New Orleans is 1235 miles away from Williamsport. This weekend, that distance will be bridged when Williamsport transforms into the French Quarter for the sixteenth time. Center city will bustle with bead-tossing revelers, wild costumes, floats, a parade and even a gumbo cookoff.
Franco's Lounge's Maria Daniele has been there since the event's inception.
"This was the first event that led everyone to work together as a group," Daniele said. "It has really been successful because everyone is very well-respected and respects each other. We all get along well and enjoy each other's company so rather than a competitive atmosphere it's one of camaraderie."
Mardi Gras 2012 promises to be an exciting occasion that fills Billtown with the sights, sounds and smells of the Crescent City.
"We're teaming up gas companies with specific bars and restaurants [for a gumbo cookoff]," Daniele said. "They prepare the gumbo in the kitchen and take it out front of the establishment or leave it inside depending upon weather. They serve it for a $1. Each gas company chose their own charity. Whoever raises the most money wins. Everyone keeps their own money and gives it to the chosen charity. They also get a trophy that will get passed around from year to year. It's a great way to bring the oil and gas guys into the community."
The cookoff will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday at participating establishments.
"Last year it was based solely on how much money was raised," said Gumbo Cook-Off organizer Jason Matty of The Old Corner Pub. "It wasn't necessarily about who had the best Gumbo. This year we'll have five judges judging the Gumbo on five different criteria. Every venue is doing its own thing. But here, it's a $500 entry fee paid by the companies involved and that goes straight to our charity The American Cancer Society. Some of the businesses involved include: Blackhawk, Weatherford, Total Service Supply and Haliburton. We have seven different teams here on our patio."
As in past city Mardi Gras events, all establishments choose a king or queen candidate to represent them.
Each place picks its own charity and all money is donated. Whoever raises the most money wins. There are 11 or 12 different charities that benefit from the competition.
There is a special uueen candidate featured this year. Usually, a bartender or waitress is chosen for the contest but Barrel 135 has chosen Delany Heller, an 11-year-old who was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.
"A lot of people think Mardi Gras is about people coming downtown and getting drunk, stumbling around and causing problems but that's not really accurate," Barrel 135's John Thompson said. "It's about the participating bars and restaurants downtown coming together for charity while bringing people out for a good time. We chose Delaney and the Delaney Heller Fund because we want to help her and her family with medical costs. Her foundation is set up to help area families that have members suffering from terminal illnesses. We have T-shirts available for a donation and our gumbo cookoff here on the patio during Mardi Gras on that Saturday and all of our proceeds will go to the Fund also."
Some new faces are featured among the line-up of participating bars and restaurants for this year's Mardi Gras. Among them is Ozzie & Mae's Hacienda on West Fourth Street.
"We became involved with Mardi Gras ... so I thought it would be something to help put us on the map," Mae of Ozzie & Mae's said. "In addition to an event Thursday night with WXPI 88.5 - our Mardi Gras charity - we're doing a bachelor auction on Friday night. One event highlights music and the other highlights art, but both charities each are local.
Tyler Spooner and Sean Farley will perform Friday night while Saturday night we're featuring Clouds Make Sounds. There always is a lot of buzz about Mardi Gras weekend, so it's always nice to be part of something that attracts more people downtown."
"Here at Franco's, we start our Cajun cuisine Wednesday or Thursday," Daniele said. "Then we have a band, Miss Melanie & The Valley Rats [which consists of former members of Queen Bee & The Blue Hornet Band]. They'll be here for Thursday and then Friday the whole thing begins with the music and food, people bar hopping, the trolley will take everyone around as usual."
Planning for Mardi Gras by the Downtown Hospitality Group commences in the fall.
Things get serious in November when Daniele and other group members start meeting and parade planning begins.
"I usually start getting people interested in the parade," Daniele said. "I love the parade and that was one of my ideas. I've handled it every year. I contact the schools about putting marching bands in it but they don't want them suiting up in the frigid weather. "Plus I think that whole Mardi Gras theme, a lot of people have a problem with, it's always been that way. I understand it. I don't like it, but I get it."
"This year's parade features a team of horses, which is great because usually it's too cold," Daniele said. "Uptown Music Collective, Susquehanna Valley Big Twin Motorcycle Club, and SPCA have always been there. We're excited to have floats featuring the Susquehanna Valley Derby Vixens, Billtown Burlesque and WXPI. I have some more phone calls in to people, plus we have the dignitaries and, of course, the fire engines-which are always a highlight for the kids. Our grand poobah for this year is the Uptown Music Collective's Dave Brumbaugh. He was chosen for all that he's done in the community with the music scene and his great music school."
Mardi Gras celebrations traditionally are full of wine, woman and song, at times resembling Bacchanalian feasts.
Although Williamsport more than holds its own in that department, responsible partying is the order of the day.
"We're always stressing not to drink and drive because you really can't get out of Williams-port without hitting a DUI checkpoint, so you just don't want to do that," said Daniele. "It would be a bad thing to wake up to in the morning. The buses will be running. There will be buses taking people around from bar to bar and then there will be buses starting at about 10:30 p.m. taking people towards the outskirts of town towards home. We are urging people to ride the bus, get a cab or call someone to pick them up."
"Buses run from 10:30 p.m. to 2:15 a.m.," Daniele said. "If you have any questions you can call City Bus and every bar will have a bus schedule posted for people to see. You go to Trade and Transit Center and wait for the bus.
"They will take you in whatever direction you need to go."
For more information and a complete listing of Mardi Gras performances, visit www.wzxr.com.
Mardi Gras special feature:
Zydeco Master plays Mardi Gras
Williamsport will play host to some traditional Louisiana-styled music in the ballroom at the Genetti Hotel, 200 W. Fourth St., Friday and Saturday nights as Johnny Chauvin brings his accordion-fueled Zydeco sounds to the stage.
"We were playing a venue in Lousiana," Chauvin said. "A fellow we know had a brother that lived in Williamsport. He also knew a guy who owned a particular venue, the Genetti. And they were looking to bring something up a little more Louisiana, a little more Zydeco, bringing a more New Orleans feel to the event."
Chauvin gained national fame with two songs, "Watching Them Play" and "We Believe," which served as a soundtrack for fans during the Saint's Super Bowl season in 2010. That victory galvanized the healing of an area recovering from the devastation of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"The recovery of New Orleans since Katrina is going really well," he said. "You'll find people on both sides of the fence and they've done a lot of renovations. It's a prettier place to be and more visitor friendly, I find."
Chauvin was 12 years old when he started playing guitar then he moved onto mandolin, banjo and fiddle before discovering the accordion. "It was about 30 years ago," he said. "I saw a performer playing it. I just fell in love with the instrument [and] started pursuing it. At this point as far as accordion playing goes it's just an obsession, it has nothing to do with love anymore."
"I'm really looking forward to playing in Williamsport," he said. "I get a charge out of people who have never heard our style of music and the energy we perform on stage. It's really fun to look into their faces. We bring a high energy Zydeco style of music unique to New Orleans and the Louisiana area I'm sure they'll enjoy it. It will definitely be different I promise them that."
Johnny Chauvin will perform from 10:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday.