This Year’s Mardi Gras Turns New Orleans Into a Literal House Party

Take a pic with Big Freedia.

The Queen Diva herself is now the Grand Marshal of the Krewe of House Floats | Erika Goldring/Getty Images Entertainment
The Queen Diva herself is now the Grand Marshal of the Krewe of House Floats | Erika Goldring/Getty Images Entertainment

In a typical year, the air in New Orleans would be abuzz with activity. Parade organizers called krewes, with their armies of artists and engineers, would be putting the final glittery flourishes on their fanciful Mardi Gras floats. Marching clubs and dance troupes would be polishing their moves and costumes: The Alter Ego steppers combing out their purple wigs, as the Beyjorettes get manicures to make the “Single Ladies” dance pop, and the Krewe of Rolling Elvi grease both their wigs and scooters. 

But dreams of a regular Carnival were officially dashed last year on November 17, when the city’s mayor announced that, like so many iconic events around the world, the coronavirus had put a halt to perhaps the most famous parade in America.

But New Orleans isn’t a city to take disaster lying down, especially when a giant party is involved. Shortly after the cancelation, Megan Boudreaux put an idea out to her neighbors: Instead of mobile parade floats, why not decorate houses? Thus was born the Krewe of House Floats, embracing the philosophy, “It’s Mardi Gras but for houses, so you don’t get sick!”

A long neck means more room for beads | Suzanne C. Grim/Shutterstock

New Orleans has been transformed into a sprawling outdoor art museum with a range of diverse focal points. There’s the gigantic octopus breaking out of the End of the World house on Memphis Street, and a down-home house float paying tribute to Queen of Creole Cuisine Leah Chase of Dooky Chase’s. You’ll find clowns and well-coiffed dinosaurs, mystical unicorns, and the inevitable Bernie, all meticulously crafted with love. And if you're not in New Orleans to see these beauties in person, you can peruse them on Instagram.

It’s a welcome creative outlet for something that is deep in the city's blood. “People get pretty excited about Mardi Gras,” says artist Maddie Stratton. “You just see everybody’s personality come out.”

Night time is the right time... for giraffes | Suzanne C. Grim/Shutterstock

The so-called Yardi Gras doubles as a way to keep the Mardi Gras economy humming: Many builders, artists, and musicians are back to work. Seeing the opportunity to pair house owners with float artists, The Krewe of Red Beans launched the Hire a Mardi Gras artist program: Homeowners can spring for a full $15,000 for materials, artists, and musicians to play ribbon-cutting ceremonies, or donate any amount and be entered in a lottery to get their house decorated once a $15,000 pot is hit.

It’s also bringing people into the fold who previously didn’t participate in floats, and in some cases saving ailing businesses. When Jazz Fest was canceled, family-owned decorations company Stronghold Studios found itself without its most dependable revenue stream. Owner Coco Darrow listed Stronghold as a resource on the Krewe of House Floats Facebook page, thinking maybe one or two people would need assistance and turn to them for help.

“I posted our website, and some examples of our work, and people just kept calling. And kept calling more, and kept calling more,” she said.

These two would probably be friends | Courtesy of Stronghold Studios

In January, Darrow realized she needed help to complete all the requests and called some artists who used to work with them on Jazz Fest. One of those extra hands was Stratton, who had never worked on a Mardi Gras float before. Through Stronghold, she ended up painting one of the most famous house float attractions.

“This pediatric anesthesiologist named Serena wanted to do a Big Freedia house,” says Darrow, referring to the acclaimed New Orleans bounce musician who was also named the Grand Marshal of the Krewe of House Floats. Stronghold designed an 8-foot Big Freedia cutout painted by Stratton that looks out from the porch of the Queen of Bounce House. 

“Now it’s like famous!” says Darrow. “Big Freedia’s been over to visit twice. The house has its own Instagram account.” 

For Stratton, the appeal of the house floats isn’t the big names—though the Freedia thing was cool, and she did have fun with painting cutouts of the Golden Girls—but the void in the sense of community that the houses have filled. “It’s kind of great to go down a side street to see some house float that someone and their kids have made,” she says. “There’s houses like that style where they look like floats, which is really beautiful. And then there’s the DIY ones, and there’s people who just have metallic fringe all over. You just see people having fun with it. I feel like there’s just this need for joy right now.”

It's five o'clock somewhere indeed | Suzanne C. Grim/Shutterstock

Boudreaux is now the captain of more than 3,000 decorated homes all over the country—and even some overseas—gussied up by homesick Louisiana expats.

There’s the NOLA Angels in York and the House of Matherne in Luxemburg. There’s even a house float in Abu Dhabi, the “Flat of the Masked Camels.” They’ve just decorated an apartment door, but it’s the intention that counts. 

It’s all a testament to the spirit of the city, and the creativity that lives there and beyond. When New Orleans is challenged, the city doesn’t just rise to the occasion. It births new traditions.

“New Orleans is kind of just like that a lot of the times,” says Stratton. “We get what we get, so we kinda just go with it.”

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. Y'all get back now