You don’t have to head over to the Mississippi River to New Orleans when one of the biggest Mardi Gras parties in the country takes place right here in the Show-Me State. St. Louis Mardi Gras has its own rich tradition with the annual Soulard Mardi Gras, which celebrates almost four decades of letting loose in south St. Louis’ iconic Soulard community.
How did Soulard Mardi Gras become the colossal event that it is today? Let us begin by addressing a common question:
What is Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras, which translates as “Fat Tuesday” in French, is inextricably linked to the Roman Catholic Church’s Lenten season rituals and the cities of New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro. Carnival is the name given to this event in Rio de Janeiro. In the United States, the Mardi Gras festival originated in 1703 with a party of French immigrants in Mobile, colonial French Louisiana’s first capital. Since Louisiana’s territorial capital was relocated to New Orleans in 1723, the Mardi Gras festival traveled with it and has since been associated with the city’s name.
St. Louis, like New Orleans, has a deeply French tradition. In 1763, Pierre Laclède established the community. Soulard started as part of Antoine and Julia Soulard’s farm. Antoine, a staunch supporter of King Louis XVI, fled France to save his head and ended up in St. Louis through New Orleans, marrying into the powerful Cerre dynasty. Surprisingly, these French origins had nothing to do with Soulard’s Mardi Gras background.
Antoine Soulard Mardi Gras started in December 1979 as a bit of a lark by five lonely guys searching for a way to light up the freezing winter in St. Louis. Hilary Clements, Bob Brinkmann, James Rabbitt, Bill Stubbs, and Bill Coleman met in a downtown bar to organize a large group to ward off the winter blues. With Fat Tuesday approaching, Hilary proposed that Mardi Gras will be an excellent theme for their group. He’d recently bought a three-story house in Soulard, which eventually became known as Johnny’s Restaurant & Bar.
Each founder contributed $250 toward the $1,250 budget, and in February 1980, the community organized Soulard’s first Mardi Gras at the Russell Boulevard venue for approximately 200 friends. At 12AM, the revelers came out onto the roadway, disregarding the freezing cold, and up Russell Boulevard toward John D. McGurk’s Irish Pub, accompanied by a small brass band of trombones and horns. This was pivotal for St. Louis Mardi Gras history
The good days continue to rise
Thirty-eight years later, the festival spans more than a month and draws more than 750,000 participants from around the world. Fat Tuesday falls on February 28 this year, the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season preceding Easter.
The St. Louis festival began on January 6 with Twelfth Night and will conclude on February 25, the Saturday before Fat Tuesday.
If you’re contemplating traveling to town for the month-long party, suggest staying with relatives, as a November survey of downtown St. Louis hotels revealed that more than 20,000 hotel room nights have already been reserved for the weekend of the Grand Parade. Mardi Gras’ economic effects on the St. Louis area are estimated to be more than $21 million by the Regional Chamber and Growth Association. According to the Riverfront Times, this is the second biggest Mardi Gras street party in the United States.
Antoine Soulard Mardi Gras has evolved increasingly over time. “At first, it was just the Grand Parade,” says Mack Bradley, President of the Mardi Gras Foundation. “Over the years, we’ve concentrated on developing a schedule of activities between the 12th Night, Fat Tuesday offers something amazing for everyone. Such activities are family-friendly, while others are not so much; others are very big and free, while others are smaller ticketed gatherings. Many of them are held outdoors, which may be difficult in February.”
Since 1999, Soulard Mardi Gras has been created independently by the locals as a non-profit. The organization’s sole purpose is to generate Mardi Gras activities by sponsorship and fees collected from participating in the Soulard establishments. The Mardi Gras Foundation was also established in 2002 to assist Mardi Gras Inc.’s activities by supporting public protection and cleanup projects associated with the greater Mardi Gras events. The annual Mayor’s Ball collected $450,000 for city development grants in Soulard and central St. Louis.
The organizers hope that those who attend would demonstrate reverence for Soulard residents and their belongings. Most importantly, as the French claim, “Laissez des bons temps rouler!”