The Krewe of O.A.K. will celebrate its 30th year as it hits the sweltering Uptown streets with its annual Mid-Summer Mardi Gras parade on August 27. What began as a modest Carrollton neighborhood bar crawl has mushroomed into a procession of more than 10,000 costumed marchers.
The krewe's title, O.A.K., refers to the name of the narrow street where the parade begins, but it is also an acronym for "outrageous and kinky." So the steaminess of the march isn't entirely atmospheric.
"Let's say we're not a family event," said the Krewe of O.A.K. captain Jamie Bernstein. "We always like to imbue our theme with a double entendre."
The past themes that Bernstein could recall off the top of his head included "Rub It All Over Your Body," "Spawn Stars," and "Tie Dye Me Up."
The 30th anniversary theme is "Get Wet." Bernstein, who is a musician by trade, will reign as the parade's king Robustus XXX this year. In keeping with the theme, he plans to dress more or less like Poseidon. Cara-Mia Noto, the manager of Jacques-Imo's restaurant, will reign as queen.
As in years past, the 2016 parade will feature some of the city's favorite dance troupes and marching clubs, including: Tap Dat, the Organ Grinders, the Muff-a-lottas, and the Disco Amigos. Like last year, a contingent of the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus will join the march. Though there may be a few small, human-powered floats, O.A.K. is mostly a foot parade.
Costumes vary from the elaborate to the minimal. "Since it's summertime, people have little regard for clothes," Bernstein said. Some of the marchers are "skin-clad," he said.
Bernstein said that the krewe has been around for three decades, but the truth is, he's not certain of the year the first Mid-Summer Mardi Gras parade took place.
"Like most of the O.A.K. lore," he said, "it's shrouded in mystery and misinformation."
Whenever the tradition first began, Hank Staples, the proprietor of the Maple Leaf Bar was there.
Staples said that even before O.A.K. took to the streets as a marching organization, there was a sort of neighborhood Mid-Summer Mardi Gras celebration to break up the sweaty doldrums. Back then, friends in the Carrollton area took turns hosting an opposite-season Carnival-style party at their homes.
The trouble was, Staples said, couches and carpets always seemed to become casualties of the gatherings. The parties "caused such disaster and havoc that no one would have one twice," he explained.
In Staple's telling, it was Terri Tucker, a beloved Maple Leaf bartender and one-time queen of the Moms Ball, who suggested neighbors meet up and wander en masse from neighborhood bar to neighborhood bar. Thus, the Mid-Summer Mardi Gras parade was born.
Staples said there were only 40 participants, more or less, in the first rabble that puddle jumped from the Maple Leaf to Carrollton Station, to Snake and Jake's Christmas Club Lounge, Cooter Brown's, Madigan's, Bruno's, and other stops. But it didn't take long for word to spread, and the crawl grew to include hundreds and then thousands of marchers.
Despite dire storm and flood warnings, the Krewe of O.A.K. Mid-Summer Mardi Gras parade set out on the usual route in 2005. Though nothing else about the Saturday before the Monday that Hurricane Katrina made landfall was usual. Most New Orleans residents had already evacuated, Staples said, but roughly 300 paraders still turned out for the march. Which, he said, "was quite a crowd, considering the impending apocalypse."
Being the last parade before Katrina has become one of the Krewe of O.A.K.'s claims to fame.
Like the city itself, the Krewe of O.A.K.'s August parade took years to bounce back after the storm and flood. But it eventually reached and exceeded its pre-K size.
Post-K parades routinely filled the roughly 15-block route, breaking into slow-moving segments and bringing traffic to a standstill. To streamline matters, the krewe adopted a simpler, swifter trek four years ago.
The sweaty procession assembles, as it always has, at 7 p.m. at the Maple Leaf Bar, 8316 Oak Street. At 8 p.m. it heads downtown to S. Carrollton Avenue, where it turns left and continues to Palmer Park at the intersection of S. Claiborne Ave. A party in the park continues into the night.
"Even when it's blistering hot, it's a lot of fun," Staples said, explaining the three-decade persistence of the event. "It's Mardi Gras silliness in the worst time of year."
Not satisfied with merely one parade per year, The Krewe of O.A.K. also annually parades on the Friday before Mardi Gras.