Originally posted in bizneworleans.com on 1/06/2015 by Margaret Quilter
Honoring bygone traditions, Mardi Gras Krewes shroud themselves in a code of silence. In 2001, the Krewe of Muses cracked into this world and joined New Orleans Mardi Gras folklore, thus becoming the Downtown celebration’s third-ever all-female krewe – the Krewe of Iris launched in 1917 and Krewe of Venus in 1941.Muses Founder Staci Rosenberg gives Biz New Orleans a glimpse into the mechanics of Muses. Always a crowd favorite, the krewe is gearing up to mark its 15th parade Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015.
“In the beginning, if I had had any idea what was involved, I probably would never have done it,” Rosenberg says. “Looking back, I’m ecstatic that we did.”
Standing alone on Napoleon Avenue watching the Mystic Krewe of Druids roll past, Rosenberg says she was suddenly swept up in the Carnival chaos after spotting a work colleague on a float back in 2000. It was then that she made a decision: She no longer wanted to stand on the sidelines.
“I learned about the different parades and there wasn’t one I really wanted to be on – there wasn’t anything wrong with them, but there just weren’t that many opportunities for women,” Rosenberg says. “So I thought maybe I should start a parade.”
Rosenberg’s next move was to make a call to Weezie Porter.
The sales manager for WWL-TV, Porter had the social connections Rosenberg needed. Rosenberg then used her background and connections as a lawyer to get approval to stage a parade in Orleans Parish. While the official paperwork was underway, both women researched all the details and costs involved with forming a krewe.
With a set goal of signing on 350 women by June 2000 and charging each rider a $100 deposit and dues of $400, they put the word out. After a few nerve-racking months, Rosenberg was convinced they would not get the numbers.
“We decided right away that the krewe would be open to any women over the age of 18, which was not anyone’s model before that. There was no vetting or anything; it was pretty democratic,” Rosenberg says.
More than 600 women signed on to ride in the first year.
What Rosenberg didn’t realize at the time was that she had started something that the women of New Orleans had been longing for – an all-female parade that rolls at night.
The Business Side
Behind the glitz and glam of being a Muse is the running of a nonprofit organization that requires the input of many. Like the majority of krewes, Muses relies almost entirely on volunteers, with the exception of one part-time business manager.
“City ordinance requires all krewes to be nonprofit – but they are not charitable as in 501c,” Rosenberg explains. “When you contribute money or pay your dues, it is not tax-deductible. Krewes are another co-section, kind of like a fraternity or chambers of commerce – nobody can make a profit. They can pay a staff and expenses, but nobody can own them.”
Muses’ top-tier leadership of 10 to 12 members (which Rosenberg says is not very formal and fairly fluid) relies heavily on the executive committee and float lieutenants to pull off all things Muses.
When asked how much it costs to put on a parade like Muses, Rosenberg retreats to the mystic world of Mardi Gras. “Putting a price tag on the parade is like unmasking the mystery behind the celebration. I would say that parades run well into six figures, and some – not ours – well into seven,” she says.
While Rosenberg did not wish to share the costs involved with membership, she did share that annual dues include a costume, riding on the floats, and the before and after parties.
Members have to purchase their own throws. Although there is no set requirement on how much they spend, members tend to spend well over $1,000, some over $2,000, which Rosenberg says is a crucial source of revenue for the organization.
By far, Rosenberg says, the biggest krewe expense is the floats.
“Our celebrated shoe may be the most expensive shoe in town, with a fiber optic light in every inch,” Rosenberg says. “It makes Christian Louboutin shoes look cheap.”
With the cost of floats varying immensely – from mid-five figures to seven figures. Muses decided to switch from renting floats to owning them outright about six years ago. As of this January, they own 35,000 square feet of warehouse space, which Rosenberg admits was may not have been the best financial decision.
“I think we were better off financially renting but we wanted that level of control,” she says.
Without realizing it at the time, Krewe of Muses was given a bit of a break in the first few years by Blaine Kern and marching bands that they signed up to their parade.
“We were charged way less by the float owner and by the bands in the initial years because I think they thought we couldn’t afford it and that we were going to fail – but actually that was really helpful,” she says.
Another expense that Rosenberg learned was unique to their krewe was costumes. Unlike many other krewes, Muses provides its members with new costumes every year. The cost adds up quickly.
Giving More Than Shoes
More than just a fun, social club, Muses also donates to a variety of causes related to women, children and the arts. Over the past 15 years, the krewe has donated over $200,000 to the Greater New Orleans Foundation.
“We auction off a Ride for Charity every year – we have done that every year since we started,” Rosenberg says. “That went for as high as $9,000 one year, and another year it went for $7,500, which also had a corporate match.”
This is just a small indicator of how Muses’ popularity has grown.
Raring to Ride
In 2010, Muses closed its waiting list, which to-date includes more than 500 patiently waiting women.
“We have had a waiting list since the second year,” Rosenberg says. “We established our own limitations. We could have more and bigger floats, but it just seems unwieldy. The original idea was to keep it small so we could know everyone and everyone in the krewe could know each other.”
