When Coney Island Had Its Own Mardi Gras

Just a brief squib for Fat Tuesday.

Being as we are huge fans of New Orleans, we would never for a moment slight the mother of all Mardi Gras parades today but we did want to briefly mention the little known fact that for a half century, from 1903 through 1954 Coney Island had its own annual such do. The craziest thing about it is that it had nothing to do with Lent or Shrove Tuesday or any of the traditional seasonal reasons for the celebration. In fact it was held at the END of Coney Island’s summer season in September, so why it was called Mardi Gras at all I dunno, go figure. But they did, and it shared just about all the usual elements: floats, matching bands, crazy costumes, people with big over-sized head pieces and the like.

Apparently it was originally held to raise money for the local Mission and Rescue Home for Wayward Girls, and much like certain contemporary parades (St. Patricks and the West Indian Day Parade are just two examples that spring to mind) it had a certain reputation for wildness. Pranks were often played by revelers on the attendees. And, it being Coney Island, a large number of participants were drawn from the the sideshow and amusement world, giving it a very special flavor indeed.

And here’s a hot tip. The 1917 Fatty ArbuckleBuster KeatonAl St. John comedy Coney Island has some great shots of the Coney Island Mardi Gras parade. It’s well worth watching for the location shooting and for many other reasons as well (it’s funny). It’s up on Youtube. I won’t link because the links always go dead on me.

Coney Island’s Mardi Gras parade was not held during the World War Two years and only sporadically after that, although it is cool to know that it was still happening a decade after Luna Park closed, adding a bit of additional, traditional color to Surf Ave at least one day out of the year for awhile. But by the mid 50s the neighborhood was changing drastically. The parade seems to have been phased out about the same time the public housing was phased in.

The story has a cheerful coda however because in 1983 Coney Island USA premiered its first annual Mermaid Parade, which is similar in most important ways to the old Mardi Gras parade, apart from the fact that it somehow manages to be at once much crazier and much safer. And that it takes place at the START of the summer season rather than at the end. Hitching it to the summer solstice gives it a pagan flavor much more in keeping with Mardi Gras, even though it now has a different name.

For more on the Coney Island Mardi Gras parade see this terrific article in the Daily News as well as this one by the Bowery Boys and this one on Ephemeral New York.