Thursday, February 15, 2018

Personal History: The St. Clair Family at Mobile's Mardi Gras

Fifty Funny Fellows
(founded 1927)
Mardi Gras Logo
If there is any single attribute for Mobile as one of America’s most charming cities, it would have to do with the shared commitment of all the city’s citizens to having a good time. Mobile is a city like no other, and although I did not grow up there and hardly knew anything about Mobile when I was growing up in Virginia, I’m sure I never heard anything about “Mardi Gras,” or “Carnival,” or any other festival leading up to the beginning of Lent. Of course I heard fantastic stories about places like Venice, Rio de Janeiro, and the like (who didn’t hear about them?) and certainly New Orleans was talked about from time to time, but I never heard anything about Mardi Gras in Mobile.

Fifty Funny Fellows Queen
Kimberly Savannah St. Clair

It was my loss. And now we’ve had the opportunity to make it up, for this year—thanks to a great honor bestowed on our family—we had the very happy circumstance of being invited to Mobile to attend our granddaughter, Kimberly Savannah St. Clair, who was selected as the queen for the grand ball of the Fifty Funny Fellows, one of Mobile's famous mystic societies.

For us St. Clairs, it was an invitation that could not be resisted. And since both sons were brought up in Mobile and Austin—the father of the queen—still lives there, we all (except for one granddaughter who could not get away from her studies at university) made our way to Alabama’s famous “Port City” (sometimes called—as will be very evident to anyone visiting Mobile any time in the next few weeks—“Azalea City”). It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience we were offered and certainly for us it turned out to be a week never to be forgotten.

Queen Savannah and
Dad George Austin St. Clair
Describing Mardi Gras in Mobile is not easy, for the tradition goes back to the nineteenth century. Of course with any historical activity of this long standing, there are many versions of the “real” story but whether based on facts or just “what everybody knows,” there’s no question that Mardi Gras in Mobile is one of America’s great celebrations. Our host mystic society, the Fifty Funny Fellows, was organized in 1927, succeeding two other Funny Fellows societies, one called Five Funny Fellows and another called Fifteen Funny Fellows, each of them organized prior to the Fifty Funny Fellows which, as   L. Craig Roberts puts it, "remains with us today." Today there are more than 50 members, but by using different membership categories, the name can stay the same. The gentlemen members chose a jester as their emblem (or mascot). Each  society has an emblem or mascot and for the FFF, the jester (illustrated above) is the emblem they want, in order to have someone around "whose job it is to entertain the court."

Stage Setting for the Entrance of the Queen
And Mobile's Mardi Gras carries with it all the grand and long-standing traditions for which such celebrations are known. Family pride is one of them, of course, and while there are festivals in European cities that have been going on for hundreds of years (with many of them still carrying venerated statues of saints and other religious figures in the processions in places of honor), these European celebrations also include great reverence for the families that have participated over the centuries. My sense in Mobile was that the involvement of Mobile's "historical" families (although for not so many centuries!) was no less obvious. Or sincere. 

Proud "Queen's Mom" Denise
For those of us in the St. Clair Family, we were no less thrilled, as can be seen in the photographs spread throughout this post. While Dad Austin was pretty much covered up by his fantastic and beautiful costume, Proud "Queen's Mom" Denise (note the brooch at the top of her ball gown) was no less splendid in her own formal attire, and despite the fact that we men were limited to good ol' black-and-white tails as we fantasized about being Fred Astaire or Cary Grant, the overall "look" of the event was gorgeous. 

Granddad Andrew and
Granddad Guy
And it was a lot of people. The events begin the day after Twelfth Night and go on until the night before Ash Wednesday. Roberts even hazards an estimate as to how many people get involved: “Over 100,000 guests attend Mardi Gras balls, and over 1 million attend parades each year in Mobile, making Mobile’s Mardi Gras the second-largest community festival in the nation each year.” Balls and parades are sponsored by the mystic societies and financed privately. As you can see in the photos, the balls are very formal, and costume de rigueur is required, with long gowns for ladies, and gentlemen wearing white tie and tails. And no color for us guys, none whatsoever, so I couldn’t even wear the tiny ruby stickpin I usually wear in my buttonhole when I wear my tuxedo!

