If the weather cooperates on Sunday, Feb. 15, Asheville Mardi Gras executive committee Chair Hobbit Hawes estimates there could be more than 5,000 people lining Wall Street, Battery Park Avenue, Haywood Street and Page Avenue for the volunteer organization’s annual parade.
Drawing such a crowd to the family-friendly atmosphere are various krewes. Dressed in elaborate costumes, these groups spread cheer in the streets and from atop floats. Past floats included a 10-by-10-foot pyramid circled by three giant spaceships, and a massive wedding cake upon which Hawes and his then-fiancée Tamra were married.
Back in 2001, such a level of popularity and public acceptance seemed unlikely. Upon moving to Asheville from New Orleans that year, Lesley Groetsch remembers going out to Jack of the Wood and Tressa’s Jazz & Blues to celebrate Mardi Gras with her husband, Jack. They were met by puzzled looks from the clientele, which wondered why the Groetsches were out in costume on a Tuesday night.
The couple, who managed The Orange Peel for a stretch, continued to dress up and go out, but it wasn’t until fellow New Orleans expats Ashley Thibodaux and her husband, Chris Jones, started serving food out of the music venue that things began moving. The two approached the Groetsches about starting a krewe, and in 2003 Jones christened the Mystic Krewe of Munky Doux. “Mystic” is a term commonly used by New Orleans krewes to reflect the secret, otherworldly nature of early Mardi Gras societies, whose masks concealed members’ identities. “Monkey” is spelled to resemble “funky” and “do” like roux, the primary thickening agent for Cajun cuisine.
The Mystic Krewe of Munky Doux’s inaugural outing started at The Grey Eagle and made a pub crawl to The Orange Peel. From what Groetsch calls “really haphazard and ragtag” roots, each year became more organized, with more participants and impressive costumes. A king, queen and grand marshal became annual traditions, as did an irreverent political theme and a plethora of monkey masks. “No matter what your costume was, you were a monkey underneath,” Groetsch says. “Traffic Monkey” Critter Thomas donned a fluorescent vest to aid in street crossings. One year Jack Groetsch paired his mask with an Uncle Sam outfit and went as “A Monkey’s Uncle Sam.”
From the sidewalks to the streets
The pub crawls eventually shifted to a route from the former Thibodaux Jones Creole Kitchen on Biltmore Avenue to Jack of the Wood and back. With the Firecracker Jazz Band leading the procession, the celebration increasingly resembled a parade. But the substantial commitment of organizing such an activity held little interest for the Mystic Krewe of Munky Doux, which had its last hurrah in 2008. Its members considered themselves to be in the laid-back vein of New Orleans marching krewes, but were excited when an enthusiastic group led by pub-crawl veteran Sara Widenhouse began charting out a large-scale event.
“I was then working as the parade director of the Asheville Holiday Parade and wanted to get the Mardi Gras Parade more legitimate,” Widenhouse says. Along with Morgana Davis, Susan Sertain, Mike Sule, Joe Minicozzi, Sam York, Carol Pimentel and others, she formed the Mystic Mountain Krewe planning committee for the 2007 parade.
Under the theme “Any Way You Doux It,” the officially permitted sidewalk route went from Asheville Brewing Co. on Coxe Avenue to Pritchard Park. The Hillcrest Drum Corps led the way, the Asheville Police Department provided street crossings, and the Firecracker Jazz Band and Unifire performed in the park. A ball at The Grey Eagle followed.
In 2008, Widenhouse again arranged the permitting and worked with police to establish the organization’s first city-sanctioned street parade. The APD blocked side streets as a procession of banners, floats, vehicles and dance and drum corps rolled along a route from North Spruce Street to Pritchard Park. “The turnout — both paraders and spectators — was much more than we expected, but luckily all went well, and we got away with it,” Widenhouse says.
That year also featured the group’s first Twelfth Night, held at Jack of the Wood on Jan. 6, the traditional start of Mardi Gras season. Widenhouse baked a king cake and Scott Yerkey found a bean (substituted for the traditional plastic baby) in his slice. As newly crowned king, Yerkey asked his wife, Sarah, to join him as queen, thereby becoming the first royalty of Asheville’s Mardi Gras street-parade era.
Widenhouse stepped aside as parade chair after 2008, opening the door for Amy Kemp to serve as an ambassador to city officials. Carl Nyberg handled paperwork and police-liaison duties and later worked barricades and organized volunteers, efforts that earned him the title Parade Kaptain.
And now for something completely different
With multiple successful parades to its name, Mystic Mountain Krewe transitioned to being called Asheville Mardi Gras to better reflect its breadth of events. Festivities now begin each November with a party to announce the theme. Krewes — which can be formed freely, though there’s an optional $20 Asheville Mardi Gras membership — get right to work on their costumes and floats.
Twelfth Night was held this year at Club Eleven on Grove. Lynn Caroli Rapp became queen and chose Chill Axin (née Thomas Cahill, part of Hawes’ Gypsy Krewe) as king. The seventh annual Cajun Cook-off and Art Auction, the organization’s biggest fundraiser, followed on Jan. 25 at The Millroom.
Picking up where last year’s extremely popular “Where the Wild Things Are” celebration left off, the 2015 Asheville Mardi Gras theme is “And Now For Something Completely Different.” Taking a cue from its Monty Python origins, Hawes says many people will don costumes inspired by the revered British comedy troupe. Working on its float every weekend since December, the Gypsy Krewe is going with a Holy Grail motif, with Hawes as John Cleese’s horned, pyromaniac wizard Tim the Enchanter — but participants are by no means limited to these parameters. The theme “gives them the opportunity to do whatever they want and let themselves shine in their glittery, sparkly selves,” Hawes says.
After moving the starting point to Asheville Community Theatre and later to the Vance Monument, the current parade route has held since 2012 but may soon change due to the event’s popularity. “It’s gotten so big that the head meets the tail going around,” Nyberg says.
With the number of attendees leaping each year, the executive committee has been in discussions with the city about alternate routes. Both parties want the parade to stay downtown, and the city has expressed interest in helping making it more of a tourism destination. “We need 10,000 people to get carte blanche and be like the holiday parade and go down Patton or wherever,” Hawes says. “We’re not quite that big, but we’re going in that direction.”
Such totals may have been far from Lesley Groetsch’s mind in the early 2000s, but she’s not surprised by the festivity’s success. “Asheville is definitely game for things like Mardi Gras,” she says. “There’s so much talent, creativity and energy here that I’m really pleased someone has taken up the mantle and made it a big deal. I take zero credit. We were truly just goofing off and having a good time. People joined us, and it was just a testament to how Asheville loves a good artsy, freaky party.”
And despite the growth, Asheville Mardi Gras hasn’t forgotten its history. Nyberg is considering re-forming the Mystic Mountain Krewe as a volunteer krewe to work barricades and do crowd control during the parade. Furthermore, to honor a beloved member who passed away in June, the Carol Pimentel Award will be given to the person with the most outstanding costume.
WHAT: Asheville Mardi Gras Parade, ashevillemardigras.org
WHERE: Wall and Haywood streets, Battery Park and Page avenues
WHEN: Sunday, Feb. 15, at 3 p.m., followed by the Queen’s Ball at Pack’s Tavern with music from Empire Strikes Brass. Free.