One thousand and thirty Muses are referred to as riding members, while the women on the waiting list – who pay annual dues – are non-riding members who have access to all of the krewe’s parties and events throughout the year.
Rosenberg says the original reputation of being a krewe just for professional women has faded over the years. Muses members cover the full spectrum, from stay-at-home moms to police officers, to teachers to lawyers – all of whom know that if they drop out, they won’t be getting back in.
“It is a financial commitment and there are absolutely people who are putting money aside every month,” Rosenberg says. “They may sacrifice in other parts of their lives so they can be a Muse.”
There is some flexibility, however. Muses has a very liberal substitute policy that allows riding members to sub out for a year, making room for a non-riding member to join the fun.
“One thing about women is they get pregnant, they have families, sometimes things get financially tight, or they go on vacation – things happen, so we have been pretty flexible about that,” Rosenberg says.
With their membership closed for years now, Rosenberg worries about aging and how that will affect the krewe long term. “You want to be fresh and vibrant, but our membership is closed and the members in the krewe are getting older and that has adversely effected some krewes historically, but we are young at heart,” she says.
Networking, from the beginning, has remained an integral component of the organization. Going against the norm of some other krewes, where riders remain on the same float year after year, Muses riders are assigned to different floats every year in order to generate a strong social network within the organization.
All That Glitters
“Muses live with a crazy amount of glitter, in your food, in your hair, in your floorboards,” Rosenberg says. In order to work on throws, members have transformed areas of their houses into glittering stations – some even dubbing their repurposed garages “glitter-ages.”
Contrary to popular belief, the highly sought-after decorated themed shoes are not an official throw of Muses. What first started as a movement within the krewe has now grown to now be an unofficial trademark.
“People are getting so much better at it…some have their kids helping, some get together in all kinds of groups. It is a big part of peoples’ social life – glittering through the year while waiting for the parade,” Rosenberg says. “And there are lots of people who don’t do it – it is completely individual.”
The number of shoes that each member can bring on board the float is capped at 30. This is not only because they take up a lot of space, but because throws are a major source of revenue for Muses. And of course there’s the fact that the leadership wants the shoes to remain special, limited and hand-crafted.
“Once a few people started, it really took off and eventually the krewe took it on,” Rosenberg says, noting that the krewe has since provided members with helpful tips on creating the shoes. “We figured if people were going to do it anyway, then we wanted to make it as attractive as possible,” she says.
Although the shoe throws were not an original part of the krewe, since the beginning, Muses has always had a ‘Shoe of the Year’ – a bead in the shape of a shoe, along with the signature shoe float.
Rollin’ Down St. Charles
The Thursday night before Fat Tuesday, the signature shoe, bathtub and sirens floats roll to excessive crowds scrambling for a shoe, or at the very least one of the 30 different Muses themed throws.
True to tradition, Muses’ annual theme remains shrouded in secrecy up until the 26 floats line up, ready to make their way down the parade route, showing off the latest designs that often include satirical takes on women, pop culture and politics.
Adorned in themed costumes and their own headdress creations, the 44 riders on each float honor the city ordinance that requires all riders to be masked, throwing randomly – or, at times, purposefully – all things girlie to hordes vying for their attention.
“We work so hard to come up with throws that are in-demand,” Rosenberg says. “Every single item that we sell to the krewe has our logo on it, our name or initial – we don’t have generic things.”
Rosenberg is aware that the word on the street is that Muses have gotten stingy with their throws, but she says that just isn’t true. “As our crowds have grown, it is hard to throw enough,” she says. “Physically, you are dumping the stuff constantly and you still can’t get enough out there.”
At least one band and one marching group strut their stuff between the floats. Originally trying to keep it all-female, Rosenberg says that became very hard and was not very practical. At one point, the krewe tried to have only female tractor drivers too, but there just weren’t enough of them.
“A lot of the women’s marching groups formed for Muses or first appeared in Muses,” Rosenberg adds. “That tradition didn’t exist before. Camel Toe Lady Steppers, The Bearded Oysters, Pussyfooters – most of them were exclusive to us for many years but now most of them do other parades.”
With no official grand marshal, Muses instead opts for an Honorary Muse to ride in the signature shoe float. That person is always someone considered to be a role model for women and children, who has had an impact in different areas. Falling within the code of silence, the Honorary Muse is revealed the day of the parade.
Among Muses’ latest additions is the first female torch carriers, the Glambeaux, which the krewe featured in its 2014 parade.
Choosing not to follow the long-standing tradition of the captain riding on a white horse, Rosenberg can be spotted on the first float, leading the flamboyant parade. Along with 10 other officials, she will be throwing paraphernalia out to the crowds that started congregating along the neutral ground since daybreak, and oftentimes the day before.
“We had really bad weather karma in the first few years, where it was raining or freezing cold, and we were blown away that people would stand out in the rain and pick up soggy stuffed animals out of the gutter,” Rosenberg says. “That was when I knew we were onto something big.”