The 15th annual Venice Mardi Gras Parade draws inspiration from local history, New Orleans and David Bowie
By Samuel Huntington and Joe Piasecki
A tradition that began as a way to buoy spirits and build community bonds after 9/11 is marking its 15th year with a celebration of the future.
On Saturday, the grassroots Venice Mardi Gras Parade brings a New Orleans-inspired celebration of extravagant costumes, exhibitionism and plastic beads back to the Venice Boardwalk — this year concluding with a four -bar Windward Avenue block party at Danny’s Venice, the Townhouse & Del Monte Speakeasy, Larry’s and the Bank of Venice.
The theme of this year’s celebration is “Cosmic Future,” an idea conjured by parade founder Jessica Long in tribute to the legacy of David Bowie but open to limitless interpretations, she says.
The festivities begin at 11 a.m. with warm-up drinks at the Venice Ale House, where Rose Avenue meets the boardwalk.
Then costumed parade participants set off behind The GTownz Drill Team and Drum Squad for a .8-mile march along the beach to Windward Avenue at 12 p.m. Venice Standard Time — any time between noon and 1 p.m., explains parade cofounder Todd von Hoffmann.
From 2 to 4 p.m., official parade after-party band The Gumbo Brothers perform an extended no-cover set of Crescent City jazz and funk at Danny’s, with overflow crowds making the block party rounds.
Along the way, the goal is for true believers in the Spirit of Venice to freak bystanders out in proper Venice fashion, says Venice Mardi Gras Queen Emeritus Michelle Van Vliet.
“We’re marching down the boardwalk throwing beads to people and they don’t understand what’s happening. All those stories they’ve heard about the freaks of Venice, we kind of push it,” she says.
For last year’s “One Love” theme, a nod to Bob Marley and Valentine’s Day, Van Vliet dressed as a Voodoo Queen of Hearts.
“I put my wedding dress to good use, and I wore a wig with dreadlocks and put bones and starfish and nails in it. I was a cartoon version of Marie Laveau,” says Van Vliet, by day a photographer for UCLA Medical Center’s Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
This year Van Vliet’s costume is her interpretation of a cardiac nebula — a galaxy cluster that takes the shape of a heart. For parade newcomers, von Hoffmann advises that any costume involving “gold, purple or green and a touch of cosmic” will do.
In true New Orleans fashion, Venice Mardi Gras participants have formed three krewes. Von Hoffman and wife Theo head up the Windward Krewe, which, thanks to a recent windfall of shiny metallic insulation foil, is going to roll in “big, Parliament / George Clinton / Ming the Merciless” costumes, he says.
The Venice Mardi Gras Parade is actually a revival of an early Venice of America tradition that faded away during World War II, says von Hoffman, who founded the nonprofit Venice Heritage Foundation.
“Venice being the Coney Island of the West had that same tradition of doing anything to bring people here with any excuse for a celebration,” he says.
But it was actually out of a need to lift her spirits out of post-9/11 despondency that Long, a singer who fronts the band Miss Jessica and the Sugar Shack Attack, started the parade.
She and partner Johann Stein, frontman for the Gumbo Brothers, were in lower Manhattan about a month after the Twin Towers fell
“I traveled down to Ground Zero and there was this surreal quality. Everything was quiet,” she recalls. “You could still smell burning embers.”
After a short walk uptown they stumbled upon Walker’s Bar — and in it a completely different sense of reality.
“I could hardly believe it. People were doing shots of bourbon, partying like crazy and having a great time. It sparked something in me. After that it became a mission for me to get people [in Venice] motivated to do something outrageous,” Long says.
A few months later they staged the first revival of the Venice Mardi Gras as a block party on Grandview Boulevard that included a short march to Venice Boulevard and back again.
In 2003 they solicited donations from the local bowling alley, a donut shop and a balloon store, nominated a king and formed the Krewe of Grand View.
The next year they moved the parade down to the beach, and Stein assembled the Gumbo Brothers for their first gig at Danny’s.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“The beauty of the parade is it attracts cool people who are into the spirit of organized good times and celebrating the history of this this place, and for other people it’s a good excuse to dress crazy and be an exhibitionist,” von Hoffman says.
“It’s colorful. It’s passionate. It’s nothing but fun,” says Van Vliet. “But the greatest thing about it is it’s one of those few events that actually pulls the community together.”
The Venice Mardi Gras Parade begins at 11 a.m. with drinks at the Venice Ale House (2 Rose Ave.) before stepping off down the beach at around noon. The after-party at Danny’s Venice (23 Windward Ave.) runs from 2 to 4 p.m., concurrent with the Windward Avenue block party. Visit the Venice Beach Mardi Gras Parade event page on Facebook for more information.