Ojai Mardi Gras celebrates 26 years this weekend

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Beads and masks. Feathers and costumes. Dixieland jazz and a parade of partygoers sashaying down the street. It’s Mardi Gras! But this one is in Ojai, not New Orleans, and around these-here parts, the wild, colorful, bacchanalian festival doesn’t follow the Gregorian calendar. Unorthodox? Perhaps. But Ojai has always marched to the beat of its own drummer.

“It ends up being the first Saturday in March,” explains Ojai musician and longtime volunteer Ron Seba. The date is driven by practicalities: The Mardi Gras’ venue, the Ojai Art Center, only has one week free between its winter and spring programming, so March it is. It’s an untraditional approach, but it sure makes planning a lot easier.

Roy Hulsebus, Shane Butler, Holly Stone, Robert MacNeil, and Kelli Butler. Photo by Ron Seba.

Roy Hulsebus, Shane Butler, Holly Stone, Robert MacNeil, and Kelli Butler.
Photo by Ron Seba.

This year marks the 26th anniversary of the festival, which started in 1991 with a woman named Lyle Matthews. Matthews was a native of New Orleans, a massage therapist and artist who came to Ojai in 1988, bringing her love of Louisiana music, art and culture with her. The first local Mardi Gras was in her home, and the celebration — and its hostess — had a lasting impact on the community. “She had great charm and a great sense of humor,” Seba recalls. “She wanted to put on another Mardi Gras and bring more people to it.”

The following year, Matthews did just that. By then battling breast cancer, she saw the event as something of a healing ritual, a way of “getting your mojo working,” in the words of Lydia Golden, a member of Matthews’ hospice team and part of the original Mardi Gras “krewe.” (A “krewe” is a group of revelers who band together to host a Mardi Gras ball.) Friends say that during the party, Matthews got up on stage in full costume, encouraging everyone to “Wake up!” She also hoped others would continue the Mardi Gras in her absence. Matthews died a week later, but the Ojai Mardi Gras has lived on as a much-loved local tradition.

Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday, marks the day before Lent, which officially starts on Ash Wednesday. For many Christians, particularly those in the Catholic faith, Lent is a time of fasting and religious obligation, traditionally lasting 40 days in commemoration of the time Jesus spent fasting in the desert. It ends on Easter Sunday. The term “Fat Tuesday” arose because it was the last day that religious observers would eat meat — in particular, a fattened calf — and other rich foods before the leaner Lenten season.

Hence, Mardi Gras became the last hurrah before everyone gives up indulgences (although plenty do not), and thus became associated with revelry and excess. Ojai’s version is perhaps less debauched than its Louisiana inspiration, but the color and pageantry are in full force.

Every year, artists, musicians and other community members — collectively called the Wake Up! Krewe — come together to help put on the weekend-long event. “Imagine setting up a carnival at the Art Center on a Friday night,” Seba says with a laugh. Decorations, stages, props, costumes, music, food all need to be put in order, and planning starts months ahead of time. “Our first meeting is shortly after that year’s Mardi Gras, to assess what worked and what didn’t,” explains Lucy Roadarmel, head of this year’s krewe. It wasn’t always so organized: In the early years, the people putting on the Mardi Gras celebration were merely a handful of Matthews’ friends and colleagues. “Way back in the old days, we were running by the seat of our pants,” Seba admits. “Things run a whole lot smoother now.”

A good thing, considering that Ojai sees somewhere between 200 and 300 people every year for the Mardi Gras festival and masquerade ball. People come from all over Ventura County, and even from Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Creating an event to accommodate so many people is no small feat.

Luckily, as the event has grown, so has the krewe. “Today, there are about 20 or so people that are the core of the krewe,” Seba says, “and a few dozen more that help out and set up.” A group of creative spirits called the “Art Fools” anchors these efforts, although Roadarmel is quick to point out that people with a variety of skill-sets are involved. “It’s a combination. Everyone has something they can offer, and everyone has a good time. It’s a big group effort.” Many volunteers start out as party attendees who, like Seba, fall in love with experience and want to get involved in a more integral way. “We just got into that wonderful culture: the music, the art. . . It’s become part of our lifestyle,” Seba says.

Roy Hulsebus and Ron Seba. photo by Reba Seba.

Roy Hulsebus and Ron Seba. photo by Reba Seba.

One would think that Mardi Gras is a theme unto itself, but the Wake Up! Krewe likes to get creative with the celebration. Outer space, superheroes, Brazilian- and Venetian-style carnivals and Green Man have all served as sources of inspiration through the decades. This year’s theme is Psychedelic Neon Nights, and it’s an homage to the peace, love and brightness of the 1960s and 1970s. “We created a Laugh-In Wall,” Roadarmel says. “We also have the front-end of a Volkswagon.” And with a nod to today’s selfie culture: “There are lots of different things and places where people can take pictures.”

Music is a big part of any Mardi Gras celebration, and Ojai is no different. Some of the area’s best local musicians will perform, including Jim Calire, Patricia Cardinali, Connie Early, Stan Taylor, Robert Rocheli and Burton Lang. (Seba is also part of the band, playing slide guitar.) The New Orleans Second Line Band Parade kicks off the party at the Ojai Art Center, parading around the block to Libbey Park and back again to the Art Center. “They will sing, and there will be an instrument or two playing, in the true tradition of New Orleans,” says Roadarmel. It’s not just a festive way to begin; it’s also the perfect opportunity for partygoers to show off their costumes. Seba says that while many will don their bell bottoms and dashikis (in neon colors, possibly) anything goes at Mardi Gras.

While the Saturday evening ball is definitely geared toward adults, the whole family gets in on the fun at Sunday’s Fais-Do-Do. This kid-friendly Cajun dance party is another New Orleans tradition: The term is rumored to come from a mother singing “fais do do” — roughly translated as “go beddy-by” — as she tries to rock her baby to sleep so she can get back to the party. Local band Crowfoot, featuring renowned musician Mark Parson on fiddle, will play.

Amidst the feathers and fanfare, it’s easy to lose sight of one of the Ojai Mardi Gras’ most vital functions: fundraiser. The 1992 Mardi Gras (the first one open to the public) was often referred to as “Miss Lyle’s Benefit,” and was intended to raise money to offset Matthews’ health-care costs. That tradition has continued, and as the festival has grown, so have its coffers. “Last year we donated $3,000,” Roadarmel recalls. Recipients are people in the community struggling with medical issues, and have included a person with blood cancer and a little boy suffering from a brain injury.

Music and dancing, feasting and merrymaking, artistic expression, a community spirit and contribution to a good cause: What’s not to love about the Ojai Mardi Gras? Fat Tuesday may have come and gone in New Orleans, but we’ve got one coming up this weekend in the Ojai Valley. Let the good times roll! 

The Ojai Mardi Gras and Masquerade Ball takes place Saturday, March 5, 7:30 p.m., at the Ojai Art Center on 113 S. Montgomery St. For tickets and other information call 646-7843 or go to ojaimardigras.com.