Having a Ball at Mardi Gras
French for “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras is the final day of indulgence before the 40 austere days of Lent that conclude with Easter. But in traditionally Catholic New Orleans, Mardi Gras isn’t just one day—it’s a whole season of parades and parties that begins in early January.
Originally restricted to men from society’s upper crust, Mardi Gras krewes—the groups that organize the season’s parades and balls—have grown from a small handful to dozens. But even though they may be more numerous, certain krewes still carry more prestige. Steve Wolfram (A.B. ’98) has found himself at the center of one of the largest: the Krewe du Vieux.
For many in New Orleans, Mardi Gras season begins with the Krewe du Vieux parade. Though it’s not the first parade of the season, this satirical parade is widely known for its wit and lewd humor. While many Mardi Gras parades feature elaborate, double-decker floats pulled by enormous tractors and crowds clamoring to catch bright plastic beads, Krewe du Vieux—pronounced like “crew d’voo”—is an even more free-wheeling affair. Founded in 1987, it is made up of 17 groups, such as Seeds of Decline, CRUDE, and Spermes, a spoof of the uptown Hermes parade.
Wolfram first got involved with Krewe du Vieux when he walked with one of its sub krewes: a group of medical professionals called the Drips & Discharges. He loved it and asked about helping with the after-parade ball. Soon, he was leading it.
The Krewe du Vieux ball is one of the biggest Mardi Gras parties. This year’s theme was “XXX.” Past themes have included “Where the Vile Things Are” and “Habitat for Insanity.”
For the last six years, Wolfram has been the ball captain of Krewe du Vieux. He jokes that being an outsider didn’t work against him; in fact, it was just the opposite. Krewe du Vieux’s captains are all NOLA transplants, which Wolfram presumes is because they’re trying to prove themselves in a city where many families go back generations—and because they don’t understand the enormity of the jobs they’ve accepted.
But the job has its benefits. Wolfram has booked legendary New Orleans musical acts, such as the Radiators, Ivan Neville, and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. He’s heard NOLA’s iconic R&B guitarist Walter “Wolfman” Washington’s sound check with Fred Wesley, a trombonist, a founding member of James Brown’s band the J.B.’s, and a member of Parliament-Funkadelic. That alone, says Wolfram, was worth the hard work.
Keeping a Secret
Rumor has it Wolfram is also connected to an infamous annual party known as MOMs Ball, aka the Mystic Krewe of Orphans and Misfits.
It’s known for its strict door policy: If your costume isn’t deemed worthy, you’ll only be admitted if you strip.
Chances are, if he did attend, he’d make it through the door with his clothes on. His costume designer girlfriend, Shel Roumillat, has crafted elaborate outfits for the pair, including one in which Wolfram was covered head to toe in roses. Roumillat wore toy guns, thus making them Guns N’ Roses.
But don’t ask Wolfram about it. MOMs is a secret society, the ball is by invitation only, and Wolfram won't confirm its existence or his affiliation.
New Orleans marked the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in August 2015. The devastation and loss after the levees failed are still close. Locals often simply refer to it as “the storm.” No one asks which one.
“During Katrina, I couldn't wait to get back and start fixing stuff,” Wolfram says. “At no point did it ever cross my mind that I wouldn't be back.”
In fact, Krewe du Vieux was the first parade to march after Hurricane Katrina, bearing its effigies of Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco as it traveled through the French Quarter. Undaunted by the tragedy and suffering caused by the storm, Krewe du Vieux stayed true to its reputation. Its theme that year? C’est Levee.
“The forum this city creates for people to express their dreams, their nightmares, their opinions about what they love or fear or to just make a funny—whatever they want to be … I love that about the city,” he said. “There are no spectators at Mardi Gras.
“It's our home,” he concludes, “and I don't think I could take anywhere else. Quite frankly, I'm not sure there are many places that could take me.”