There was a time that Little Rock knew how to throw a party: the 19th century. The party was the Mardi Gras Carnival, and for it, the whole town decked itself in green, purple and gold. A decorated steamboat delivered the King of Carnival and his court to Little Rock’s banks and parades and balls filled the day. The railroads offered cheap tickets so people could travel to town to take part in an event that city fathers (seeing a tourist gold mine) hoped would rival New Orleans’.
The tradition died out before World War I, researcher Scott Moye believes. But strike up the band again; Southside Main Street, which promotes the businesses and neighborhoods south of Interstate 630, will bring back Mardi Gras to Main. It won’t be on Fat Tuesday, there won’t be beer sales on the street, and breasts aren’t likely to be flashed, but the event will include a street party in front of Juanita’s Mexican Cafe and Bar. And beads will be thrown.
Signed up so far for the Saturday, Feb. 17, parade are a horse and carriage, floats from various downtown businesses (including Midtowne Billiards), musicians and theater students from Central, Southside Main director Judy Casavechia said. The parade will begin at noon at 17th Street and end at the Interstate. The Burger Box at 17th and Piano Kraft at 14th Street will be open; Juanita’s party room will feature a kid’s party with musician Brian Kinder. The hours should guarantee a family atmosphere, she said. (Casavechia said the group may decided to add alcohol to the parade in the future, but added, “We don’t want to be the River Market.”)
Since it’s the group’s first foray into a Mardi Gras parade, it’s starting small. Twin City Bank is the one corporate sponsor this year, and no entry fees are being charged.
If the headlines from the Feb. 22, 1898, Arkansas Democrat and Arkansas Gazette are to be believed, Mardi Gras in Little Rock was a spectacular event. “Dull Care to the Wind,” proclaimed the Gazette; “Thousands Arriving” said the Democrat. King Petraculas and his “flagship” Sas-na-kra (the decorated steamboat) was to land at Big Rock at 9:55 a.m. and then proceed to Little Rock’s “city wharf” amid the “booming of cannons.”
The parade route started from that wharf, at the end of Commerce Street, and proceeded down Markham Street to City Hall, where Petraculas accepted the keys to the city for the “Court of Misrule.” The parade wove around the downtown streets until the mid-day “break for refreshments”; the revelry resumed at 7 p.m., when the parade reassembled at the “tabernacle at Sixteenth and Chester” and wove its way back to Gaines and Third.
Mounted police rode and marchers that day included the “Quapaw Tribe” and a Brownie troop. The floats — horse and mule-powered — had with names like “Germania,” “Living Curiosities,” “Plantation Home,” “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” “Hades” and the “Flambeau Troop of well-drilled Yellow Kids.”
At 11:17 p.m., the king and queen were “kidnapped” and the “Ze Grande Balle” began at the city’s opera house.
Downtown resident Moye, who has researched Little Rock’s Mardi Gras past and who directed the Times to the 1898 event, said he believes Little Rock’s Mardi Gras parading started in the 1870s. Moye said some of the parades were a mile long and New York designers were brought in to design costumes. Bleachers were set up along Main and Markham for viewing. Moye said arc lamp lighting was brought in from Chicago and installed along the parade route.
There won’t be any well-drilled Yellow Kids there, but the Downtown Dames will host a Victorian Masquerade at the Woman’s City Club Ballroom the night of the Southside event. Victorian era attire is encouraged; the ball is from 7 to 11 p.m. (ending just as the balls of old were beginning) and tickets are $75. Entertainment will be by Dixieland Music. Call 375-5197 or 372-3372 for more information.
Magic 105 FM radio is also to announce plans for a Mardi Gras party in the River Market.