CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- It's the 30th anniversary of this highbrow hillbilly incarnation of New Orleans' annual orgy, and despite cloudy skies, more than 10,000 spectators have crowded along Columbia Street. For most Americans, March 7 is just another Tuesday. But for the residents of this otherwise laid-back university town, the first Tuesday of March is also the end of civilization -- at least for 16 hours or so.
As the first float turns the corner of East Rosemary Street, an electric silence falls over the crowd. With the measured gait of a funeral procession, the two-story "Cellular Degeneration" rolls forward. Atop the float are life-sized mannequins posed in various positions of panic. Some are crouched to the ground, while others have thrown their hands over their heads to protect themselves from a flurry of small objects whirling around a tall pole in the center of the float. When loud beeping noises fill the air, the crowds begin to cheer. As the float comes into focus, the flying debris reveals itself to be cellular telephones raining down upon the human figures.
"Look at that Danny," says a father hoisting his infant son up on his shoulders, "those are cell phones."
Welcome to Coup de Mardi Gras, Chapel Hill's version of Venice's Carnival and New Orleans' own Mardi Gras celebration. Started in 1970 by a motley crew of student groups and bohemian locals, the alternative march of oversized papier-mâché figurines began as a short procession around the University of North Carolina's Chapel Hill campus. As the years passed, the number of participants increased, to the present average of more than 50 entries, and the city, which in the mid-1980s embraced the event as a unique tourist attraction, now stages the event along its main business corridor.
Chapel Hill's mayor, Rosemary Waldorf, led this year's parade from the passenger seat of the truck towing "Cellular Degeneration," a float built by the Chapel Hill firefighters' union under the close supervision of Chief Morris Samuels. "This is an ancient tradition," shouts Waldorf, whose head has been decorated with a football-sized tumor, "and it's also good clean fun."
North Carolina's Research Triangle area, which includes the towns of Raleigh and Durham (home to Duke University), in addition to Chapel Hill, boasts more Ph.D.s per square mile than any other region of the U.S. But that doesn't stop locals, and some academicians, from reveling in off-color humor that would shock even the most seasoned fan of Fox television. Take the "Wood Pecker" float, for instance. The brainchild of N.C. State government professor Patrick Calhoun features a larger-than-life Soon Yi Previn with her feet up in stirrups and a woman-child in full bridal attire popping out of her womb. Beside her is a Woody Allen effigy waiting on bended knee to accept what spectators can only assume to be the delivery of his next wife.
In yet another racy float, President Clinton is depicted on his knees performing oral sex on his wife, would-be New York state senator Hillary Clinton. In the background an oversized Monica Lewinsky doll falls over and over again onto her exaggeratedly ample derriere. Surprisingly, this often grotesque combination of innuendo and slapstick caricature has yet to offend some of the community's more conservative citizens.
"This is the world-turned-upside-down but in a constructive way," remarked Fred Randall, a local insurance salesman who has only missed one Coup de Mardi Gras since its inception 30 years ago. "Besides, most of the humor here takes an adult mind to really comprehend." Although a handful of float proposals have been turned down through the years, most are approved with minor adjustments, made to ensure even the most graphic demonstrations are heavy on suggestion and light on illustration.
Nonetheless, it did take a few days of intense negotiations to clear one of this year's most controversial entries, "Prisoners on Parade," which features actual inmates from the Wake Correctional Center singing and dancing inside a mobile cellblock. After a citizens' group pointed out the potential risk of involving convicts in a public celebration, the local sheriff's office allayed concerns by supplying an additional dozen support officers at no cost to the city.
Of course, it is serious humor that has come to define Coup de Mardi Gras, and this year's most talked-about entry gained added resonance in the wake of last week's school shooting in Michigan. The float, "Guns Don't Kill People, Kids Kill People," was designed by the local punk band Her Majesty's Secret Cervix. Modeled on the Walt Disney theme park attraction "It's a Small World," the HMSC entry features cherubic animatronic child figures armed with semiautomatic weapons. As the figures rotate first clockwise then counterclockwise, the sounds of rapid bursts of gunfire punctuate the high-pitched strains of the classic children's song "It's a Small World After All."
HMSC bassist Stefani Hess defended the entry the day before the parade on local television, after a newspaper editorial criticized the group for not removing the float from the lineup given the recent school shooting. "I don't want people to focus on how this float makes them feel," says Hess, who is earning a master's degree in urban planning at UNC, "but on what they can do to make sure the real-life version of our float doesn't happen again."
South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments? Holler@sttf.org.