Another characteristic of this fabulous multi-week experience (and remember that Mobile goes on from Twelfth Night to the last day before Lent) is the food. When you think about the number of people noted in Roberts' telling of the story, you're not surprised to discover that almost every eating establishment is packed with celebrants. And it's a logical assumption when we think about Mobile's location on the Gulf Coast, for there are amazing seafood delicacies available We were able to eat at several of the better-known places in Mobile, including Wintzell's Oyster House. Roberts describes it well:

Wintzell's Oyster House dates from 1938, but the building, the oldest wood-frame commercial building in the Lower Dauphin Street Historic District M, was built in 1892 and named the New Era Saloon to bring in the new century. Saloons were so popular into the early 1900s that women became upset with their "menfolk" going out every night and getting "sloshed," and it led to the temperance movement and eventually Prohibition.

Granddaughter Claudia
Another fun place for our gang, not nearly so historical as Wintzell's, was Butch Cassidy's Cafe, where we gathered for one of our lunches and I took this photo of Granddaughter Claudia. And happy I did so, too, as for some reason I did not get around to taking her picture at the ball. 

And speaking of food at Mardi Gras, to the delight of all of us attending the ball the next day's Mobile Press-Register included reportage about the Fifty Funny Fellows Ball, noting that the article was prepared by "a mysterious denizen of the Leisure Class who covers the local Mardi Gras." His or her anonymous description of the meal gushed that "in gorgeous Queen Savannah's room the crew from Mudbugs at the Loop had catered fresh gumbo, baked potato salad, and crawfish dip." Quite a lovely—and local—meal indeed!

So there's a lot to think about and observe and, yes, even though some of us were a little unsure about how to refer to this event, what we call this good time hardly matters. As pointed out in much of the literature about the festival, “Mardi Gras” is properly only the name of the last day before Lent (“Fat Tuesday,” “Shrove Tuesday,” etc.). The overall season, with all the balls, parades, and parties is—again, properly—supposed to be called “Carnival.” But let’s not kid ourselves. In Mobile, everyone talks about the whole thing as “Mardi Gras” and since we’re all in this to have fun, let’s not get too pedantic this early in the game.

One of the valuable texts I got to know is Roberts’ Mardi Gras in Mobile (mentioned above), published just three years ago by History Press in Charleston, South Carolina. The other is The Art and Design of Mardi Gras, published in 2014 by the Mobile Museum of Art. This latter work is a collection of insightful essays from authoritative specialists at the Mobile Museum of Art, the History Museum of Mobile and the Mobile Carnival Museum. These materials—along with many stories and conversations taking place during Carnival—provide a wealth of information. While I can’t ascribe any scholarly learning on my part, all of these resources have contributed to my taking on a fascinating perspective about “Mardi Gras,” “Carnival,” or whatever we want to call this particular experience in entertaining ourselves. And in doing so, in making sure that we—along with in this instance everyone else in attendance at Mardi Gras in Mobile—are having a good time.

Entrance to
The Queen's Reception Room
And while it is Carnival, it isn’t Venice, and costumes are worn only by mystic society members at their balls and parades. And on that subject, Mobile's Mardi Gras has another distinction, despite the fact that it’s been around for so long. It’s not trashy and no one embarrasses anyone else with naughty behavior; at Mardi Gras events, the entire arrangement is family focused. Of course there are minimum age limits for attendance at the balls (I think it’s 21 years of age but I’m not sure), so children aren’t seen at the balls. And for all I know, perhaps there are age limits for membership in the mystic societies, but the whole idea, as Roberts points out, is that an important rule for attendees at the Mobile Mardi Gras is a simple one: “Do Not Misbehave. You will be arrested for inappropriate or illegal conduct. Mobile’s Mardi Gras is a family event!”

