New Orleans reporter: Mardi Gras is a ‘big, immersive thing’

From Mardi Gras 2013, an Instagram photo by Doug MacCash.

Two moments stand out for Doug MacCash after several years covering Mardi Gras for NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune. They include a tiny fire and the real Chewbacca.

The first happened in 2011.

A candle-lit float in the Feb. 26 ‘titRex (pronounced like the dinosaur) miniature Mardi Gras parade caught fire soon after the parade began on Poland Avenue at 5:45. It was consumed in flames before the parade had completed one block of its route. The theme of the float was “Religion: Too Little, Too Late.” The third annual parade, made up of 25 shoe box-sized satiric floats, continued.

“And then someone from the crowd stomped on it,” said MacCash in a phone interview with Poynter. “It was splendid. It was a beautiful day to be a journalist.”

Luckily, MacCash shot video.

MacCash, a general assignment entertainment reporter and art critic, covers the parades from the inside, with a tripod around his neck, his iPhone and a zoom lens. He uses video and Instagram to help him report and types into the notepad on his phone when he needs to record names. Working that way adds texture to his quotes, he said, keeping all the ums and ands that video captures and letting readers hear people as they naturally are.

Of course, he stays sober while reporting. Covering Mardi Gras is different than being in the crowd, but “if you’re actually covering it, if you’re actually working, you’re not exactly part of the parades, but it’s a big immersive thing, so you ought to be having a really good time anyway.”

Challenges covering Mardi Gras include working in cold temps (by New Orleans standards,) MacCash said, and weighing what’s appropriate to really show people. In one of the more bawdy parades, Krewe du Vieux, MacCash has to be aware not just of what’s happening on the floats, but in the background, too. That’s true with the politics of the floats, as well. Regardless of those, when a float is witty or funny, MacCash points it out.

“I just clumsily and explicitly say, politics aside, this is pretty funny,” he said. “It would be nice to be coy, but it’s better to just come right out and say whatever your politics are, you gotta acknowledge this is pretty funny.”

MacCash’s second favorite moment involves Chewbacca. Last year, at the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus parade, a “nutty, arty, sci-fi nerd parade, they would happily call themselves that,” the British actor Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca in the “Star Wars” films, actually took part.

Many a Mardi Gras parade is based on ancient mythological themes that most of us have some vague knowledge of, but not much real emotional connection to (caution, do not attempt to diagram that last sentence). Chewbacchus, on the other hand, taps into the pop culture mythology of Star Trek, Star Wars, Dr. Who etc. that we 21st century humans dearly love and understand perfectly.

Tonight, Chewbacchus achieved an immeasurably meta Carnival coup by convincing their namesake, the real Chewbacca to ride in the parade. The charming actor Peter Mayhew, who starred as Chewbacca in the Star Wars series, passed intimately close to the crowd, borne on a custom-made Millennium Falcon float. All hail Chewbacca!

The very-tall actor rode along with the rag-tag parade, MacCash said, “and it was like, this just can’t get any better. This is just so completely perfect.”

Luckily, MacCash shot a video interview with Mayhew, too.

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