Fat Tuesday in Lake Charles, La.
Published: Wednesday, February 20th 2013
Authors’ photograph taken in the lobby of the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau shows a 2012 Mardi Gras King and Queen.
The community of Lake Charles, La., had a frightening fire in 1911 that wiped out most of the city including the school. It responded by building an impressive new Central School in 1912. When the building was restored in 1993, it became its Arts and Humanities Center with galleries, studios, performance spaces and six classrooms where children could never, ever claim they were bored.
Here is the home of the largest collection of Mardi Gras costumes in the world: the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu.
Inside the glitterati are not walking around as visitors; no they are stretched out on the walls and displayed in all their ostentatious, but gorgeous, glamour.
Mardi Gras came to Lake Charles in 1882 when a mere 2,000 residents watched the parade pass through its streets. It has changed to include family-oriented festivities, an important consideration for visitors because in other southern cities the themes are more adult.
Randy Roach, the Mayor of Lake Charles, welcomes a group of visitors to the museum.
“Mardi Gras in Southwest Louisiana is a tradition we’re proud of,” he says. “Not just the pageantry and the music, but the deeper cultural impact on the people. It helps them understand the customs, the mosaic of the community. And it gives them enough family fun to last the year!”
Mardi Gras is fun, a guide says, “but it is more: it meets a fundamental human social need for relationships.”
The Mardi Gras Museum opened officially on the twelfth night after Christmas in 1998. One room explains how Mardi Gras came about, another is dedicated to costume design. Room number five displays ballroom costumes. The costumes are truly stunning. Some are created at costs rising to $12,000. All costumes are designed and made here. Creating costumes has become a local, big business.
The costumes are used only once, and as soon as the year’s parade is over, people are actually planning their next year’s outfit.
Since its inception the celebration has grown. Krewes (organizations, from the old English spelling of crews) were formed to host parades and balls and became, like some country clubs, closed to all except by invitation.
“The ranking structure of a Mardi Gras krewe is a parody of royalty: king, queen, dukes, knights, captains and jesters,” says our guide from the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau. She looks up at the ceiling and adds innocently, “then maybe travel writers.”
Local historian and guide, A.C. Bourdier, tries to explain this concept of krewes to his visitors. Lake Charles has a large museum of costumes, he says, because it has so many krewes — 63 in all.
“A krewe is a social organization by invitation only and some members find after about five years they can’t stand it any longer,” he says. “It’s a bit like school, you get bored and cliques are formed. So some will select their favorites within a krewe and invite them to form a new krewe with them.”
Jann Bennett has been the curator of the museum for almost 14 years. “Visitors,” she says, “are surprised to find the costumes are so exclusive that they are made for an individual. Visitors from different parts of the country handle this differently; East Coast visitors are impressed — they are more into history — but some from Middle America are so frugal they can’t handle the one-time use and they have even said they consider the display somewhat vulgar.”
It may seem to visitors that there is some elitist pride in some of the krewes as if they, not money, are the true aristocracy in America. Lake Charles would challenge that by pointing out the goodwill some krewes engender.
The Krewe of Kosmos, for example, visits nursing homes and stages children’s parades; the Krewe of Omega gives service awards to those who have improved the community; the Krewe des Couillon Cadien does Coats for Kids promotions — and the Krewe de la Famille was started in 1979 by Dr. and Mrs. Lee J. Monlezun (10 years after this OB/Gyn had graduated from med school) to promote couple and family participation in the festivities.
Maybe little girls, Cinderella-like, would be charmed by the elaborate costumes, but both boys and girls would appreciate the effort the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu makes to amuse all children. In fact, what the community does to make Mardi Gras a family event is a remarkable story in itself.
The Lake Charles airport is delightfully small. We depart believing we must have seen everything in town but, no, here is one statue we didn’t know about — a memorial to one of Lake Charles’ favorite sons, Michael DeBakey, the cardiac surgeon pioneer.
What a character DeBakey was! He performed more than 60,000 heart operations, the last at the age of 90.
When DeBakey collapsed with an aortic dissection, he knew immediately from the pain what was happening. Later he told Esquire magazine that during recovery he “played possum, pretending to be asleep but listening to what the doctors standing over my bed were saying about my condition. Then I’d argue with them about the therapy. I’d make them prove that I needed it. I guess it’s hard to be my doctor.”
He died in July 2008 at the age of 99.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.