Listen carefully and the echoes of Mardi Gras reverberate. The chatter of clusters of friends and family together at parade parties. Cries of “throw me somethin’, mister!” as massive floats roll by. Kids squealing on painted step ladders, arms outstretched to catch shiny beads. The cacophony of happy stumblers, wandering the city in a dopamine-and-other-things-induced bubble of bliss.
Best of all, there’s the din of bars, the collective keening joy of thousands of costumed merrymakers, the hue and cry of Carnival, an epic soundtrack of creatives celebrating the season that culminates on Mardi Gras day.
Yes, this year is different; it has to be. But instead of focusing on city regulations that shut them down this Mardi Gras, these bar owners prefer to remember the ghosts of Mardi Gras past, the almost-unforeseeable mishaps that made them memorable, and the joyous celebrations fueling their hope that they’ll be able to join in the city’s standard festivities again one day. And by conjuring those memories, the spirit — if not the profits — of Carnival lives on.
Polly Watts grew up celebrating Mardi Gras on the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Polymnia Street, in the heart of the parade route action. Her dad, Duane Watts, owned the building on the parade route corner and leased the ground level to various bars, including Dick’s. Despite the changing rolodex of bars, the venue drew the same crowd for generations. Watts was a senior in college when her dad took over the space in 1987, renaming it the Avenue Pub and running it successfully until he passed away in 2006. Watts has run the place since.
Open 24/7 pre-pandemic, her place is known for elevated pub eats like smoked shrimp coulis and croque-madames and a vast beer selection. In a typical year, she’s busiest on Muses Thursday and Bacchus Sunday, with the same groups of customers meeting up at the bar for decades. “Even when they’ve moved away, gone across the lake or wherever, they still come back to the corner.”
Thanks to the two or three security guards Watts has standing at the door to keep anyone who may be falling-down drunk from entering, problems were typically minimal. There was the time that two people wearing one massive architectural costume stood at the bar, taking up space for 10 patrons. “I had to say, ‘Guys, you’re killing me — please go outside,’” she recalls. Staff can top 35 on a parade day, as opposed to the seven staffers that would work on a typical Friday night.
She’s going to miss the familiar faces this year, along with the income they generate. For Watts, being on the parade route and hosting regulars year in and year out makes Carnival season feel like home.
“We use that extra money to get us through summers — we don’t lay any team members off, no matter how slow it gets. I’m not sure what’s going to happen this summer.”
New Orleans Art Bar
Mardi Gras was just gearing up, with the first big parade, the sci-fi Krewe of Chewbacchus, rolling on February 4. “It was amazing — we were incredibly busy,” he recalls. Johnson was well prepared. He’d flung the doors open to showcase the bar near the corner of St. Claude Avenue and Elysian Fields, where his patio and a food truck were set up. “Everything was lit up, and we were crazy busy.
“It was a great day — a really good crowd. People were having a phenomenal time,” says Johnson, who grew up in the 7th Ward, before the newer Krewes like Chewbacchus started rolling after Katrina. “Parades didn’t come down our way, that’s for sure,” he says. Johnson can’t remember a single problem and looked forward to many Mardi Gras seasons to come. Then March 16 and coronavirus happened.
“If you’d asked me two months ago, I think I’d have been falsely optimistic. I have exhausted all optimism, it’s just a struggle every single day. We’re a tourist and festival city, and right now, we are under dire times. I hope to see the next Mardi Gras here, but I’m just trying to survive day by day.”
His hope, that he’ll be around next Mardi Gras to catch the overflow of parades like Krewe du Vieux and Chewbacchus, is what’s keeping him going. “I knew the location was ideal for festival and Mardi Gras business,” he says. “I still believe that, but times are tough.”
Normally, Tom Thayer would still be awake after spending the previous night celebrating Lundi Gras when the time comes to open his place, d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street, around 1 p.m. He’d catch the overflow from the St. Anne walking parade, with all hands on deck serving drinks inside and out and a DJ spinning tunes.
As years went by, he’d leave staff in charge and join the Krewe of Julu as they walked into the Quarter, usually about 3 or 3:30 p.m. Carnival season is typically not his busiest, since parades draw crowds Uptown. Mardi Gras day was the moneymaker, with guys like drummer Stanton Moore and festival producer David Foster coming by to hang inside the club, where a d.b.a friends-and-family party went on all day. “That’s the best part of the day, when musician friends duck in off the street and everybody’s in costume. We’d always have live music going on — it was just a party.
“Frenchmen Street gets out of control,” Thayer says. “There’s no escape from very high and drunk folks. There’s always something on tilt, insanity, nudity, a little bit of everything. Things can go south in a second.” He started charging a $10 cover just to give customers a chance to get out of the crowds, use the bathroom, and order drinks inside.
