MOBILE, ALA. Revelers to chase worries away at Mardis Gras

Many people plan to get away from concerns about the economy and threat of war by partying in the city where some say this country's Mardi Gras all began.
MOBILE, Ala. (AP) -- An economic crunch and threats of war with Iraq haven't altered preparations for Mardi Gras in Mobile, which some historians say is where the masked cavorting began in the United States in the 1700s.
If anything, carnival veterans say the whoops and hollers may be louder this year as people shout away apprehensions -- or try to drown their sorrows in the festive happenings.
Chuck Cuff, outgoing president of the Mobile Area Hotel and Motel Association, says reservations for the area's 5,000 rooms are comparable to last year's.
"We thought last year, after 9/11, they would be down, but there were very good numbers -- up over the previous year," Cuff says. "I think people want to use Mardi Gras as their relief valve."
For veteran reveler Monteen Lucky, 52, who lost her job when International Paper closed its mill, carnival is a time to "do a little celebrating," even on a tighter budget.
"I just love Mardi Gras," says Lucky, whose birthday Feb. 28, the Friday before Fat Tuesday, is another reason to get together with family and friends. She'll decorate her home in purple, green and gold, the official colors of Mardi Gras.
Lucky commented while pushing a shopping cart through Accent Annex, a retailer with nearly everything Mardi Gras.
Still spending
Store manager Carol Henson says shoppers have cut back on purchases because of the dip in the economy, but they're still spending about $150-$200 per person on beads, doubloons, costumes and throws -- items thrown from floats to the hordes of parade-goers.
A few years ago, that spending level was higher.
"If they're throwing 20 percent less off the floats, who's going to notice?" asked downtown restaurant owner Mead Miller, bracing for the boisterous crowds. A lot of the beads and other stuff tossed to the crowds are recycled from previous parades anyway, he says.
While New Orleans hosts the biggest and best-known Mardi Gras bash, thousands of visitors converge from all parts of the country to attend Mardi Gras balls in this 300-year-old port city, too.
The attractions aren't only on the streets and at backyard parties. In keeping with the season, the Museum of Mobile is exhibiting costumes from carnival royalty as well as those of float riders. There's also a display of crowns, tiaras, masks, scepters, jewelry and float designs.
"The balls are not really a major expense," Miller said. "Most people into them own their own suit. It might be a $100 night of dress-up, free food and free drinks. I don't think that's going to suffer."
It's the best two weeks of the year -- just before Mardi Gras -- in profits for hotels, restaurants and bars, Miller says, adding that only an attack on Iraq two days before Fat Tuesday could chill carnival turnout.
Parades start early
Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, falls on March 4 this year, but the schedule called for the first parades in this area to roll Feb. 1, on Dauphin Island south of Mobile, then spread like kudzu into the suburbs, with the first parades in Mobile on Friday. The frivolity is a fixture at a number of Gulf Coast cities, from Galveston, Texas, to the Florida coast, with New Orleans by far the largest carnival magnet for tourists.
Some local historians say carnival was born in Mobile among the French colonists in the 1700s, though it didn't really catch on until 1830. Mobile's legend of King Felix in the 1800s became so popular it was adopted by New Orleans, which called their monarch King Rex, according to these accounts.
Now there are krewes -- carnival organizations -- of every description.
Jana Fuller of Grand Bay plans to ride a float in three separate parades, including a new one in Bayou La Batre on Saturday.
Putting troubles aside
"It's a good year to forget," she says, referring to the threat of war with Iraq. "The kids need a reason to celebrate."
Carnival veterans Brenda Blocker of Mobile and her friend, Debbie Quimby of Laurel, Miss., agree.
"My kids are all grown up, so now I can really enjoy it," says Blocker, who says she never misses the parades and balls.
Edna Armstrong of Montgomery, who said she's never been to a Mardi Gras parade, visited Mobile to buy carnival items for her 9-year-old son. His fourth-grade class planned a project on carnival and she needed Mardi Gras items from Mobile where it all began.
"We don't have Mardi Gras in Montgomery. We should. It's a happening thing," she said.
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