Shorter season softens impact

by Lynn Lofton

Published: February 4,2008

The weeks leading up to Mardi Gras are more than revelry and fun for many Mississippians. The carnival season has an economic impact along the Coast where the tradition of parades, balls and parties is vital. The season began January 6, and Mardi Gras — Fat Tuesday — is February 5 this year, a scant four weeks for bead sellers, bakers and gown makers to ply their wares.

“Yes, the short season has had several effects — some I just hear of and some I see myself,” said Tex Locklar, who, with his wife and son, owns Josette’s, a costume enterprise in Biloxi. “We have less time to give people what they want. There’s always a lot of special ordering and also those people who come in at the last minute.”

The business has been a staple on the Coast since 1972 and carries a full range of ready-made costumes plus a line of fabric and trims for custom-made costumes and ball gowns. Including the three family members, Josette’s has 21 employees. Costumes for float riders can cost as little as $24.98, but the average runs $50 to $60. Gowns and costumes for members of the various courts of the krewes (clubs that stage balls and parades) can run thousands of dollars.

Carter Church of Bay St. Louis has been designing and making Mardi Gras gowns and costumes for 49 years for clients in Mississippi and Louisiana. He says the average range for king and queen’s attire is $4,500 to $5,000.

“The rhinestones and fabric are very expensive,” he said. “I call it an obscene form of obsolescence because most of these creations will be worn twice and then go to the attic.”
For him the short season has definitely made a difference. With less time to schedule the elaborate balls and fewer places to have them on the post-Katrina Coast, some clubs are not having balls this year.

“Some of them have changed their dates so there are four balls some weekends. A lot of clubs are suffering financial problems and have lost members. With some people still displaced, it’s hard to get them in for fittings,” he said. “It’s hectic.”

It’s the second time in his Mardi Gras career that Church has seen cutbacks due to a natural disaster. He remembers when the same thing happened following Hurricane Camille. Even if the celebrations are scaled back, he thinks it’s good to carry on the tradition.

“It’s a sign that things are coming back. It’s very much a part of the tradition here, and people need that normalcy,” he said. “I’m glad to see it continue even though changes are occurring.”

Locklar, too, says that Mardi Gras is not back to what it used to be in the area with some Biloxi krewes forgoing a ball or parade this year.

The sale of beads to throw from parade floats is brisk at Carnival and School Supplies in Gulfport. Orders for the company’s Moss Point and Hattiesburg stores are also processed through the Gulfport location.

“Sales have pretty much stayed the same, but the short season so close to Christmas makes it hard on us to get things processed and on the floor,” said Assistant Manager Sharon Savage. “It’s a rapid, fast-paced two or three weeks prior to Fat Tuesday, although Mardi Gras supplies stay out year round.”

Members and guests of krewes who ride on floats are responsible for buying their own beads to toss to the crowds. That means some revelers are bargain shoppers, yet can still spend hundreds of dollars.

“Beads are getting more expensive, and people expect nicer beads now. Some krewes have stipulations on the size of beads and the number of cases riders must have to participate in a parade,” Savage said. “Some of the specialty beads with medallions are $7.65 for a pack of three pieces. That’s why riders give them only to special people along the parade route.”

Sales are also robust at Electrik Maid Bake Shop in Biloxi where head baker Nona Balius’ late husband, Clark, started making king cakes in the shape of alligators in the early 1980s. “We’re the only bakery that does an alligator cake and it’s real popular,” she said. “We also do a lot of regular shaped small and large king cakes.”

Sharing king cakes with family, co-workers and friends is a tasty part of the season. A small plastic baby is tucked inside the cake, and the person who finds it must buy the next king cake.

“We make 10 to 15 king cakes in the shop every day. It’s made like a coffee cake and can be customized with different fillings,” Balius said. “We’ll still be selling them on Fat Tuesday, but the Monday before will be our biggest day.”

The bakery started in 1924 and has been owned by the Balius family since 1954. Nona Balius’ son, Harrel, owns it now. She says sales are good, but they never know what to expect each year.

“We usually have almost an extra month of sales, even if Mardi Gras is at the end of February,” she said. “This is one of the earliest times we have had it.”

Susan Oustalet owns the Gift Gallery in Gulfport where there are numerous items with the Mardi Gras theme, things suitable for the gifts exchanged between members of the courts.

“Business is slow this year compared to other years,” she said. “The recovery from Katrina has nothing to do with it. We have only 35 days in the season this year. It’s on top of Christmas — we didn’t have time to get over Christmas. When we had our after-Christmas sale, people were looking for Mardi Gras items.”

Mardi Gras can be good for tourism, too, although the Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) has no way of knowing how many rooms are booked specifically for the celebration.

“We do not have specific numbers for Mardi Gras, but do see a spike in the number of visitors during the season,” said Janice Jones, media relations manager for the CVB. “Bookings are always good and attractions report that they are busy. We know the Mardi Gras connection is there.”

Hotels and motels get additional room interest for the season, too, mostly concentrated around the last weekend and on Fat Tuesday, according to Linda Hornsby, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Motel & Hotel Association.

“We’re seeing some business from Mardi Gras, but it’s not back to where it was before the storm,” she said. “I think people know we’re open for business and want them to come.”

The area’s room inventory is now around 11,000 with two properties located across from the Gulfport-Biloxi Airport scheduled to add an additional 250 rooms soon.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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