Royalty has nothing on her

Royalty has nothing on her

Marlene Gagnon, co-chair of this year’s Mardi Gras Ball and former owner of Harlequin’s costume shop, holds up a program and photo of the royal court from the first Mardi Gras Ball hosted by the Northern Rhode Island Council of the Arts in 1995. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)
Longtime Mardi Gras supporter reflects on festivities after 25 years

WOONSOCKET – Since 1995, the crowds in the state’s northern corner have known where to head for their Mardi Gras festivities. The Northern Rhode Island Council of the Arts’ annual Mardi Gras Ball, hosted every February, breaks up the winter doldrums in a colorful celebration of Cajun culture with a touch of French-Canadian flair. And Marlene Gagnon, the self-described “grandmother of Mardi Gras” and co-chair of this year’s event alongside St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center Board of Directors Chairman Wally Rathbun, has been a part of it from the start.

At least, close to the start. The annual event, now in its 25th year hosted by the Northern Rhode Island Council of the Arts, actually kicked off in the 1950s, when it enjoyed a brief but popular six-year run. Gagnon recalled the crowds associated with the early event, which included a pageant and parade along a bustling Main Street.

“They had these parades with huge floats. It was a four-day festival, they called it,” she said.

In 1995, the Northern Rhode Island Council of the Arts under the leadership of the late Paul “Jack” Lawhead revived the festival, bringing with it all the music, dancing and revelry typically associated with Mardi Gras in much larger cities. Crowds at the balls of the 90s and early 2000s party-hopped from one venue to the next, sometimes visiting as many as five Mardi Gras celebrations in one night. Local openers gave way to Zydeco bands from Louisiana as the evening went on, while a “children’s ball” took place earlier in the day. And unlike the events of the 1950s, which could be dispelled by a New England snowstorm, all the festivities took place inside and went on rain or shine.

“I can remember one year at the Bocce Club, we were in our gowns and our boots. We got up to the Bocce Club, (and) the band and the members were shoveling the walk,” recalled Gagnon.

In the early years, Gagnon’s involvement was mainly as the owner of Harlequin’s, the Main Street costume shop she operated from 1983 to 2014. Revelers at those early balls came to her for all their Mardi Gras needs, renting outfits for the balls and the themed events associated with the Mardi Gras Queen competition. The costumes, she said, were all handmade, a mark of the craftsmanship not often found in today’s big-box store creations.

Like the costumes, the event itself changed as the years went on. Faced with declining interest and the rising cost of bands in the mid-2000s, the number of venues crept down to one, with today’s celebrations hosted at St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center. But the event, said Gagnon, is making a comeback. Recent events have drawn participants from as far as Boston, and last year’s ball came close to selling out its 300 tickets. If the interest continues to go up, she said, the council may have to consider returning to a multi-venue event.

“That’s the thing, the younger generation are liking it,” she said. “We’ve had the younger people, and they come, and they have the best time of all.”

Another factor may be the decline of Mardi Gras celebrations in other parts of New England. The state’s other longstanding Mardi Gras celebration, a ball hosted at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet, is on hiatus this year, and organizers are hoping to draw new participants from other areas of the state. It’s a lot of work, said Gagnon, but the council’s volunteers are committed. Many of them grew up with Mardi Gras and participated as queens or attendees before joining the Mardi Gras Committee.

“The reason we stay in it, I think, it’s because we enjoy each other,” she said.

This year’s Mardi Gras Ball will take place on Saturday, Feb. 23, at St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center. Participants will enjoy a full buffet and music by Squeezebox Stompers and Jeff Gamache and Runaway Train. The queen of the Mardi Gras Ball will be crowned during a separate event at Savini’s Pomodoro restaurant on Friday, Feb. 15. The mysterious monarch, King Jace XXV, will also be unveiled that evening.

Individuals can purchase tickets for either event from queen contestants or by calling Lorraine Cloutier at 401-762-9072. Tickets for the Mardi Gras Ball can also be purchased online at www.stannartsandculturalcenter.org.

Madeline Riendeau, left, and Keith Morton, right, both of Woonsocket, came dressed for the occasion at a past Mardi Gras celebration. This year’s event is set for Saturday, Feb. 23, at the St. Ann’s Arts and Cultural Center in Woonsocket. (Breeze photo by Bill Murphy)