Fat Tuesday 2011, Dickson Street, Fayetteville — A man with a bushy gray beard wears a shirt that has been tie-dyed in bright, rainbow colors. His pants, which are tucked into leather hiking boots, are also tie-dyed. He is watching a street performance. A musician rakes his fingertips against a washboard that is strapped against his torso.
The man playing the washboard is wearing dark aviator sunglasses — at night. To his right, a woman with purple hair shakes a tambourine. Draped across the same arm that holds the tambourine are hundreds of Mardi Gras beads.
In the foreground, stands a man with a masked and painted face. He is holding an umbrella that has been elaborately decorated with handkerchiefs and scarves draped with Mardi Gras beads.
It is only a snapshot of what it means to celebrate Fat Tuesday on Dickson Street.
The tradition of Fayetteville’s Mardi Gras bar crawl began more than 20 years ago when Louisiana native Jean Button paired up with restaurant owner Frank Sharp with plans to throw a small, informal Mardi Gras party.
Jean says that when she left Baton Rouge to attend college at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville she was surprised to find the community had no Mardi Gras celebration. “I didn’t think it was possible,” she said. “I didn’t realize Mardi Gras wasn’t a holiday everywhere.”
For Jean, Mardi Gras was a family tradition. Her aunt, Coleen Salley, was a queen of Mardi Gras, who rode in a shopping cart through the French Quarter for 47 years. “Her rolling throne was well-known,” remembers Jean. Coleen rode in the parade until the year of her death, and her memory was continued in the tradition of Mardi Gras. “She had a big jazz funeral, and her urn was placed in the shopping cart at the front of the church,” says Jean.
For two decades Jean went home to Louisiana as often as possible for the Mardi Gras celebrations, but the drive eventually became a deterrent. In 1992, the Demented Krewe of Fayetteville was born.
In what was formerly known as the Ozark Smokehouse Restaurant, 70 people gathered in Mardi Gras costume. After dinner they took to the streets. Armed with plastic beads and the Billy Zydeco band, the Krewe formed an impromptu foot parade that wound in and out of Dickson street bars and businesses.
“It was such a dead time. Even the people who were on the streets and in the bars didn’t know what to think of it,” Jean says of that first night.
Jean is now the Queen Mother of the Demented Krewe. The title, like most of those in Mardi Gras celebrations, holds few specific responsibilities. However, Jean does make a King Cake for every occasion during the Mardi Gras season and hosts the annual “dressing party,” where Krewe members choose from the elaborate costumes that have been made and collected over the years.
When asked about the essence of Mardi Gras, Jean quotes her Aunt Coleen, saying, “It’s for everybody. It’s about making your own fun.”
Fayetteville Mardi Gras has grown a great deal from that first foot parade that evolved from the simple idea of “making your own fun.”
“I didn’t have any idea that it would turn into something much bigger,” says Jean.
The Fayetteville Mardi Gras celebration now includes a parade, a masquerade ball, a pub-crawl and a tamer parade held in the City Hospital for senior citizens and patients.
Though inspired by New Orleans tradition, Fayetteville Mardi Gras carries its own flavor and traditions. For three years, Susan Porter has joined the parade with her own personal float. This mini-float is an old hot tamale cart that was made from a 55-gallon drum. When decorated, the small, wagon-sized cart is fit for royalty.
OK, sock monkey royalty.
Each year, Susan and Cheap Thrills owner Harriet Wells let their sock monkeys ride together in the parade as the Kings and Queens of Mardi Gras.
Susan says she didn’t get involved with the local Mardi Gras celebration until the parade began.
“It used to be really small,” she says, describing it as “two floats and a bunch of people walking.”
Today, the parade consists of fire trucks, a paisley pickup and plenty of floats. The Demented Krewe currently focuses on organizing the event, and does not have a float — unless you count Susan’s mini-float. Other Fayetteville krewes have become more involved in the float competition, such as the Krewe of Olympia and the Krewe de Boar Rouge.
The Fayetteville Mardi Gras parade is family friendly, and though it is smaller and tamer than the traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras, Queen Mother Jean says she is “delighted with what it is.”
Dan Ellis is another Louisiana native who brought the Mardi Gras tradition to the Ozarks. Displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Dan Ellis found a new home in Eureka Springs, where he began Mardi Gras “right away.”
“Wherever I am, I do Mardi Gras. It was the natural thing for me to do it,” he says. Dan formed the Krazo Krewe, which is ‘Ozark’ spelled backward, and he dubbed the Krazo spin on Mardi Gras as “Eureka Gras.”
Like Queen Mother Jean in Fayetteville, Dan Ellis was stunned at the drab, dull winter spirit of Mardi Gras season in the Ozarks.
“During the winter, they were doing nada — absolutely nothing. Now it erupts with fun and excitement,” says Dan.
Like the New Orleans tradition, Eureka Gras is celebrated from Kings Day on Jan. 6 until the Tuesday before Lent. Umbrella decorating parties, parades, patio parties, walking parties, masquerade balls and costume contests are all parts of the Eureka Gras celebration.
Even though its nestled in the Ozarks, Dan says he made a point to avoid making the event a “Hillbilly Mardi Gras,” hoping, instead, to bring the authentic feel of New Orleans to the mountains so visitors and residents alike could experience the tradition.
“Anybody who wants to have fun rather than drive to Louisiana, they can see a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras in the Ozark Mountains,” says Dan.
Dan, who works on Eureka Gras six months out of the year, is also an author. He recently completed a book entitled “Eureka Gras,” which can be purchased on Amazon.com or at the city’s newspaper, the Lovely County Citizen, for $5.