Pete Fountain struts and revelers take to the streets as Mardi Gras unfolds in New Orleans

Zulu King Frank Boutte, left, gets situated on his float prior to the Krewe of Zulu Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008 Ann Heisenfelt, The Associated Press


Zulu King Frank Boutte, left, gets situated on his float prior to the Krewe of Zulu Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008 Ann Heisenfelt, The Associated Press

By Mary Foster

NEW ORLEANS – Clarinetist Pete Fountain, dressed in a tunic as one of King Arthur’s knights, looked frail but happy Tuesday morning as he led 100 members of his Half-Fast Walking Club onto Uptown streets in what has become New Orleans’ unofficial opening of Mardi Gras.

“Oh, I’m feeling fine. You always feel fine on Mardi Gras,” said Fountain, 77. He’s had health problems since Hurricane Katrina, but still plays two days a week at a Gulf Coast casino.

Mardi Gras – Fat Tuesday – is the often raucous end to the pre-Lenten Carnival season. The celebration characterized by family friendly parades uptown and in the suburbs – and by heavy drinking and lots of near-nudity in the French Quarter – is highlighted by 12 days of parades and parties.

This year’s Half-Fast walk, with the theme “Knights of the Round Table,” was the 47th for Fountain’s club. Several members wiped sweat from their foreheads in unusually warm, muggy weather, with temperatures already in the upper 70s.

Temperatures were expected to rise to about the record of 81 degrees in New Orleans, an indicator that flesh-flashing in the bawdy French Quarter was likely to be greater the usual.

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Crowds started forming near dawn in the Quarter and some people had not yet had any sleep after Monday night’s reveling. Police reported no unusual incidents.

While the walking club was on its way, floats of the Zulu parade headed for their starting point. Zulu, the black community’s oldest parade, was to be followed by the Rex parade, with businessman John E. Koerner III reigning as Rex, King of Carnival and Monarch of Merriment.

Rex would be followed by hundreds of gaily decorated truck floats, many created by families and neighborhood Carnival clubs. Police expected the last floats wouldn’t reach the end of the parade routes until late afternoon.

In suburban Jefferson Parish and elsewhere in south Louisiana, revelers lined up on parade routes or set up family picnics.

In Cajun country, costumed riders on horseback set out on their annual Courir du Mardi Gras, a town-to-town celebration. Hundreds of people registered for the Courir de Mardi Gras in Eunice, a bayou community 150 miles west of New Orleans. Hundreds were on horseback and scores of others rode along in pickup trucks or on flatbed trailers.

“It’s just heritage. It’s Louisiana. We’re crazy,” said Courir participant Cody Granger, 24, wearing what looked like surgical scrubs decorated with the New Orleans Saints’ logo.

In a sign that New Orleans has yet to recover fully from the hurricanes of 2005, this year’s King Zulu, businessman Frank Boutte, is still living in Houston because Katrina’s flooding damaged his Lakefront home. Still, the Zulu parade was up to pre-storm standards, with 1,200 riders on 27 floats.

Zulu was being led by Mayor Ray Nagin, riding on horseback and clad as an Indian in buckskins and a white headdress.

Cathy and James Pavageau (PAH-vuh-go) of Metairie, setting up a tent in the median of St. Charles Avenue – the city’s main parade route – said they thought the crowd was a bit bigger than it has been recently. Arriving at 6 a.m. let them get spots closer to Lee Circle in the past two years, but not this year, they said.

They expected about a dozen people to join them for the climax of a celebration marred this year by shootings that have injured nine people.

“We worry. But what can you do?” Pavageau said. “You can’t just stay in your house. We just pray everything is OK.”

Only sporadic violence has marred the celebration. At least eight people had been wounded by gunshots, five of them on Saturday.

Police said 1,100 officers, state troopers and National Guardsmen have been positioned along parade routes since the season began.

AP Reporter Stacey Plaisance contributed to this report.