2019 marks the 40th Anniversary of St. Louis’ famous Mardi Gras festivities—and when we say famous, we mean it. St. Louis has earned a reputation as hosting the second-largest Mardi Gras celebration in America, trailing only the Big Easy (New Orleans, LA.)
Our parade and events draw more than half a million people to the Greater St. Louis area, and it’s estimated that Mardi Gras generates $21+ million in revenue.
Alright—so you know it’s a big deal. Maybe you even have your beads ready. But before you indulge in hurricanes and king cakes, let’s take a stroll down memory lane and examine the evolution of Mardi Gras in the Gateway City.
It all started when five friends threw a party at Hilary Clements’ house on Russell Boulevard to take their minds off the drear of winter. After enjoying a few drinks, they paraded down the street to multiple bars in the Soulard neighborhood, carrying bags of beads and yelling in celebration. Little did they know this was the start of a historic Mardi Gras tradition. The only difference today is that instead of 5 people celebrating, there’s 500,000.
One year later, those same five friends each chipped in $250, and in February 1980, the group hosted Soulard’s first Mardi Gras at the Russell Boulevard location for about two hundred friends. At midnight, the revelers marched out into the street—ignoring the freezing temperatures—and headed up Russell Boulevard to John D. McGurk’s Irish Pub, a mini brass band of trombones and horns moving with them.
A decade later, the Mardi Gras momentum was in full swing. 1991 marks the inaugural Mystic Krewe of Barkus Parade (also called the Pet Parade), the world’s largest costumed pet parade with a Mardi Gras theme.
Everyone knows food is in our DNA in St. Louis, needless to say Taste of Soulard was an instant hit when it was added to the list of Mardi Gras festivities. This self-guided tasting and pub crawl allows attendees to choose their own adventure through the many Cajun flavors found throughout Soulard.
We may not be “down South,” but that doesn’t mean St. Louis doesn’t know how to cook up delicious Cajun food. The Cajun Cookoff was started to give hungry people a chance to explore the culinary roots of Mardi Gras in the heart of Soulard.
Just over 20 years ago, St. Louis added the must-see Wiener Dog Derby to the festivities. Here, participants square off in Wiener Stadium at Soulard Market to determine “the dashingest dachshund in all of the land.”
Two decades since Mardi Gras became “a thing” in St. Louis, a not-for-profit organization called Mardi Gras Inc. formed to take over planning for the annual Fat Tuesday events.
Two years after Mardi Gras Inc. was founded, the Mardi Gras Foundation was created to support the efforts of the organization by funding public safety, promotional, and cleanup efforts related to the Mardi Gras festivities throughout St. Louis.
Hosted by the Mardi Gras Foundation, the Mayor’s Mardi Gras Ball has served as St. Louis’ premier Mardi Gras fundraising since 2003. Dubbed by the Riverfront Times as the “social event of the season,” this black-tie gala combines the elegance of City Hall with the striking visuals of Mardi Gras. Proceeds from the event go towards community improvement grants which directly benefit the Soulard and in Downtown communities.
The region’s elite softball players have gathered at Willmore Park each year since ‘09 for the annual Mardi Gras Snowman Softball Tournament. This event takes place rain or shine and all proceeds from the tournament go to the Police Athletic League, a local not-for-profit youth development organization.
St. Louis begins the tradition of naming its Mardi Gras King.
This year marked the first Run for Your Beads 5K, which takes participants through the fun and historic scenery of Soulard with mid-race pit stops for beer and hurricanes (for legally aged runners.) Prizes aren’t just awarded to the best runners, but the best dressed as well.
In conjunction with St. Louis first responders, the Mardi Gras Family Winter Carnival was started to bring families, artists, and furry friends alike to get in the spirit of the season in an alcohol-free setting.
In honor of 40 years of Mardi Gras celebrations in St. Louis, this year’s festivities will include a few new features.
- For the first time ever, St. Louis will crown its first Mardi Gras queen instead of a king—and the crown is going to none other than Downtown STL, Inc. CEO Missy Kelley.
- Mardi Gras Inc. is launching an all-new gala worthy of the glitz and glamor of Mardi Gras and the rich history of Soulard: the Bacchanalian Ball. Attendees will take a trip through the ages, as the lighting, mood, and drinks evolve throughout the night.
Now that our history lesson is complete, it’s time to celebrate! For a complete list of events and information, head over to stlmardigras.org. We’ll see you in Soulard.