Spend enough time around Bayou St. John and you might have a story about an alligator sighting — or a near sighting anyway, or a friend who saw one. Normally, the sightings are rare.
From now until Mardi Gras, however, alligators are everywhere in the Bayou St. John neighborhood. There are dancing gators, saxophone-playing gators and gators wearing crowns. Gators are covered in glitter or lined with rhinestones or lit up with LED lights. There’s even, overlooking the bayou on Moss Street, a Ruth Gator Ginsburg.
Alligators can also be found on the logo for the Bayou St. John and Fairgrounds subkrewe for the Krewe of House Floats.
When co-captains Rebecca Gaillot and Sally Asher brainstormed theme ideas back in November, they referenced Jazz Fest (“How the Fest Was Won”), City Park (“Celebration in the Floats”) and the bayou. “We wanted it to represent the neighborhood,” Gaillot said.
Then they posted the four or five top ideas on Facebook so everyone in the subkrewe could vote. The winner, hands down: “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved Bayou.”
Some house floats capture the theme perfectly. A home on De Soto and Lopez streets has a heart-shaped candy box adorning the porch and blue steps leading down to a painted bayou complete with alligators and pelicans.
Others go their own way. A group of Bell Street neighbors have gained acclaim for their celebration of New Orleans women, while giving a nod to their street name, with their “Belles of the Bayou.”
The house floats pay homage to 19th century women — Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, the Baroness de Pontalba and Henriette DeLille, the founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family — and to the more contemporary women — chef and restaurateur Leah Chase, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and author Anne Rice.
Some house floats celebrate personal events, such as “Born on the Bayou” on St. Ann Street, honoring the birth of the homeowners’ son nine months after the 2020 Bacchus parade.
The neighborhood’s festivals are wistfully remembered as well. The “Forever Festin” house tucked into the Fair Grounds Race Course on Fortin Street displays all things Jazz Fest, from the cubes to “How you gonna clap?” to Mango Freeze and the sun rays adorning the Acura Stage. Another house float, on Grand Route St. John, celebrates the rubber duckies and myriad water vessels of Bayou Boogaloo.
“Everyone has their own interpretation, which is great,” Asher said of the theme, and Galloit added: “No one’s in charge of Mardi Gras.”
“Everyone can take what they want from this and make it their own,” Asher said. “That is the essence of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
In keeping with the theme, Valentine’s Day will be their parade day, except stationary of course. Subkrewe members will be with their house floats to greet revelers, from a safe distance, from 2 to 8 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 14.
“That’s just what we do here,” Gaillot said, sitting on her Maurepas Street porch and indicating her block with a wave of the hand. “We sit out on our porches.”
Asher’s porch on Dumaine Street is decorated in life-size mermaids. The inspiration for her theme, “Mermaids on the Bayou,” was a children’s book she wrote, “The Mermaids of New Orleans.”
The house float was based on the book’s illustrations by Melissa Vandiver and created in collaboration with artist Chelsea Christopher, who also designed the “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You” logo. The figures include not only mermaids but an underwater “bass band” and, of course, an alligator.
“I came up with ideas and did the grunt work,” Asher said. “She drew all the faces — I can’t do that — and gave the figures depth.”
Another mermaid, named Esmerelda, resides just a few blocks away from Asher’s mermaid house float, at the “Mermaid Manor” house float on Orleans Avenue.
Esmerelda’s creator, Kira Kikla, took the theme from her fondness for dressing in a mermaid costume for Mardi Gras. Kikla’s Esmerelda was built in a papier–mâché workshop with float artist Dom Graves. Then she painted her at home, adding some glow-in-the-dark paint.
The neighborhood’s house float decorating was still in the concept stage when Galloit drove her pickup around the neighborhood picking up boxes of food to take to Second Harvest Food Bank. The Fairgrounds and Bayou St. John group was among the first subkrewes to sponsor a food drive.
Food drives and similar efforts are part of the Krewe of House Floats’ mission. From its seeds in an offhand remark founder Megan Boudreaux posted on Twitter, the Krewe of House Floats quickly grew into a massive superkrewe devoted to keeping the Carnival spirit alive while making it safe — and to providing support for locals affected by the pandemic.
Boudreaux recruited Gallois and Asher, part of a sisterhood of retired Big Easy Roller Girls, early in the house float movement.
Galloit said Roller Girls can be found among the captains throughout the Krewe of House Floats. And that could be a key to its success: The roller derbies require tremendous technical and organization skills. At the same time, they have to to be kind of silly and irreverent. If taken too seriously, they lose their appeal.
“This is stressful, but she just keeps calm,” Galloit said of Boudreaux, the KoHF admiral. “She reminds us that it’s just Mardi Gras. Put on some sparkles and enjoy yourself.”
See here for the Krewe of House Floats map.
Katherine Hart is the managing editor of NOLA Messenger. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was corrected after posting. Chelsea Christopher, not Melissa Vandiner, is the artist who created the logo and helped create the “Mermaids on the Bayou” house float.