Mobile to revelers: We can throw a party, too

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MOBILE, Ala. -- If you thought New Orleans was the home of America's oldest Mardi Gras celebration, guess again. In fact, many cities claim to be the birthplace of the event.

The fun started in Mobile in 1703, one year after the city's founding. "We celebrate the true Mardi Gras, the old Mardi Gras," said Lucy Arnold, manager of public relations for the Mobile Convention & Visitors Corporation. "[In Mobile], you're going to get the home feel."

Mardi Gras, which in French means "Fat Tuesday," is the day before Ash Wednesday and concludes the feast period before Lent.

floatThe celebration involves revelers who dress in colorful costumes and travel through the streets on decorative floats.

Participants toss moon pies, candy and beads to the crowds that line the parade route.

Visitors can view nearly 300 floats in the 25 parades that are scheduled between Feb. 3 and Fat Tuesday, Feb. 16. Each parade is sponsored by one of the mystic societies or krewes, which are the organizations involved in the celebration. Each society crowns a grand marshal, king and queen and names its royal court during the celebration.

According to Cameron Reeder, public information specialist for the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel, the attendance for Mobile's 1998 Mardi Gras parades reached 900,000.

The parades start early in the morning and run through the evening; there will be six parades held on Fat Tuesday.

The daytime activities lead into an equally active nighttime scene.

Civic groups sponsor formal tableau bal masques, masked balls where a tableau, or themed skit, is presented.

Adults looking for a more casual nightlife, including restaurants, bars and live bands, can walk along Mobile's Dauphin Street, a historical district reminiscent of New Orleans' French Quarter.

"It's our little Bourbon Street," said Arnold. "It's the place to be for [nightlife]."

While experiencing the sights and sounds of Mardi Gras present, visitors can learn of festivals past.

According to Gordon Tatum, Jr., director of public relations for the Museum of Mobile, the basis for the modern Mardi Gras was established by Michael Krafft and Joseph Stillwell Cain.

Krafft and some friends originated the Cowbellion de Rakin Society in 1830.

Mardi Gras was celebrated here annually until the Civil War. Cain re-established the festival in 1866, dressing in Indian costume and riding through Mobile on a coal wagon.

Portraits of both men are on display in the Museum of Mobile.

The museum also showcases gowns of past Mardi Gras queens, dating back to the 1920s.

Among the featured pieces are items from U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association queen of 1974; her father was the mystic society's first king.

But there is much more than museums to enjoy.

"We've been doing this for 300 years," said Tatum. "We think we know how to throw a party."

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