Monogram over Another
Entrance to
The Queen's Reception Room
As for further detail (and perhaps connected to the above, if we think about the idea that “class” and “tradition” go together), there are two “Royal Courts” of Mardi Gras made up of people who have been involved for generations. The Mobile Carnival Association (MCA) — founded in 1872 — and the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA) — founded in 1938 — are, you might say, the “boards” of the Carnival. They select participants and schedule and organize all the events that are going to take place. Each of these “Royal Courts” is separate from the many mystic societies, and although the mystic societies come and go, at present there seem to be about sixty-five societies, of which about thirty-five have parades as well as balls. The oldest of the mystic societies is the Strikers Independent Society, founded in 1842, leading up to the Order of Pan, started in 2014. And as I think has been clear by now, the mystic society with whom we affiliated while our family attended Mardi Gras is the Fifty Funny Fellows (FFF), celebrating its 91st year in 2018. We were in attendance through the good graces of son George Austin St. Clair, a past-president of FFF and a life-long resident of Mobile.

And offering those dates brings up what is probably the most-talked-about subject when Mobile's Mardi Gras comes up in conversation. Is Mobile’s Carnival older than the Carnival in New Orleans? For longevity, Mobile wins, as the city was established as the first capital of colonial La Louisiana in 1702. La Nouvelle Orléans (New Orleans) was founded in the spring of 1718 so it's a bit younger. As for the celebrations, Mobile's Cowbellion de Rakin started New Year's Eve parades as early as 1831 and by 1849 these had become an "ornate nighttime spectacle with floats," according to Steve Joynt, Editor/Publisher, Mobile Mask, in his note in The Art and Design of Mardi Gras. Other mystic societies came along, including the aforementioned Strikers, and as Joynt puts it, their efforts were responsible for "cementing Mobile's title as Mother of Mystics." Some members of these societies were in New Orleans for a Mardi Gras event on FatTuesday 1857, and led by Mobile's Joseph Stillwell Cain, they returned to Mobile inspired to parade through the city on Fat Tuesday 1858. And lest anyone think Mobile doesn't honor it's own, Cain is a very serious hero in Mobile history, with his own special day—the final Sunday in Carnival—and I was fortunate to attend one of the big parties on Joe Cain Day many years ago).

So who was first? Truth to tell, nobody really cares, and since people celebrating Mardi Gras in Mobile are committed to having a good time, it doesn’t really matter does it? Having a good time is what it’s all about, and while most mystic societies have both balls and parades, FFF limits itself to the ball, a grand affair if there ever was one. This year there were about 2,500 attendees, but it still is not the largest of all the balls, possibly because the Fifty Funny Fellows Ball is quite exclusive, with admission by invitation only.

So our family was extremely honored to have granddaughter Savannah as Queen of the Fifty Funny Fellows, and it was a splendid event. The “official” biography introducing Savannah to the attendees and distributed at the ball notes:

Queen Kimberly Savannah St. Clair is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. George Austin St. Clair and the late Mrs. Kimberly Hinton St. Clair. A Mobile native, Savannah attended Murphy High School, where she was yearbook editor (among other accomplishments). She went on to the University of Alabama where she was a member of the Alpha Gamma chapter of the Delta Zeta sorority. In 2016 Savannah was presented at the Mobile Ballet’s Nutcracker Charity Ball. She graduated from the University of Alabama in May 2017 with a dual degree in Early Childhood and Special Education. Queen Savannah works as a special education resource teacher at Hollinger’s Island Elementary School, and she is now pursuing her master’s degree in Collaborative Special Education K-6 at the University of West Alabama.
Family members in attendance to honor Savanna (some pictured here) included sisters Bayley St. Clair (pictured below when we learn about the parades), Claudia Bryan (pictured earlier at our "pre-party" luncheon at Butch Cassidy's) and brother Mal Bryan (pictured later having fun at the parade). 
Granddad Andrew, Will Villani,
Madeline St. Clair,
Suzanne St. Clair, and Gil St. Clair
Coming from out of town to Mobile to attend Savannah on this occasion were Austin’s brother, Guy Gaillard (“Gil”) St. Clair and Mrs. Suzanne St. Clair, with their daughters Jacqueline and Madeline, with her gentleman friend Will Villani. As noted, daughter Margaux was sadly unable to attend because of her studies. My husband Andrew Berner and I made up the New York contingent, with the grandchildren delighting in referring to us as “Granddad Andrew” and “Granddad Guy.”

