When the city arranged the Super Bowl XLVII shuffle, splitting New Orleans' Carnival parade calendar into the weeks before and after the game, it also pushed Krewe du Vieux up a week — and thus the group does not parade under a full moon, as dictated by Carnival's celestial calendar. But Krewe du Vieux is ready.
"Krewe du Vieux Comes Early" is this year's theme, captain Lee Mullikin explained on a recent rainy morning at the Den of Muses in the Faubourg Marigny, where the 1,000-member krewe builds and stores many of its 19 floats. Wearing a parade-themed T-shirt (with images that can't be described here), Mullikin sits in a circle of chairs with Den of Muses owners and krewe stalwarts Ray "Plaine" Kern and Jim Aiken. The question of not parading on its usual date sparks discussion of the krewe's history and traditions.
Sitting in front of floats savaging targets including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Gov. Bobby Jindal and The Times-Picayune, Aiken describes the building momentum at the den in the weeks leading up to Carnival. The final push is impacted by the short gap between the holidays and the Super Bowl. The notoriously ribald krewe has a couple of weeks to prepare to hit the streets of the Marigny and French Quarter at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19. After the parade, the members celebrate at the Krewe du Vieux Doo at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore warehouse with music by Blue Brass Project and Ass4Daze. (Tickets are $30. Visit www.kreweduvieux.org for advance sale ticket locations; a limited number of cash-only tickets are available at the door.)
The trio's chatter turns to various Carnival traditions, discussing both historical practices such as members walking versus riding, the use of mules to pull floats and its preference for smaller, more loosely organized subkrewes.
In a new tradition, Krewe du Vieux raises money for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic (NOMC), in part motivated by the krewe's customary inclusion of brass bands. The clinic will receive funds from a Thursday night "shakedown" of businesses located along the parade route. Krewe participants typically dress and act like a mob members offering "protection" during the parade. Local dancer/entertainer GiO serves as Mistress of Protocol for the shakedown.
"We go in there and look intimidating, measuring the windows that will be broken unless they hand over the stuffed envelope," says Mullikin, a retired residential construction contractor. The krewe's recent philanthropic endeavors come "with us focusing on the 'social aid' part of social aid and pleasure club [tradition]," he adds.
"It's a pretty wild atmosphere when they all come in," Thomas Woods, chef at Maximo's Italian Grill on Decatur Street, says of past "shakedowns" for charity in which the restaurant participated. "It's definitely a kickoff to the season." A number of other businesses along the parade route, including dba and Cafe Du Monde, also welcome the krewe and donate.
NOMC director and co-founder Bethany Bultman reigns as the krewe's queen this year and has a few tricks up the sleeve of her Queen Elizabeth I-inspired ensemble to raise money for the clinic, in addition to the shakedown. Bultman says NOMC received roughly $3,000 from the 2011 Krewe du Vieux shakedown. (There also is a NOMC benefit at Howlin' Wolf Thursday, featuring Dr. John, George Porter Jr., The New Orleans Suspects, Bonerama Horns and others.)
Speaking by phone during a hectic workday, Bultman says she is "super, super, super excited" to be selected as queen and notes she was a member of the Krewe of Clones, based at the Contemporary Arts Center in the 1980s, the disbanding of which led to the formation of Krewe du Vieux. The queen will be surrounded by a court of naughty nurses and Grim Reapers wearing the face of Jindal. They will collect donations along the parade route, and large bills solicit the queen's chosen throw and her "Prevent Death by Lifestyle" royal proclamation.
"Be mindful of what you're doing is the message of that," Bultman says. "You know, if you're going to go out and drink all night, why not add drinking water into your night? If you're not mindful, you're going to be paying the price."
Despite weathering countless Carnivals, there's a clear enthusiasm brewing in the morning chat at the Den of Muses among Kern, Aiken and Mullikin. They're talking about the "go green" efforts to reduce waste during parades by groups like Verdi Gras and how Krewe du Vieux has somehow embraced Mardi Gras traditions by eschewing them.
"I'm borrowing this from one of those groups, but it's true now in how we think, 'It's about the show, not the throw,'" Mullikin says, referring to efforts to shift away from imported plastic beads. Especially because members walk the 2-mile route, throws have always been a limited part of the Krewe du Vieux parade.
"We've always been about the show," Kern quips as he surveys the lowbrow lunacy being created on floats around the circle of chairs, sending the three men into laughter.