"Mardi Gras Tradition in a New Medium" by Alex Oliver
Coverage of live Mardi Gras -- through www.MardiGrasNewOrleans.com
In the long history of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, many developments have come along to improve the celebration while preserving the wonderful traditions that make it such a unique event. Most nighttime floats are now lit with electric lights, for example, but krewes still incorporate flambeaux, or torchbearers--once responsible for lighting the parades--to preserve the old tradition. Similarly, Marc and Judy Weitz, two local residents who are partners in Compucast Web Media and host ExperienceNewOrleans.com and MardiGrasNewOrleans.com, have brought Mardi Gras to the Internet. Two years ago, the Weitzes approached the Krewe of Orpheus about broadcasting the Orpheuscapade, the krewe's Mardi Gras ball, live on the World Wide Web. What started as a simple experiment has now become the Weitzes' way of preserving what they feel is the true meaning of Mardi Gras, even while bringing the celebration into a new medium.
"I had an interest in looking at how video on the Internet would work, so I went to the Orpheus organization and asked them if they would be willing to take part in an experiment," Marc recalls. "Of course, they were quite willing and they really supported us and liked it a lot. The broadcasts are done live and in real-time. Locally, no one has done anything at all [like the Orpheuscapade Internet broadcast] to speak of. It's really very costly."
"The first year we just did that one event, then the second year we turned it into a four-day event," Judy continues. "We did the first night on the balcony of the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, the second night at Anne Rice's house for a celebrity party, and the Orpheuscapade the following night. It was very, very popular, too. We have a chat room, too."
Many krewes revel in the secrecy masking provides and the exclusivity of many of the older Uptown organizations. Orpheus -- at only five years old in 1998 a new parade by New Orleans standards -- took to the idea of a worldwide broadcast of their party wholeheartedly.
"They really enjoyed it," Judy says of last year's Internet broadcast. "In fact, during the Orpheuscapade a number of times they had someone on the mic saying, 'Tonight we're live on the Internet.' We had a proposal on-line -- someone proposed to their girlfriend on-line and she accepted. It was exciting even to celebrities, they walked over to say hello and tell everyone they were there. The mayor welcomed everyone on-line to the city for Mardi Gras. The celebrity interviews were interesting because a lot of the celebrities don't want to be approached by a lot of people, but they really did enjoy sitting down at a table and just talking to people throughout the world on the Internet. It was exciting to everyone at the ball, largely, I think, because it was such a new thing.
"What we had that was so interesting was the interactivity. We had people in Japan and Australia typing in questions to Delta Burke asking if she was going to come out with a line of make-up, Francis Ford Coppola was holding up his new magazine and telling everyone about it -- it was more of an interactive thing because they were able to ask questions while the event was happening. I think people felt they were actually part of the event. That was what was exciting and what we want to do again this year."
As the Orpheuscapade broadcasts continue to grow in popularity, a number of large technology companies, like the party's attendees, are excited about being a part of the event. While many details were still being ironed out at press time, the Weitz were noticeably excited about the development of the project in its scope and technical advances.
"The first year we really had no tracking mechanism, at that time the ISP [Internet Service Provider] did not have that in place very well," Marc says. "Last year it was a phenomenal success and it really stressed the loads on that particular ISP. He claimed that we had over 11,000 people an hour. This year it looks like we need a major, major player -- we're talking to one organization whose server capacity is phenomenal, there's no ISP in the country with a capacity like these folks, and they're very anxious to get involved. You know how 'net traffic can slow things down? If you've got a guy whose got 20 servers at his disposal just for your event, then throughput should be pretty swift and pretty easy, even at 28.8 [modems]. We have a variety of different formats at our doorstep. One is a very solid, proven technology that's very common, an acceptable streaming format. We're getting a lot of support from a major player in the industry. Everybody wants to be a part of a super big event on the Internet and have their name on there."
As well as broadcasting Mardi Gras events, the Weitz offer bits of previous years' broadcasts on their Web site all year. While few locals would argue Mardi Gras needs more national exposure and the influx of tourists that brings, the Weitz feel strongly that their involvement with Mardi Gras is not about making it a bigger event, but a better one.
"There is a year 'round interest in New Orleans, and anyone that has an interest in New Orleans has got to be curious about Mardi Gras," Marc explains. "So, having what we have on our site that relates to past events certainly piques their interest and sets the stage for our next program, because if they like what they see now, they're really going to enjoy our next event."
"I think a lot of people do visit the site, especially starting in about November," Judy says. "I mean, people are visiting the site all year, but in November it starts getting pretty overwhelming.
"You know what we think is important? We feel loyal to the krewes we represent and to the city of New Orleans. We want to represent Mardi Gras as an insider, to show people the excitement and the magic of Mardi Gras the way we grew up with it. We're really aggravated with the way its been portrayed in the news lately as an R-rated or X-rated event that no one can come down to unless they leave their children at home. We see it as a beautiful event, parties, parades, formal events, entertainment, celebrities and a lot of wonderful things that go on down here. I grew up seeing that my whole life, and now in the last ten years the world seems to thing it's just a big hoopla in the French Quarter. I spend almost half of every day telling people that it's not just a crazy party, that it really is a family event, that they throw stuffed animals and toys from the floats. One of the things we try to do with the live event is show the real Mardi Gras. That's what we want to do, we're trying to represent Mardi Gras in that way, and a lot of the krewes respect that and know our hearts are in the right place."