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Austinites celebrate Mardi Gras as part of the Krewe of House Floats

Matthew Odam
Austin 360
New Orleans native Linda Clarke hands out beads, cups and king cake babies to her neighbors as part of her participation in the Krewe of House Floats, a socially distant way to celebrate Mardi Gras.

Dorothy Garbe sat in her South Austin home in 2019 watching the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade online with her toddler, thinking of all of her friends and family who were joyfully caught up in the annual celebration. The Fear of Missing Out on her favorite time of the year took over. 

She jumped online; found the algorithm mystically working in her favor; bought an airline ticket for the price of a decent bottle of wine; and within a few hours, she was standing alongside the parade route that she’d just been watching from 500 miles away. 

A native of Mobile, Alabama, the birthplace of Mardi Gras in the United States, Garbe in years past has celebrated Mardi Gras in New Orleans with her family, who’ve operated a restaurant in the French Quarter for nearly 200 years.

Garbe, like thousands more, was sad to see the festival canceled during the coronavirus pandemic, even though she understood why. But she was excited and inspired when social media posts and her brother, a New Orleans chef, pointed her to  Krewe of House Floats.

Mobile, Alabama, native Dorothy Garbe shows off her Mardi Gras decorations, as well as a fake political campaign T-shirt in support of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

The socially distanced celebration that takes a page from the themed parades organized by social organizations (aka krewes) started as a social media lark by New Orleans resident Megan Boudreaux, who championed the idea of elaborately decorating Crescent City houses as floats. The idea blossomed, with hundreds of New Orleans residents participating in the communal expression that has come to symbolize the resiliency and creativity for which the city is known. 

The idea soon spread to expats as Mardi Gras lovers from Alaska to Florida (a Google map details many of the participants) started decorating their houses. The map shows about a half dozen participating houses in the Austin area, including Garbe’s. 

THE MARDI GRAS MAP: Here's the official map of Mardi Gras house floats in New Orleans and across the U.S.

“I’m all for Mardi Gras culture coming to Austin,” said Garbe, who had already started the annual decoration of her house when she heard about the public art event. She’s dubbed her krewe of one the Krewe of Drew, in honor of Drew Brees, the Westlake High School and New Orleans Saints football legend she hopes runs for governor of Texas. Or California. As long as he runs. She even made T-shirts for her campaign. 

Garbe draped purple, gold and green ribbons across her garage; affixed a colorful Carnival mask to her house; hung a bright wreath from a fleur-de-lis; and was at work on oversized float flowers made of cardboard when we stopped by. Drive by at night, and you’ll quickly be able to spot Garbe’s house: It’s the one awash in purple, gold and green lights. 

Yardi Gras, baby. 

Garbe, who owns a company that develops branding for businesses in the hospitality industry, sees a kindred spirit between New Orleans and Austin. She understands that Austin may have a little festival fatigue and has eschewed large Mardi Gras celebrations to take a breath between our fall and spring festival seasons, but Garbe sees an opportunity for an annual celebration and a chance to support local artists. 

“I love the music, the artistry, the marching bands,” Garbe said of Mardi Gras. “It’s when the artists take over the town.”

She could see that happening here, and she believes a scaled down version of Mardi Gras celebrations in Austin, maybe a parade down Sixth Street, or at least commissioning artists to help decorate house floats, could be a way to generate income for Austin’s creative community. 

In the meantime, she’ll keep decorating her house and spreading the Mardi Gras (and "Brees for Governor") spirit. She says many of her neighbors love it, and her husband is down to let the good times roll. 

“He thinks it’s really funny, and I feed him well,” Garbe said. “Mardi Gras is when your freak flag gets to come out, so you gotta fly it.”

More:How to make a king cake for Mardi Gras (and where to find a plastic baby)

Spirited New Orleans native Linda Clarke undoubtedly agrees with that sentiment.

Pull up in front of her house in Southwest Austin in the early evening over the past few weeks and you’d likely hear the horns of New Orleans bands the Soul Rebels or Rebirth Brass Band dancing from the speakers. 

Linda Clarke's house float design includes nods to George Rodrigue's famous Blue Dog.

The latter’s “Do Whatcha Wanna” was playing at sunset one night last week. The song might as well be the unofficial anthem for retired environmental policy professor Clarke. 

The 77-year-old, who moved to her current home after she found her vibe didn’t quite fit with the retirement community where she lived north of town, grew up in the French Quarter and Treme neighborhoods of New Orleans. Clarke once let “Pistol” Pete Maravich copy off of her test at Louisiana State University. (Talk about a legendary assist.) She’s the kind of native who pronounces the annual festival “Mawdee Graw.” Her motto, at least one of them: “If some is good, more is better.”

A friend of one of her two daughters told her about the Krewe of House Floats, and she got to work. Her yard features a large vinyl replica of a French Quarter balcony. Beads dangle from miniature green, purple and yellow floats that feature the image of George Rodrigue’s famous “Blue Dog,” who also sits on her garage door.

Clarke last attended Mardi Gras two years ago with her Canadian husband, Patrick Whalen, along for the wide-eyed ride, and caught a pair of Mardi Gras beads tossed to her from “Little Connick.” That’s what you call Harry Jr. when the first Harry Connick you knew was Harry Sr. 

“From his hands to mine,” Clarke said proudly. 

This year she’s the one tossing the beads (“throws,” as they call them) and passing out colorful cups that cuddle plastic king cake babies. If you were to make your way inside the house, Clarke says you’d find a Mardi Gras float embellished with rhinestones in her bathroom and a toilet seat with a brilliant feather. 

Linda Clarke, right, hangs beads around neighbor Laci Smith’s neck during a Mardi Gras celebration dubbed Krewe of House Floats.

“I think everybody needs something silly, outrageous and fun,” Clarke said. 

Clarke realizes not everyone outside of the Bayou State quite understands the joie de vivre that runs through most New Orleanians or the self-awareness that exists around the exuberant color schemes and costumes found in the city where outrageous behavior is de rigueur. She laughs.

“Something is tacky if you’re trying to portray good taste, but if you know it’s in bad taste, it’s whimsical. So I’m whimsical,” Clarke said.

Clarke will keep the festive decorations up until Ash Wednesday: “You’re not supposed to be outrageous when you’re doing Lent,” she said.

Besides: “I’ll take it down because I gotta get Easter up.”

But Lent doesn’t come until Wednesday. So, for now, as Clarke shouted at us as we left her house, “Laissez les bons temps rouler.”

Matthew Odam writes about restaurants and more for the American-Statesman. Email him at