This is what Carnival was before Comus," says Henri Schindler, Mardi Gras historian, commentator and co-founder of the Society of St. Anne.
While float parades are more obvious fixtures of Carnival, walking groups have been part of Mardi Gras for far longer. As early as the 1830s, there are accounts of costumed revelers meeting in Jackson Square and marching together, Schindler says.
On Fat Tuesday, marching clubs parade through all neighborhoods in the city, from Mardi Gras Indian tribes to the 120-year-old Jefferson City Buzzards organization to startup groups that may last only a few Carnival seasons.
"More have come and gone than exist today," Schindler says.
The Society of St. Anne was created in 1974 to re-enact something similar to the early costume parades. Members favored historical costumes and paraded from the Bywater down Royal Street to greet Rex and then proceeded to the Riverfront. The group never advertised or made any official announcements, but word of mouth grew from year to year and it expanded word beyond its original 20 members. Many more people waited for the procession at places like the R Bar (1431 Royal St.) and joined as it passed, pushing the throng to several hundred marchers. Though the organizers have occasionally moved the starting place and changed the route, the parade can't really mask its identity, and it's had to live with its popularity.
Many groups have built up familiar presences in the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday, from the Ducks of Dixieland, dressed in fowl attire, to the Krewe of the Rolling Elvi, which generally dresses as jumpsuit-clad Las Vegas-era Elvis Presleys and ride scooters.
Several marching groups have become longtime Carnival mainstays. Mondo Kayo (formed in 1982) celebrates tropical vibes and has paraded down St. Charles Avenue in front of the reviewing stand at Gallier Hall on Fat Tuesday. Mondo Kayo is one of five clubs recognized in the city's Mardi Gras ordinances as groups that march on Fat Tuesday. The others are Pete Fountain's Half-Fast Walking Club, the Jefferson City Buzzards, Lyons Carnival Club and the Corner Carnival Club. The Half-Fast Walking Club is preparing for its 51st annual march. The group starts with a breakfast at Commander's Palace and heads to the French Quarter. The only change in its tradition came roughly 15 years ago when the band started riding in a truck at the front of the parade.
The Mardi Gras Indians have the most dispersed of marches, with the various tribes emerging from their home neighborhoods throughout the city. The powwow at the end of the day is at Hunter's Field off St. Bernard Avenue. The oldest tribes have roots reaching back prior to 1900, but the grandeur of the costumes is a modern development, credited to legendary big chiefs like Allison "Tootie" Montana.
Every year, new marching groups prop up, and splinter groups break off established ones, including a St. Anne splinter group clandestinely trying to create its own tradition.