Mardi Gras monarchs are an institution in Mobile. Yet, some of the most seasoned revelers in the Port City are still mystified by the custom.
Every Carnival season, children and adults alike wait with bated breath to catch a glimpse of the “chosen ones” and their royal robes.
But ask many folks, born and raised in this town that birthed the Carnival celebration, and they are unaware of the deep-rooted traditions and unshakable rituals that weigh heavy on the shoulders of the kings and queens of mystic mirth. Those unfamiliar with Mobile and its Mardi Gras royalty tend to notice immediately that there are four royals. Yes, this is a monarchy divided by segregation.
Mobilians crown a white King and Queen of Mardi Gras plus a black King and Queen of Mardi Gras each season.
This year, representing the Mobile Carnival Association (MCA) are King Felix III, Selwyn Horace Turner IV, and Queen Madeline Maury Downing. The Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA) chose Bennie Mosley as King Elexis I and his Queen Cecile Green. They will reign together as the official ambassadors for the city.
Everyone joins to catch throws
While it may stun visitors, further exploration of the nation’s oldest Mardi Gras celebration reveals it’s actually one of the most inclusive street celebrations in the world.
Thousands of paradegoers – black and white, rich and poor – line the city’s streets together, day and night for more than two weeks, to enjoy the mystic merriment.
According to city historians, the segregation of Mardi Gras royalty is just not that simple. Mobilians understand that much of it is a matter of traditions, cultures and bloodlines.
During a recent Lunch and Learn presentation in Mobile, historian L. Craig Roberts said the Mobile Carnival Association and the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association have similar rituals. Each group’s members include Mobile’s most prominent families – “the wealthiest, and oldest, black and white families in town,” he said – and each selects its own set of royalty.
That’s just the way it is, he added.
“You can’t call something racist when everybody’s choosing to do it the way they want do it,” he said.
City folklore boasts of children groomed to be Mardi Gras monarchs from infancy.
Truth be told, many a king’s companion — black and white — have admitted that she was often told as a child “how beautiful a queen she would be someday.” Both MAMGA and MCA have many instances of monarchs who are the third, fourth and fifth generations of a family to wear the crown.
Beyond the bloodline, it helps to have wealth to reign as a Mardi Gras royal. From the lavish parties to the royal regalia, the price tag is way too high for the peasantry.
Today, not all mystic societies are segregated. In 2006, the first mixed-raced society paraded for the first time. And some kings and queens of MCA and MAMGA have visited one another’s festivities.
So, without grief or malice, surrounded by crystals, crowns and expensive furs, the 2014 Mardi Gras monarchs will smile, wave and shower the masses with trinkets from Friday, Feb. 28, to Fat Tuesday, March 4. Declaring misrule and frivolity throughout the land, the sovereigns will “let the good times roll,” maintaining a schedule of appearances that would rival British royalty.
But, that’s the fun part.
Paying for the parties
Getting to enjoy the pageantry from their perches atop magnificent floats and thrones has not been a simple journey. While most kings and queens are often young professionals at the start of their careers — sometimes living in other cities — their royal responsibilities begin nearly a year before their coronations.
Their agendas include designing trains, crowns and scepters for their royal attire, hosting parties and making appearances, which could include as many as 40 fancy fêtes.
“The official Mardi Gras season for MCA runs from November through Mardi Gras Day,” says Judi Gulledge, Executive Director of the Mobile Carnival Association.
“Our monarchs attend many parties and celebrations beginning with the Camellia Ball, which is held the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.”
Gulledge said that in addition to the parties and an elaborate Coronation, King Felix III rolls his own parade on Lundi Gras and again on Mardi Gras Day as a gift to the city.
Both kings are also required to host royal feasts and luncheons.
While the toll for parade throws and the fancy fêtes add up, nothing compares to the cost of the royal regalia.
“There is a great deal of money involved,” says Tommy Cain, owner of Dynasty Collection in West Mobile. Cain and wife, Tanya, have designed the regalia for far too many royals to count. For more than 25 years, they have been the creative force behind royal jewels across the Gulf Coast. Today, their business has expanded across the country and reaches as far as the Dominican Republic.
“Designing the crowns and scepters is probably one of the most emotional things for these people,” Tommy Cain said. “There is so much history and so many things they want to pay homage to. They have to get it just right. The cost soon becomes no object.”
From family crests to heirlooms, the Cains say they are never surprised by the things some royals request. Tommy Cain says he once had an oil baron who wanted a crown of oil wells. “I’m here to give them what they want,” he says.
Tanya Cain says a simple crown can begin at $600 and cost up to thousands of dollars for an original design. “But we love it when they are involved, and yes, most of them are very hands on,” she said.
Tommy Cain says he was impressed with Mosley’s concept for his MAMGA King Elexis I regalia this year. After hearing that his majesty had a diamond shaped train outlined with lippi leopard fur bearing a family crest with crystal-adorned lions, Cain says he suggested lions for the king’s crown and 5-foot staff, as well.
“This staff is amazing because it actually expands and contracts,” Tommy Cain said. “It can be long or short. I enjoy it so much when these designs amaze me, too.”
According to Cain, Downing wanted her crown jewels designed around a Cartier necklace from Europe, given to the MCA’s queen by her parents.
“Each piece is special and unique to the person,” Cain said. “And I really enjoy bringing it altogether.”
When asked if the recession had any effect on the business of making crown jewels for Mardi Gras royalty, Cain says no.
“Even during the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, I never lost one customer,” he said. “I still remember the customers coming in, some in tears, wanting their pieces refurbished after the storm.”
Money and Mardi Gras go together, Cain said. “And what I love most is that it all benefits our city, the money spent is staying here in the city. We are all going to a party that benefits us all,” he said.