbacchus crown to be worn by Chewbaccha himself, actor Peter Mayhew, during the March 6 Chewbacchus parade. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • (L-R) Nancy Hartman, Steve Merlan and krewe captains Ryan Ballard and Brett Powers finish the King Chewbacchus crown to be worn by Chewbaccha himself, actor Peter Mayhew, during the March 6 Chewbacchus parade.

  "We're the only officially sanctioned backwards krewe," Ballard says. The parade route, which travels Uptown and in Central City, goes against the oncoming Bacchus traffic. At 5 p.m., the krewe will walk from the Big Top on Clio Street to St. Charles Avenue, then up to Jackson Avenue, up to Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, where it'll stop at the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center and head back up Clio.

  What happens if the parades meet head on?

  "If we get right up close to Bacchus, we'll toast them — 'We love you, Bacchus!' — and we'll cut," Ballard says. If there's a collision, at least the krewe has crowd control.

  "We have stormtroopers," Powers says. "Blasters set to stun."

The Chewbacchus captains stand in a small alley outside the Big Top (the krewe's social base, dubbed the Chewie Den) while mulling over chant ideas for the krewe's Wild Chewbaccatoulas — its take on Mardi Gras Indians. "Hey, Pocky Way" becomes "Hey, Chewbacca Way," and "Iko Iko" leads off, "My ewok and your ewok, sitting by the fi-ya."

  Also joining the krewe is a New Orleans Saints contingent: a Doctor Who Dat, a black-and-gold K-9, and a gam-day familiar, black-and-gold Boba Fett.

  The parade's centerpiece, however, is a 7-foot-tall Bar2D2 — a massive, bartender R2-D2, the quirky blue and white robot compatriot in the Star Wars series. A boat captain's chair waits inside — the float's rider will use toy robot arms to distribute beverages (and operate a sound effects switchboard) along the route. Pulling the Bar2D2 is a bike pedal-powered Star Wars X-wing spaceship. The "floats" combine papier-mache, cardboard and working electronics, lights and other gizmos. Krewe members met at the Razzamataz den every Wednesday to work on floats.

  "Nothing petroleum-based: no tractors, no semis, no cars," Ballard says. "There are a couple of (Back to the Future) DeLoreans and we're like, 'Yeah, I don't know. I love it, but you might have to (push) it, I don't want to use gas.'"

  "That's not the fuel of the future," Haubrich says. The Dilithium Crystal, her captain title, is the only fuel source the krewe will need. "The Dilithium crystal can be used up, so what the Dilithium crystal needs is dancing. That's a requirement. You have to booty-shake periodically," she says, laughing.

  Mayhew's royal counterpart is Cynthia Scott, the New Orleans native who played Cpl. Dietrich in Aliens, and she will ride the krewe's Queen Bee throne. Marching alongside Scott's float will be massive alien puppets from the Alien films — puppeteers are bringing the 30-year-old costumes from Los Angeles. "They'll be a little ragged, but they'll be awesome," Ballard says.

  The parade ends at the Chewbacchanal, the Big Top's block party on Clio Street. The event's bouncer is a 12-foot Darth Vader bust on loan from Le Krewe d'Etat. Inside the Big Top: performances from Ballard's puppetry (from inside a Darth Vader "reanimation chamber"), alien go-go dancers, and Odoms, the Westbank emcee whose "Keeping Up with the Jetsons" is the krewe's 2011 theme.

  The only things missing, Ballard says, are the Louisiana Ghostbusters, a charity fundraising group of Ghostbusters costumers. ("We want to make sure all dead Wookiees are involved," Haubrich says.)

  Next year the krewe plans to open membership to younger science-fiction nerds with a Krewe of Ewokus, with participants dressed as the cuddly bear-like Star Wars aliens, and piles of furry, faceless Star Trek tribbles, with a Star Trek USS Enterprise float. Until then, membership is open to all.

  "I mean, I want to be a Muse, but I don't have a lot of money to join Muses right now," Haubrich says. "I don't get to be one until I grow up."

BOX INFO

Chewbacchus Parade

5 p.m. Sunday, March 6

The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus presents Chewbacchanal

9 p.m. Sunday, March 6

3 Ring Circus' The Big Top, 1638 Clio St., 569-2700; www.3ringcircusproductions.com

The Chewbacchus after-party features performances by Consortium of Genius and Odoms, whose "Keeping Up with the Jetsons" is the krewe's 2011 theme. The event also features brass bands, burlesque troupes, puppetry and music from DJ Razor. Science-fiction costumes are required. Visit www.razzamatazproductions.com for details. Admission $20 in advance, $25 at the door, free for Chewbacchus krewe members.

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