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Editor's note: During the paper's observance this month, past and present newsroom journalists will share their up-close and personal recollections of past events. Today's "We Were There" article is written byMobile County , who started in the Press-Register's magazine division -- editing publications such as Bay Family, Current and Zalea -- before working as a reporter and photographer for the Mississippi Press and Press-Register. Look for more familiar bylines as our "200 in 20" series on Mobile's past 200 years continues.
Itwas dark throughout most of thesix years ago when I fully crossed the barricade of observation and stepped through the veil of time.
My mission was to identify a couple of good locations within the mansion to shoot cuisine created solely for the Press-Register s new lifestyle magazine, Zalea. And as an editor -- a title that by day s end would be joined by the likes of photographer, food stylist and pack mule -- I was trusted with the keys to the museum and found myself alone.
Well, not truly alone, for such is impossible when surrounded by the symbols and spirits that continue to inspire the mirth that shakes the streets with Carnival vigor to this day. It was a far cry from my first visit to the Bernstein-Bush house at Government and Franklin streets, but on that cool December day I learned something new: When the museum s very quiet, you can hear the whispers of those spirits in every room.Press-Register Reporter Michael Dumas, who started in the Press-Register's magazine division before working as a reporter and photographer for the Mississippi Press and Press-Register, covers the Mobile County beat as well as other assignments. A veteran of Mardi Gras participation and coverage, he shares his memories of his favorite season of the year in today's "We Were There" column.(Press-Register photo)
I didn t know it then, but my years with Zalea -- especially helping compile our annual Mardi Gras issues -- were evolutionary steps in my lifelong love of Mobile s penultimate holiday. Those days served as the spring harvest of seeds planted when I was a boy, learning to scrap for beads and Moon Pies underfoot in the gutters of downtown.
In the silence of the Carnival Museum, among the artifacts of Strikers, Comic Cowboys and crystalline Elixis, I left my adolescent appreciation of Mardi Gras behind and fully embraced the manhood of mirth and misrule.
During those years, I learned a fundamental truth about Carnival: that while it may be celebrated en masse, it is brought to bear each year on the shoulders of artists of every ilk, whose muses live in the boughs of oaks as old as America.
One such ambassador, with whom I had the pleasure of working alongside for almost three years, was Chef Vincent Henderson. It was his unique, and historical, cuisine I was there to photograph that December day in 2007, just as it was his creations that would be captured on the cover of Zalea s second Mardi Gras issue, in 2009.
Vince, who has spent decades preparing feasts for plain folk and dignitaries alike, also creates lavish decorations for Mardi Gras celebrations sponsored by both Carnival associations: the which runs the museum, and the. More than any other person I ve met while at the Press-Register, he has illuminated the holiday for me in such a personal way that it has become entwined in my DNA.
Who else would decorate a grand hall at the behest of a parading society, only to show up hours later painted gold from head to toe, ready to dance the night away in platform heels and angel wings?
I had no choice but to respect anyone who would spend days, even weeks, preparing for something they could then enjoy with the singular wonder of a child, wide-eyed and smiling. And there are so many others like Vince Henderson that I have been honored to know and report on in my years at the newspaper, and within its magazine division.
Another great pleasure came in the realm of royalty, as I had the pleasure of profiling several Mobilians responsible for the luxuriant costumes that drape the kings and queens of the MCA and MAMGA. Combined, Peggy Birch, Pat Richardson and Ron Barrett have been responsible for wrapping countless monarchs in lush fur and bathing their young faces in the soft glow reflected through the prisms of Swarovski crystals.
Himself a legendary multi-tasker, Barrett is one of the few individuals in the city s Mardi Gras history to be able to costume a queen one day and have her star in a tableau of his design the next. And all while maintaining a pleasant grin that belies the amount of chaos he reins in on a regular basis as part of his craft.
In my years hoisting pen, pad and camera for Carnival, it s become very clear that for every thousand revelers jumping and screaming on either side of the curb come parade night, there is a single Ron Barrett or Vince Henderson sweating out the details and making magic happen for all - or only a select few - to see.
And that brings me to the crowds; the great, undulating reasons for the season.
In this new world hybrid of print/digital storytelling, we re all expected to be flexible, which is why I found myself working for the daily newspaper after several years of magazine work. And as a daily producer, I ve done everything from cops to courts to schools and health. But my first love is entertainment, and there s little more entertaining in the bay area than Mardi Gras.
As one of the reporters and photographers contributing to the myriad Behind the Barricades parade snapshots each year, I ve come to appreciate my former role as a mystic audience member from a different perspective.
As a kid, the fun was always measured in bags whose hemlines strained under the weight of molded plastic and junk food, serpentine and Silly String. But as an observer, I realized early on that for many in the community, Mardi Gras is a family reunion, both literally and figuratively.
Like my own in decades past, many Mobile-area families see more of each other in the three weeks of the pre-Lenten season than they do during any other like period during the year. Some do it with the next generation perched high on their shoulders, screaming for souvenirs, while others rest knees in folding chairs and talk about how it used to be when Vernadean could blow true dragon fire from the head of the Mystics of Time parade.
And I know I haven t seen it all, but rare is the parade I ve covered where the result was disappointment, rather than elation. And I can honestly say I ve been offered more libations covering Mardi Gras than any other event, which is saying a lot, considering the blossom of football season each year.
Mardi Gras is more than an occurrence, it is a mindset.
Its motto is laissez les bon temps roulez, which translates to let the good times roll; and not down the street, mind you, but off the tongue.
It is so much more a holiday of spirit, than one of logistics and calendar dates. Which is why Christmas trees in midtown often become Mardi Gras trees in February. It sure isn t because the trees stay fresh so much longer than they do in the North.
As I learned in elementary school, all you need to have a parade is a bicycle, and a Radio Flyer wagon to pull behind it as you effort to give a little back.
And as I learned working at the Press-Register as a grown-up, all you need to do to enjoy Mardi Gras is have a love of community, color and the mettle to make a memory - whether it lasts a second or ends up hanging in a museum, whispering to the future.
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