Ten things to know about island Mardi Gras traditions
Mardi Gras in Galveston is like no other Fat Tuesday celebration in the world. Dancers twirl umbrellas on a parade route. Revelers in tuxedos and glitzy gowns overflow at exuberant yacht parties and balls. Deep-curtsying duchesses perform the Texas Dip.
The pre-Lenten celebration on the island that started in the 1800s took a lengthy hiatus from World War II until 1985. Galvestonian Dancie Ware worked with developer and oilman George Mitchell and other island movers and shakers to revive the celebration. She spent much of 1984 researching historical records to re-imagine Mardi Gras for Galveston. Ware, who said she is strictly a volunteer now, also interviewed residents who remembered the traditions and the imagery of the pageants.
“It’s a true mid-winter carnival celebration,” Ware said. “We created an iconic event that had roots on the island.”
Since the 1980s, the celebration has evolved, the krewes have increased and the party keeps growing. In recent years, island businessman Mike Dean, a principal of Yaga’s Entertainment, has managed and promoted official Mardi Gras events in Galveston.
While New Orleans has a larger and longer celebration and while Rio de Janeiro is an international magnet for carnival-goers, Galveston has some specific island-centric elements.
1. Funky Uptown Umbrella Brigade
Put your left foot in, put your left foot out. Anyone can participate in the swirling and twirling of umbrellas as long as he or she has a decorated umbrella and can do the hokey-pokey. The Feb. 17 brigade in downtown seeks to break its record of 2,923 umbrella line dancers.
2. Texas Dip
It’s deeper than a curtsy and requires some grace. Duchesses are required to execute the Texas Dip when they’re presented at the Knights of Momus Coronation Ball.
Gerry Hornstein used to teach the duchesses to do it. Now, she mainly instructs debutantes.
“But I will teach anyone who wants to learn it,” Hornstein said.
A duchess dressed to the nines in a ballgown holds her arms out to her sides and ends the manevuer by slowly lowering her forehead to the floor by crossing her ankles, then bending her knees and sinking. And then she has to get up gracefully.
3. Menardi Gras
The island’s reportedly first Mardi Gras party was in 1856 at the Michel B. Menard House, which now belongs to the Galveston Historical Foundation. The house is the oldest in Galveston. The foundation is host to a yearly party there open to anyone who wants to pay.
4. The Arch
This is one of seven arches George and Cynthia Mitchell commissioned for the 1986 Mardi Gras celebration. The Fantasy Arches marked key points downtown. Architect Boone Powell designed the remaining one at Mechanic and 24th streets.
5. Tilman Fertitta
For about 20 years, the entrepreneur and more recently the star of TV reality show “Billion Dollar Buyer” has played a key role in Fat Tuesday festivities, especially for the Knights of Momus.
“He became very engaged, taking it to an international level,” Ware said.
Fertitta is host to the San Luis Salute. More than 1,000 people each year attend the event, which is sold out six months ahead. Fertitta also is known for a big Mardi Gras yacht party at Pier 21.
6. Treasure Ball
While a generation or two of society missed out on Mardi Gras, Catholic families in Galveston always had the Treasure Ball.
“It was the only thing that stayed,” island resident Jo Daily said. Two of her grandsons have been kings of the ball, and other grandchildren have been dukes and duchesses. Daily, who is a seamstress, is sewing costumes and at least one 12-foot long train for this year’s ball.
“I’ve sewn 100 trains and capes over the years,” she said.
High school students compete to be king and queen by trying to raise the most money. The winning couple presides over the Treasure Ball at Moody Gardens. The money goes to support Catholic schools on the island.
8. King cake
The purple, gold and green pastry is as much an island nod to New Orleans as throwing beads and displaying the fleur de lis. But Galveston king cakes sell out fast. The Sunflower Bakery & Café and Mosquito Café are two popular island places to acquire the cake. Another is Maceo Spice & Import Co., an aroma house of seasonings and straight talk. New Orleans jazz often plays in the background.
7. Masks from Star Drug Store
Glass cabinets filled with Mardi Gras masks for sale surround the downtown restaurant, making it a museum of ideas for quick carnival costumes. Some have feathers, some have noses, most have slots for eyes.
Unlike some New Orleans krewes, the Knights of Momus doesn’t require krewe members to wear masks on the floats during parades.
“In Texas, nobody wants to wear masks,” Momus krewe member Johnny Listowski said. “We like it if everyone looks alike and wears a tuxedo.”
9. Mardi Gras! Galveston
This official downtown event is Feb. 17-28. For two weekends, the entertainment district is blocked off and party goers pay to get in the gate. Prices start at $11.95, but package deals offer balcony views, multiple-day entries and other amenities.
10. The Beach
Visitors to Galveston’s Mardi Gras also can enjoy the added benefit of the beach by catching a sea breeze, picking up a seashell, walking on a jetty or watching the surf. Some Mardi Gras parade routes include part of Seawall Boulevard. And on Ash Wednesday, after the partying ends and the idea of giving up an extravagance for Lent might take hold, a priest from Trinity Episcopal Church will bless you at the site of a pier that once held the legendary Balinese Room nightclub.