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By Margaret Toal
For the Record 

Harmon recalls local Mardi Gras beginning

 

Last updated 1/30/2024 at 8:46pm

The festivities included honoring past kings and queens, including Betty Harmon, escorted by her daughter, Debora Harmon Lanciaux, and past king Paul Burch. Betty and her late husband, Corky, were queen and king the second year

More than 20 years ago, Betty Harmon began putting into motion an idea from the late Carolyn Hogan for Orange to have a Mardi Gras celebration.

"I never thought it would grow to this magnitude," Harmon said as the city gets ready for three days of events with the 20th anniversary of the first parade.

The celebrations will start Thursday evening with a free concert at the Riverside Pavilion and culminate Saturday evening with the grand parade through downtown Orange.

Before Mardi Gras was a big deal here, Harmon was in charge of the Greater Orange Area Chamber of Commerce. She recalled the group was looking for a community fundraiser to replace the gumbo cookoff that had started in the late 1970s. She said the Orange cookoff drew fewer and fewer people as more groups in the area had similar cookoffs.

Carolyn Hogan of Orange came into the chamber office one day. Hogan and her husband, Melvin, had a beach house on Bolivar Peninsula, which had a Mardi Gras celebration. The Hogans participated with a float there, but wanted to bring the experience to Orange.

"Carolyn said, 'It's a shame Port Arthur and Beaumont have a Mardi Gras, but Orange, which is so close to Louisiana, doesn't,'" Harmon said.

Harmon brought the suggestion to the chamber board. She said it took about two years for the board to approve the plan and rules for krewes having a parade.

Mardi Gras in French translates to "Fat Tuesday," or the day before Lent season begins. Gradually, it became a term for a party or a special parade.

Because other nearby cities have their Mardi Gras celebrations the weekend before Fat Tuesday, the Orange chamber set theirs to two weekends before Fat Tuesday. That way, the Orange event did not compete with parades in other communities.

That decision ended up a wide choice. The Orange Mardi Gras parade has become known for the large amount of beads, stuffed animals, and other trinkets thrown by the krewes from their floats. Hundreds of the spectators lining downtown streets are from out of town.

Now, the City of Orange Convention and Visitors Bureau helps the chamber sponsor the parade.

Traditionally, a ball is held for the krewes before the parade. The Hogans were named king and queen of the ball and parade the first year because of their contributions to starting the event.

According to Harmon, getting krewes and people to support making the floats and dressing in costumes, took some work. "We had so many community volunteers," she said. "It wasn't just me."

Besides the Hogans, Juanita Smith and her late husband, Edward, were organizers along with Ebb and Kim Moore. "We had so many good volunteers, I know I am leaving some out," said Harmon, who has been retired for several years.

The ball has become as much of a community mainstay as the parade. Krewes, or groups that sponsor the elaborate floats, also sponsor the Mardi Gras ball, complete with handmade imaginative costumes for royalty, including the king and queen.

Last week, Jerry and Susan Pennington reigned over the ball as 2024 king and queen when past kings and queens were honored. Harmon and her late husband, Corky, were named king and queen the second year of the Mardi Gras here.

This year, Harmon received a standing ovation as she walked at the ball during the tribute to the past royalty.

She marvels at how the ball, too, has grown and is pleased to see new generations participating. "It's catching on with the young," she said. "It's not a society event like the country club."

King Jerry and Queen Susan Pennington presided over the 20th annual Orange Mardi Gras ball. The Penningtons will be riding in their elaborate costumes during the big Krewe of Krewes Mardi Gras parade through downtown Orange at 6 p.m. Saturday, February 3.

This year, a young man looking dapper in a tuxedo came up and greeted her. She didn't recognize him until he told her his name. He was one of the best friends of her grandson.

Except for one year, the ball has been held at the VFW hall off North Highway 87 in Orange. Harmon said the open floor space is perfect for the march of royalty pageant. Plus, ball-goers use the bar at the VFW for purchases, so the event helps the post, too, Harmon said.

Each krewe decorates their own table and brings their own foods. And of course, after the pageantry and presentations, dancing begins. It wouldn't be a Mardi Gras event without a good fais do-do.

Harmon, who is in her 80s, is not dancing as much as she used to. She uses a walker to get around these days, but emphasizes it's only because of her knees. "Everything else is fine," she said.

But though she doesn't move as quickly as she once did, you can bet to see Betty Harmon out celebrating Mardi Gras on the Sabine. And she's one of the ones praying the rain stays away Saturday.

 

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