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High on the Diversified Foam Produts wall, a bull's head from past parades. Photograph by Thomas Crone
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On Saturday afternoon, I dropped by the warehouse used by the float builders of the Mystic Knights of the Purple Haze. A Mardi Gras krewe in its 25th year of operation, the Knights have achieved no small amount of acclaim for their mastery in constructing award-winning floats. Designated to give me the tour was an original member, Matt Reardon, who didn’t so much give me information, as supply a first-person, comprehensive roundup of the krewe’s quarter-century together. Dude knows his stuff, and doesn’t mind sharing.
So much information was gleaned that I couldn’t quite put together a full, sensible narrative of the afternoon. Instead—and in honor of the group’s long history—here are 25 quick glances at what I learned about the krewe and the months-long process that goes into each year’s Mardi Gras experience.
1. The krewe calls Diversified Foam Products home. It’s a huge, sprawling warehouse complex on the boundary of the City and Maplewood, which features a large recreational side patio that feels more like Jefferson County than western St. Louis City, with rock walls, tree cover and a partial basketball court. It’s owned by krewe member Stanley Safron. As you might expect, the business deals in a diversified range of foam products.
2. In that warehouse, the group has access to hundreds of square feet of construction space. They can literally sketch the actual float size on the floor, building to the exact specs, without ever having to feel the elements outside. It’s a pretty sweet deal, and allows the builders to work at a relaxed pace, in an environment that lets everything sit in place, even on a day when construction’s not underway. Says Reardon, “It allows us to be a lot more relaxed and creative.”
3. They’ve also built a full costume shop, headed up by Bethany Sachen, which isn’t a small operation in its own right. The costume shop is found in a good-sized tent with spillover worktables. In a given year, between 50 to 75 outfits are created for the krewe to wear on parade day, and each piece is built for the individual krewe member at the DFP costume shop.
4. For those who care about such things: The costume shop is typically run by females. The float construction is taken care of by the fellas. The gender segregation seems to work, overall, with what’s said to be occasional pinch-hitting roles in the costume shop by the guys, who know their way around a glitter-glue gun.
5. If you’ve ever wondered, admission into the Mystic Knights is accompanied by a $100 fee, which according to Reardon, “isn’t a secret, and is about what all the krewes charge.”
6. In a given year, the krewe has about a 5 to 10 percent turnover in membership. Members usually leave because “they take on roles and responsibilities in their real life that get in the way.”
7. New members come in regularly, but have to be accompanied by the referral of an existing one. “We have a pretty laid-back crew,” Reardon says. “We like to keep it that way.”
8. Those new members, on parade day, typically serve as “wheelwalkers.” It’s a role that keeps them tight to the float, not as active in tossing beads to the crowd, though there’s still fun in making sure the float doesn’t roll over a person or another float.
9. On Saturday, a newcomer to the krewe earned a place on wheelwalker duty when he spilled a beer near a saw, and some wood, and some electricity. Waah-waah.
10. While krewe members are expected to kick in the bit of cash, they’re also supposed to do some work. For those who lack skills in the rough arts, other duties exist, especially when it’s time for the krewe’s annual ball, generally held the night before Parade Day.
11. That’s true this year, with the Mystic Knights Ball going down on Friday, February 8. It’ll be held at the Old Rock House and will feature the local group Funky Butt Brass Band as well as the New Orleans act Big Sam’s Funky Nation, which Reardon say “is one of the hottest groups in New Orleans.”
12. In the past, the Mystic Knights have booked the Casa Loma Ballroom for their Ball, among other venues, selling as many as 1,000 tickets.
13. When the party gets too good, “there are casualties.” Which is to say, people will party themselves into oblivion, completely missing out on the Parade Day fun. It’s not an all-the-time-thing, but you have to believe members who do this will fall into a special category of remembrance.
14. Speaking of which, the founder of the Krewe is Andy Renard, who was attending school in the Big Easy. When he returned to St. Louis, he saw the nascent Soulard Mardi Gras and figured that he and friends could put something together that would look good and provide some fun. “We went down the next year,” Reardon says. “Did it. Had a blast. And we could built a better float than most of those people.”
15. Ah, yes, the Mystic Knights know that they can build a good float. This year, for example, their float will contain a huge amount of lighting, which will make the float that much more impressive on the Fat Tuesday parade night, which brings together the best floats from Parade Day.
16. Reardon figures that on a given year, about 10 to 15 floats are gunning for excellence, with a number of the others simply featuring people riding on a truck bed, with less-then-full commitment to float design and execution. He says that “we’re pushing the other krewes to do their best, creating a sense of competition.”
17. When the float rolls down Broadway, Reardon invites you to notice all the extras that the Knights bring to the table. They have a DJ; often, that’s been Tom “Papa Ray,” the KDHX Soul Selector. They bring in a club-sized sound rig via local audio sensei Jerry Boschert. They stock up to 63 cases of beads, which means about 50,000 of them flying off the float, in addition to the higher-end beads bought by krewe members for, let’s call them, “special viewers” along the parade route.
18. When the Parade Day experience is done—along with the assumed roll on Fat Tuesday—the krewe begins a small transformation of the float, adding lots of green and shamrocks for Downtown’s St. Patricks’ Day Parade. On that day, the float’s dry (with no alcohol) and the krewe member’s kids jump aboard, which they’re not allowed to do on the adults-only vibe of Parade Day. “It’s a great day for the families,” Reardon says. “They’ve been curious about it all year and on that day, the kids get to take part.”
19. Oh, yeah, they’ve won for the best float award five times at the St. Patrick’s Day parade Downtown. Which makes them both loved and hated among those float builders, too.
20. Once all the three parades are done, recycling and reuse begins. The DFP work area is filled with bits of past floats, from dramatic stuff like a giant crawfish and a huge head of Jimi Hendrix, to smaller, utilitarian bits of torn-down lumber and fiberglass. Much of that will wind up back on the 2014 float.
21. Reardon says that most of the float is decorative, rather than used by riders. Their theme this year is Aquaman and the Justice League, tied to the overall Soulard Mardi Gras theme of Comics. In creating a huge octopus, a larger-than-human seahorse and other aquatic creatures, there’s little room for bodies on their truck. “We make our floats for viewing, not for riding in,” he adds. “Most of our krewe are walking and in closer contact to the people.”
22. Some of the builders spend dozens, even hundreds of hours on the float. Reardon says that Mystic Knights put in the effort (often accompanied by a beer) because of “the fun of it and the spirit of it. I will say that some of the recognition we’ve gotten gives us pride. It fuels us and energizes us to do it right.”
23. To help spread the mission and the past successes in float-building, the Mystic Knights of the Purple Haze entered the social media world on January 20th, creating a Facebook page with 450 photos. Just punch their name into the FB search engine for that archive of fun Mardi Gras shots through the years.
24. Visiting the site on Saturday was a real crash course in “small town St. Louis.” I saw the father of a recent profile subject. A fella who enjoys the nearby Foley’s bar and featured into a couple reviews of that place over the years. Someone else hung out at Hot Locust as much as I did in 1994; now he’s the float construction boss. There was a definite sense of kinship here, but also a very real presence of people who’ve lived in St. Louis and have done lots of things over the years. And for a bunch of weekends in late winter, this project is what brings them together.
25. Upon concluding our interview, Reardon bestowed me with the large, hot-pepper-laden string of beads that hung from his own neck. It was a sign of respect, he said, for coming out and featuring the Mystic Knights. The act was a neat nod of appreciation, a cool move. And one that pretty much ensured that I wanna join in on this next year, should the krewe accept me. A true believer in the Haze was born...
Photographs by Thomas Crone