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‘Too krewel for school’: Wash. U. students march in Mardi Gras parade
The things they carried ranged from two $40 cases of beads to a 30-pack of Budweiser. And for around a dozen Washington University students, the burden came with the added benefit of marching in the 2014 Soulard Mardi Gras parade Saturday morning.
Senior Bryce Caster marched in the parade for the first time in 2012 when he walked up to some guys in the parade and asked to join in. In 2013, he invited his friend, recent graduate Andrew Hess, to join the Gateway Precision Lawn Chair Krewe, a group of men doing synchronized dances with lawn chairs.
But when the Krewe informed the pair that they would not be invited back because of missed team practices and late financial dues, Caster and Hess took matters into their own hands and decided to form a walking krewe of their own.
“We just looked it up on the website and were like, ‘Wow, this is actually doable,’ both financially and logistically,” Caster said.
“It really isn’t exclusive or anything. Anyone can apply for one, and we just emailed the guy, and he said, ‘Sure,’” Hess said.
The theme for this year’s parade was “250 Cheers for St. Louis,” so Caster and Hess decided to honor the city’s universities and named their group “Celebrating Higher Education in St. Louis.”
“We’re all students. It’s our background, and that’s the most we have to offer regarding St. Louis history,” Hess said.
When the theme was approved, they got to work contacting the various universities in the area. In the end, only four were represented.
Saint Louis University donated its mascot, the Billiken, which charged up and down the line giving out high-fives and posing for pictures. Harris-Stowe State University was represented by the Honeycombs, a dance group that marched at the front of the krewe. Washington University students clad in University apparel brought up the rear of the procession, waving flags for Wash. U. and SLU and tossing beads to the crowd, while Fontbonne University was represented by a Wash. U. student wearing a purple Fontbonne T-shirt.
According to the students who marched, the SLU contributions were much more popular to the drunken throngs than those from Wash. U.
“People would have hated us if we [only had Wash. U.],” senior Connie Shao said. “They hated me when I was wearing my Wash. U. sweater, but when I was carrying the SLU flag, they were like, ‘Oh, Billikens forever! I went to SLU!’ But when I was just wearing my Wash. U. sweater, they were like, ‘Oh f— you! Get out of here!’”
The SLU mascot hadn’t been confirmed until three weeks after initial contact and just days before the actual parade. University officials at Wash. U., Fontbonne and the University of Missouri-St. Louis were unresponsive, but Hess received an email one day from an administrator at SLU who said he had set it all up.
On top of difficulties getting hold of mascots, Hess said the group had trouble finding students interested in marching in the first place.
“A couple other people I invited were like, ‘In the parade? What would I do? Am I cut out for that?’” Hess said.
“We had a bunch of people who didn’t want to do it. They were like, ‘I want to do Mardi Gras with my friends.’ This is the first thing that happens, and the rest of Mardi Gras happens afterwards,” Caster said.
Shao, on the other hand, needed no convincing. She had never been to Mardi Gras before and just wanted to have a good time.
“I’m really good friends with Andrew [Hess] and Bryce [Caster]…this was second semester senior year, and I was like, ‘Why not?’” Shao said. “I’m sure for some people, it was just another of [Hess and Caster]’s crazy adventures. But for me, I just wanted to join in on one of their adventures.”
Everything came together in the end, and around a dozen students met up to begin preparations at 8 a.m. Saturday morning. The krewe was feeling generous, giving beads to anyone who boarded their MetroLink carriage as well as the MetroLink transit officer missing out on festivities because of work at the Skinker station.
Meeting diverse St. Louis figures from professional sports mascots to the Budweiser Clydesdales, the students spent about two hours mingling before the start of the parade. They collected shot glasses from the conductors of a giant steam engine, posed for pictures in souped-up go-karts, waved miniature Italian flags courtesy of the float representing the Hill and even learned the “Polar Vortex” lawn chair dance that Caster and Hess’s old krewe had created for the parade.
Once the parade started, the screams for beads became overwhelming. Armed with nearly 1,500 beads, the students were undeterred, making the crowd beg. Some spun the beads like a lasso, others motioned with their arms for the crowd to make more noise and a few made motions for people to lift their tops.
“I’m just glad we were able to pump people up, being like, ‘I can’t hear you’ and teasing them with beads. That was really fun,” Shao said.
“Just being able to interact with them was great. The high-fives, the screaming, the beads,” Caster said.
“They’ll do anything for beads,” Hess added.
For the students, one of the best parts of the whole experience was running into their friends who were incredulous at their participation in the march.
“At least everyone was able to recognize a St. Louis school, but a lot of us got a lot of Facebook tags of people seeing us because of the flag,” Hess said.
The krewe was not named as one of the top five for the year’s parade, in part because the wagon Hess purchased on Craigslist to carry extra beads and beer broke down right in front of the judges’ table. Despite the misfortune, all participants enjoyed the festivities and their roles.
“That was one of my favorite parts, after the wagon broke down, because I was carrying the 30-rack of beer. Occasionally, I would lift it up like Simba [in ‘The Lion King’] and everyone would start cheering,” Caster said.
If anything, the group has inspired other Wash. U. students to try to start their own krewe for next year’s parade.
“I was on the Metro going back with some [resident advisors] who were like, ‘We should do a float with RAs next year,’” Shao said. “They were like, ‘We’re going to carry around a red flag and ask people if their parties are registered.’ I just thought that was so funny.”
Caster is a senior this year, and Hess graduated in December and was only visiting for the week. Nevertheless, the krewe featured some underclassmen, namely freshman Elise Hess—Andrew’s younger sister—and sophomore Julie Rub, who are looking to continue the tradition. Caster, Andrew Hess and Shao are already planning to return to march in next year’s parade.
“I came back for Mardi Gras, basically, and it was definitely worth coming back for. For the next couple years, we can use our new recruiting chairs, Julie [Rub] and Elise [Hess],” Andrew Hess said. “After that, we’ll figure it out, but in the meantime, we have some people who are younger and would like to do it again.”
The memory is one the krewe will not easily forget.
“You have thousands of people screaming you on, cheering for you…It was so great; I’ve never felt more like a celebrity in my life,” Shao said. “At one point, I remember Andrew [Hess] turning to me and saying, ‘Isn’t this the best?’”