Only 3 years old, Krewe of Calypseaux is a relative newcomer to Soulard Mardi Gras. It has no artists among its ranks, no reputation among its rivals and no trophies to call its own. But its float does have an indoor potty.
"People love the potty," said founder Ron Woerndle, aka Captain Ron. "When we show this to possible members, they're always really impressed. Everyone else has to have a porta-potty on their float. They're supposed to be decorated, but they stick out like a sore thumb."
Once a 70-foot singlewide mobile home, the krewe's float boasts electrical outlets for Crock-Pots of jambalaya, and plenty of counter space and cup holders for hurricanes. But Woerndle and his fellow krewe members are no longer content just to travel the one-mile Mardi Gras Grand Parade route in booze- and pork-fueled comfort. They're out to win.
"We're stepping it up this year," Woerndle said. "It is all about the fun, but it would be nice to beat them."
Anyone who has attended the Soulard Mardi Gras Grand Parade knows whom Woerndle means by "them": the Mystic Knights of the Purple Haze. While many Mardi Gras floats are no more than so-called "party barges" — flatbed trucks loaded with drunken revelers — the Mystic Knights consistently test the boundaries of creativity and engineering.
They are one of about 100 krewes of friends, neighbors and co-workers that will participate in Saturday's march. The parade kicks off a day of booze, Cajun food, live music and people-watching. The party continues Tuesday for the Fat Tuesday Parade along Washington Avenue.
Joe Napolitano, who runs the Calypseaux Krewe's sound system, says Mardi Gras is best celebrated atop a float.
"I've done it both ways, and joining a krewe is so much fun," Napolitano said. "It's nice not having to spend time waiting in line for the porta-potty."
The Krewe of Calypseaux has spent about $7,000 this year on its float and costumes. Members purchased two small motors for $1,000 to power a spinning sun and installed air guns to shoot beads. Speaking of beads, Calypseaux's are longer, heavier and fancier than those tossed by most krewes.
"People appreciate them. They really go nuts," Woerndle said. "During the Soulard parade, a lot of people will throw your beads back at you. We don't have people throw our beads back."
In honor of the parade's 33 years, this year's theme is "famous trios." Spectators can expect to see floats that celebrate ZZ Top; sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll; Huey, Louie and Dewey; and tequila, lime and salt.
Calypseaux met at a local bar in October and agreed on the concept of "Sun, Sand and Surf." Since then, they've met every weekend in a rented St. Charles warehouse to wire, paint and pound.
"Everybody has a few talents. Some people don't have talent," Woerndle said, winking at a pal.
Woerndle is a handyman by trade. He's constantly trolling resale shops and auctions for supplies. Most of the float is constructed from scrap plywood; the "sea" lapping the base is made of old table skirts. He just picked up some used flexible air ducts; for what, he has no idea. He found the krewe's mascots, two mermaids, at an Arkansas antique store.
"I said, ‘I need those,' " Woerndle said. "And the lady goes, ‘Oh yeah, I've sold those to about 10 guys and then their wives see it and say, ‘Not in my house you don't.' I said, ‘My wife will.' I brought her in and she said, ‘Yes, I want them, we're taking them now.' "
Woerndle was introduced to Mardi Gras in 2007 when his wife, Valerie Woerndle, was transferred to Shreveport, La. There the couple joined the Krewe of Centaur, a historic krewe of 700 members, and embraced the pageantry, balls and multiple parades. When the Woerndles moved back to St. Louis about three years ago, they attended their first Soulard Mardi Gras and decided to start their own krewe.
"When we came up here and saw the party barges and people putting together their floats that day in the parking lot we said, ‘Oh yeah, we can do better,' " Woerndle said.
Not that they did. The krewe's first two floats — a pirate ship and a tribute to Route 66 — were solid if not groundbreaking. Valerie Woerndle says members learned a lot from those attempts.
"For Route 66, I was wearing roller skates which, of course, no one could see," she said.
On Saturday, a rotating panel of 12 local celebrities will judge krewes on their costumes, creativity and themes. Parade chairwoman Meegan Whitehead says the best floats are moving works of art.
"There are three types of krewes in this parade," explained Whitehead. "There are those that are krewes in the traditional New Orleans sense on the word, who fund raise all year to create a something special with molding and moving parts. Then there are groups of friends and family who love parades and dressing up and pull together a float that day in the parking lot. And then we have people who want to advertise their business. It's obvious from the viewing stand which is which."
Krewes are expected to offer the judges "bribes," such a performing a song or giving a gift of a king cake. The Krewe of Calypseaux is giving away beach balls. Whitehead instituted the bribe system as a safety measure. Really.
"It's not essential but it's stopped the pelting," said Whitehead. "I've told krewes, ‘If you throw beads at judges, you are not getting votes.'"
First prize changes from year to year, but averages about $500. That's almost as much as it costs to enter the parade. The Krewe of the Calypseaux, which has about 65 members, raises money from bead sales and dues, which range from $35 to $85. Ultimately, the krewe would like to attract corporate sponsors and perhaps add more floats and members to its fleet. Meanwhile Woerndle is always recruiting.
"We'll even poach members from other krewes," said Woerndle with a laugh.
Krewe member Steve McMullen is one of those newcomers who joined after his former krewe disbanded. On a recent chilly Saturday, he decided to paint the spare compressed air tank like a buoy. He suggested painting one half white, the other half orange.
"I don't care," Woerndle said. "You can make it as complicated or as simple as you want."
"OK, I'll start off easy," McMullen said.
Woerndle said, "Basically, our philosophy is we're moving, they're drunk. They really only see the float for 30 seconds. You don't have to overthink it to make an impression."
River City Casino Grand Parade
When 11 a.m. Saturday • Where Parade begins at Busch Stadium, ends at Anheuser-Busch • How much Free • More info mardigrasinc.com, twitter.com/STLmardigras
Lumière Place Light Up the Night Fat Tuesday Parade
When 7 p.m. Tuesday • Where Parade begins at Washington Avenue and Broadway • How much Free • More info mardigrasinc.com, twitter.com/STLmardigras