The biggest party of the year is still days away, on February 21, but New Orleans is already immersed in the celebration of Mardi Gras, with massive parades rolling every night along several miles of oak-draped St. Charles Avenue.
Families and friends gather by the thousands along the route to take in the spectacular parades, which are staged by organizations known as "krewes." The processions often feature celebrities among the costumed riders on dozens of elaborate floats that celebrate Greek mythology and are interspersed with marching bands, dancers and men carrying flaming torches.
Eleven-year-old Mackenzie Reagan and her mother stood amid the throngs who came out Thursday evening for a parade trifecta that included the all-female Krewe of Muses parade.
"I can't wait for Muses," the young girl shrieked. "I love seeing the ladies' costumes, and I really hope I catch some shoes."
Float riders in every parade toss colorful trinkets known as "throws" to the crowds, and miniature high-heeled shoes coated with colored glitter are the signature throw of the Krewe of Muses. Along with the plastic-bead necklaces tossed by every krewe, the shoes are among the most sought-after trinkets of Carnival.
"From the beginning we knew we wanted our throws to be girly things, like lipstick, compacts and shoes," Krewe of Muses founder Staci Rosenberg said in an interview a few days before the parade.
Rosenberg started Muses to give women an opportunity to enjoy the thrill of riding in Carnival processions. The parades have been dominated by men since the 19-century founding of the city's oldest Mardi Gras organizations such as the krewes of Rex and Proteus.
Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday, comes the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent on the Catholic calendar. By tradition, it is a day that invites unbridled, some might say excessive, behavior in preparation for the somber season of sacrifice to follow.
The Carnival season that leads up to Mardi Gras actually begins in January, with a heavy schedule of parades and balls slated during the two weeks prior to Fat Tuesday.
Members of the Krewe of Muses, which has amassed 2,000 float riders and a waiting list of a thousand more since its first parade in 2001, make their mark on the celebration by donning satin tunics, brightly colored masks and feathered headdresses. Then they board 26 colorful floats for a parade that Rosenberg said has the flavor of "a girls night out, but with fun for kids."
Muses this year invited Oscar-nominated actress and New Orleans native Patricia Clarkson ("The Green Mile," "Shutter Island," "Pieces of April") to serve as its celebrity "royalty," and Clarkson dazzled Thursday night as she tossed beads, shoes and other trinkets from her float - a 17-foot-tall, red platform pump encrusted with fiber-optic lights that continually changed color.
Clarkson is not the only celeb headlining this year's parades. Actor Will Ferrell, rocker Bret Michaels, pop queen Cyndi Lauper, singer Adam Levine and Maroon 5, and newscaster Anderson Cooper are among the others sharing their stardom with parade goers.
Michaels and Lauper will not only ride but also perform for the post-parade ball of the Krewe of Orpheus, founded and headed each year by singer and New Orleans native Harry Connick Jr.
The color, scope and pure spectacle of Mardi Gras in New Orleans have prompted many observers to dub it "the greatest free party on Earth." Writer and Mardi Gras historian Errol Laborde said the characterization is not far off the mark.
Few other festivals or events anywhere in the world cover a two-week period and encompass the number of events typical of Carnival in New Orleans, Laborde, who is editor of New Orleans Magazine, said.
New Orleans krewes adhere strictly to a rule that prohibits commercial sponsorship of their events. "The people riding in the parades pay all the costs to put on a show that the audience can enjoy for free," he said.
Those costs are not small. A recent study of the economics of Mardi Gras, by Tulane University economics professor Toni Weiss, estimated that krewes spend more than $20 million annually to put on their events, and a big chunk of the spending goes toward throws.
It is money well spent, according to Laborde. He said the throws are like powerful magnets that draw both riders and viewers to Mardi Gras parades and turn the processions into unique events.
"If our parades didn't have throws, they would be more like a Macy's or a Rose Bowl parade," he said. "There would be just a few people riding, and all they would do is wave - what's the point?"