Mobile ups the stakes in fight for Mardi Gras tourism

AP News
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Posted: Feb 16, 2015 11:04 AM

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — The mayor of Mobile, Alabama, is touting his city's claim as the birthplace of Mardi Gras this Carnival season in a long-running, but good-natured rivalry with nearby New Orleans.

Through a series of billboards and a video, Mayor Sandy Stimpson is highlighting Mobile as the city where Mardi Gras originated in the U.S. in an effort to grab more of the tourist dollars that flow through the region each year when Mardi Gras rolls around.

While historians and city leaders in New Orleans say they wish Mobile well, they aren't certain about that city's claim.

"It just isn't true," said Errol Laborde, editor of New Orleans Magazine and a Mardi Gras history buff.

Simply put, the Gulf Coast traditions of wearing masks, parading and having mystic societies began in Mobile, but the early 1800s-era celebrations were held for the new year and not during the traditional Carnival season, Laborde said.

"In Mobile, it really wasn't Mardi Gras," Laborde said.

Parades celebrating pre-Lenten weeks began in New Orleans in 1857, he said. The parades were influenced by the mystic societies and masked celebrations that were held in Mobile, but the New Orleans parades were the first Carnival celebrations along the Gulf Coast, he said.

Mobile revelers disagree.

"I think most New Orleans people grudgingly accept that Mobile is the birthplace of Mardi Gras," said Steve Joynt, editor of Mobile Mask — a magazine and website devoted to all things Mardi Gras in Mobile. Joynt said the Mardi Gras traditions began in Mobile and were spread by people from Mobile to New Orleans.

"There has been back and forth on the topic for years, all of it good natured. It is interesting that this year the mayor put a billboard on Interstate 10 so that people headed to New Orleans would see it," Joynt said.

What isn't in dispute is the huge economic infusion Mardi Gras brings to the region. The celebrations have an economic impact of about $400 million a year in Orleans Parish alone, said Mark Romig, president of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing corporation. He said New Orleans officials do not begrudge Mobile for playing up its Mardi Gras roots to capture a bit more of the Mardi Gras pie.

"We wish them well. We know they have a strong history of Mardi Gras," he said.

Carnival is an ancient tradition known to have been celebrated by the French in the 1700s when they settled first in Mobile and subsequently in New Orleans.

Mardi Gras draws bigger crowds in New Orleans, but it is an equally important local tradition in Mobile, Susan Blanchard-Rak, director of marketing for the Mobile Chamber of Commerce. For the first time, total attendance at the city's Mardi Gras parades topped 1 million in 2014 and bigger numbers are expected for 2015. Blanchard-Rak and other Mobile officials promote Mobile Mardi Gras as a more family friendly.

Mobile native Brenda Knight and her family arrived two hours early for the Krewe of the Mystic Stripers Parade in downtown Mobile Thursday night. The group had folding chairs, snacks and empty bags to collect the moon pies, beads, hula hoops and other goodies thrown from the floats.

Knight, 65, said her ancestors participated in parades in the city and that she has no doubt Mardi Gras originated in Mobile.

"We have four generations out here tonight and we all love every minute of Mardi Gras," she said.

Fellow Mobile native Dian McKenzie, who parades with another Mardi Gras krewe, also waited for the Thursday night parade to begin.

"Of course Mobile is the birthplace of Mardi Gras," she said. "Everyone from here knows that from the time they are little kid."