After almost 27 years, Thayer was done. In March, he put the business and the 3,516-square-foot building up for sale. He told himself he’d had a good run, but he was burnt out from settling the estates of five of his business partners since 2011. On top of that, the Frenchmen Street location — and the constant throngs of uninhibited tourists it attracted — had worn on him, and he was ready for a change. “I imagined opening a small, cool venue in a neighborhood somewhere,” he says.
He hadn’t planned on the pandemic crushing the market for music venues, so instead of moving on he’s still at it, streaming live shows and currently trying to get the art market across the street turned into an outdoor music venue, anything to make a few bucks and get musicians working.
This year, Thayer had a pretty good day on the Saturday that would have been Krewe du Vieux a few weekends ago. This year, Thayer streamed the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars on Lundi Gras, a tradition that dates back more than 15 years.
“I’m not doing anything that’s going to cause people to gather in clusters,” he says. On Mardi Gras day, he’ll be open for drinks and letting friends pop in to use the facilities. “We don’t need parades and tourists to have a good time.”
One Eyed Jacks
If you’re spending Mardi Gras day at Ryan Hesseling’s club One Eyed Jacks on Toulouse Street in the French Quarter, you’re almost guaranteed a few things: There’ll be a dance party spilling onto the street, bars serving nonstop drinks inside and out, and hordes of happy revelers making merry and tipping big. Throughout the excitement, his staff serves literally thousands of drinks all day long. “They never get a breath,” he says. “But the vibe is fun, everybody’s happy.” Bloody marys give way to vodka and Red Bull as the day drags on, “when you’re getting drunk and need some caffeine help.
“The only time there’s an issue is when people stay too long and get too drunk,” says Hesseling, an LA native who bought the club 17 years ago. “Mardi Gras day is a daytime thing, not a nighttime thing. When it gets dark, you get knuckleheads who have been drinking all day and can’t handle it like the locals.” The bar usually opens by noon and shuts down when night falls.
“There’s a full-on street party outside the club, people dancing, a DJ,” he says. “The vibe is fun, everybody’s happy.”
Sure, Hesseling and his team have seen their fair share of chaos. There was the time a guy rode a horse into the bar, or the multiple times couples have had full-on sex in the lobby. “I mean, I’m not going to kick you out, but…” he says. By late afternoon, Hesseling and his krewe usually head back toward his Bywater home, stopping along the way to see pals at d.b.a and the R Bar.
This year, he’s putting Paycheck Protection Program money into repairs to the building, keeping the faith that maybe, just maybe, he’ll be able to start hosting events again, like Jazz Fest, ambitiously rescheduled for October. “We’ve started booking bands for April 2022,” he says. “We’ll get back, there’s just no telling exactly when.”
Of all the bars at the epicenter of Fat Tuesday action, because of its location in the Marigny, the R Bar is at the top of the list. Bailey Smith bought the popular bar in 2007, then in 2014 bought Bud Rip’s in the Bywater. Adam Boltuch has been the general manager at the R Bar since he moved to New Orleans in 2010.
For Smith, 2008 was the first time he opened the R Bar on Mardi Gras day. “I’d only been running the bar a few months.” As guitarist for the band Morning 40 Federation, Smith usually played a show into the wee hours on Lundi Gras, chilled, and came to life later on Mardi Gras day.
The crowds that keep step with walking Krewes including St. Anne crowd the streets from the Bywater to the Marigny, winding up in front of the R Bar. It’s here, at the corner of Royal and Kerlerec, where the concentration of fabulous costumes rule the day.
Other than the countless instances of lost souls trying to get into clearly shuttered bathrooms, Smith’s favorite story was the guy who pretended to be a bouncer back in 2017. “We finally saw he was charging a cover.” He was asked to leave and that wad of cash went into the staff tip bucket.
Once Boltuch joined the team, Smith could step out and enjoy the day again. He spends time with friends on the balcony overlooking the colorful crowds below. “Imagine a colorful amoeba moving up and down the street. You see it all,” he says. He and his family — “now I’m pulling kids and wagons!” typically start at Bud Rip’s and wander to the R Bar, where the party is in full swing. “We hang on the balcony and just watch the spectacle. It’s such a great day.”
Then, there was Boltuch’s costume series highlighting gay icons over the years, including Freddie Mercury, Richard Simmons, and Elton John. “I shaved a bald spot on my head for that one. I have some great flamboyant clothes in the closet for sure,” he says.
Being ready for anything, making it happen no matter what — that’s Mardi Gras day. “It’s a strange battlefield mentality,” Smith says. “We’re on the front lines of an onslaught of humanity.”
This year, Smith has kept both bars closed since March. “Staying open for even 50 percent just doesn’t pay; the numbers don’t add up,” he says. Neither bar has a large outdoor space or room for a kitchen. “Maybe we’ll open when we can be at 75 percent. Maybe.”
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