Dragon Float at
The Crewe of Columbus Parade
While the Fifty Funny Fellows is not one of the “parading” societies, the members were nevertheless out in full force for more Carnival fun at the parades. As our time was limited, we attended only one of the parades but, as Roberts notes in his delightful telling of the Mobile Mardi Gras story, “for many people, parades are what Mardi Gras is all about.” And certainly there is no age limit for watching these fantastic parades—every member of the family, regardless of age—was brought out. And if the parade we attended is any indication, it’s not hard to establish—when all thirty-seven parades are counted—that the attendance figure of over a million people is a reasonable estimate. People everywhere, screaming at the brass bands, strutting majorettes and drum majors, yelling for all the "swag" thrown from the floats, elegant and grand floats that float by (sorry about that) at a slow speed and all displaying a combination of humor, workmanship, and design skill, including such exceptional float designs as this truly frightening dragon. And, at the same time, establishing once again that Mobile Mardi Gras commitment to fun, fun, fun.

Crewe of Columbus Pinta Float
Our parade was the Crewe of Columbus, another of the long-running societies, dating back to 1921. The floats were intriguing, this year celebrating a “Mister Mister” theme and featuring characters from popular animated and other recognizable sources, such as Mr. Peanut (a character still remembered fondly and clearly from my own childhood), Mr. Potato Head, Mr. Spock, and a wide range of others I couldn’t begin to name. Of course there were the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria, all beautifully designed and brightly lit individual floats, followed by the grandest of all, leading off with a huge sculptured head of Columbus himself.

Granddaughter Bayley, at the
FFF Ball 
Many bands participate, of course, coming in from all over the country but still providing strong evidence of the high quality of (and taking advantage of) the local high school bands. We were amazed to learn that Granddaughter Bayley is the “transportation monitor” (I might have the title wrong) for her band at Baker High School. Why on earth, I wondered, would a school need a transportation authority for a high school band? But once I saw them—200 strong!—in the parade (just one of many of the bands marching during Mardi Gras), of course. It all made sense. They needed someone just to make sure all the band members got on the right bus, got to the parade site, marched and played (Bayley performs on tenor sax), and then got back on the right bus. What a big job! And how proud we are of Bayley for doing such a good job of it! The photo of Bayley, as it happens, is from the ball, as we couldn't snap her in the parade as she marched and played her sax (although she did spot us and threw kisses to all the family!). 

Mr. Potato Head Float
And as we discuss the parade, we mustn’t neglect mentioning again the “swag,” all the goodies and gifts that are thrown from the floats into the crowds. As the floats move past, mystic society members on board are continually throwing things into the crowd of spectators, all of whom are energetically collecting massive amounts of beads, footballs and other balls, stuffed animals, Frisbees, commemorative plastic cups, Mardi Gras doubloons, and all over the place (far too many to count, or even estimate), what seemed like tons of Moon Pies, the famous Southern delicacy tempting everyone to have too many sweets and too much sugar (and they are delicious!). One goal of bead collectors is to acquire as many strands of beads as possible, many of which are loaded into cars and taken to special schools where students with special needs can be entertained re-stringing beads, creating a product that can then be sold to support school projects.

Grandson Mal Sorting
Some of His Swag

But don’t get the wrong idea. Collecting swag is not the purpose. It’s not why we’re here. The whole idea is to have a good time, that commitment I referred to earlier, that love of Mobile’s citizens for each other and for their way of life. They work hard to cut away at dissention and discord (I’ve seen them doing it, and doing it very successfully, most likely simply out of their respect for one another). And it is a commitment. Hours and hours of work, to say nothing of all that “private” funding, goes to make Mardi Gras the success it is. While Andrew and I cannot speak for others visiting Mobile for Mardi Gras, we were certainly made to feel welcome, to feel loved, and—not to be dismissed lightly—to be given as much leeway as we need to have our own good time. And so we did, and after all, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, that’s what Mardi Gras in Mobile is all about, isn't it?