Throughout history, kings have come to power through a variety of means, from parliamentary decree and birthright to assassination and political upheaval. But when it comes to the ruling heads of Mardi Gras, it's a somewhat sweeter path to the throne.
Take the case of Don McClure, a semiretired Houston lawyer and bond company owner who found himself holding the piece of cake that contained the exalted gold plastic baby at his very first event as a member of Galveston Mardi Gras's Z-Krewe. "I was shocked," he remembers now, as his reign comes to a close. "There must have been more than 150 people at the ceremony, and I only knew one of them. Then and all of a sudden, I'm their ruler!"
Float-riding fixtures of Mardi Gras parades that date back all the way to their origins in New Orleans, "krewes" are social groups that promote the festivities in the spring and do charitable works and host parties throughout the rest of the year. The Z-Krewe, which was formed in 1994, eschews a float in favor of horse-drawn carriages, marching bands and bagpipers. According to their Web site (www.zkrewe. com), a Z-Krewe Zanie is a "comic person given to extravagant or outlandish behavior." It's: "One who acts the buffoon to amuse others. A slavish follower. Having the characteristics of being absurdly ludicrous in style and dress!"
McClure, a.k.a. King Zanie V, fits the bill. When asked what his greatest accomplishments were during his yearlong reign, he skips over the charity pancake breakfast and pauses for some not-so-serious reflection. "Well, I never fell off a barstool drunk or slobbered on my clothes. I didn't have any scandals, no graft or corruption. And as a bachelor, I haven't been accused of any marital improprieties," he deadpans, before declaring confidently, "I willfinish my term without being indicted!"
Mardi Gras is, of course, a time for drink, corruption and impropriety, and it has been since second-century Rome, when the pre-Lenten festivities and feasts of Carnival helped ease the way from party-all-the-time paganism into the discipline of Christianity. Before giving up earthly pleasures for Lent, people went through a period of "voluntary madness" when they could feast, party and have sex in tribute to the gods of pleasure, Bacchus and Venus.
The tradition spread across Europe and South America, eventually taking on the name Mardi Gras, which is French for "Fat Tuesday." The first documented U.S. celebration took place on the streets of New Orleans in 1827 when a small group of college students recently returned from Paris dressed in bizarre masks and costumes and held an impromptu parade through the streets. Today, New Orleans' Mardi Gras is a major tourist attraction for people from all over the world. Closer to home, the Galveston Mardi Gras celebration -- with food, live music, parties and a general wild-in-the-streets attitude -- has proved a more convenient alternative for Houstonians.
Plus, Galveston's got the Z-Krewe, and they throw the best beads. In fact, it's not uncommon for a single member to spend more than $1,000 each year on the trinkets. McClure swears he tries to throw to as many "older ladies and children" as he can, but younger females are notorious for utilizing their, uh, natural assets in a more attention-grabbing manner. "Another fellow in my krewe taught me how to 'tease the beads for a flash,' " he says with a laugh, recalling last year's festivities. "I understand that it takes about two or three years to perfect the technique." And though the torch has been passed to another King Zanie, who will lead the Z-Krewe in parades on the island February 26 and March 4, McClure will be in a carriage, throwing out beads to Busty Dusty and Grandma Walton alike.
When faced with a final, tough, investigative-reporting question, the benevolent despot doesn't even flinch. Who parties the hardest: 2 Live Crew, Mötley Cr¨e or Z-Krewe? "Z-Krewe, of course!" Mardi Gras runs from Friday, February 25, through Tuesday, March 7. The Strand Entertainment District, between 25th and 21st streets on Strand and Mechanic, will be open Fridays from 7 p.m. to midnight and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to midnight. Call (888)GAL-ISLE for more information. $5-$15.