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Where Anyone Can Act

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

This year, two big dress-up events fall in the same week. But the Academy Awards and Mardi Gras couldn't be more different. At the Hollywood party, the common people are supposed to venerate the stars. In Mardi Gras, the commoners are the stars.

And that's what makes Mardi Gras feel so much more modern than the bouncer-dominated world of movie celebrity. Never mind that "Fat Tuesday" -- for many Christians the carnival preceding the somber period of Lent -- dates back to medieval times and the Oscars to 1929.

Today's media revolution is all about "disintermediation," the decreased use of intermediaries between producers and consumers. Few cultural events are more mediated than the Oscars, where keeping the consumers far from the ball is part of the design.

The producers themselves are mediated by others deciding who gets on the A-list for parties, who no longer is and who never was. We learn that even invitations to parties -- Vanity Fair's, for example -- are not quite so coveted as they once were. The hierarchy of exclusivity can be brutal.

At the Oscars, it's the job of the consumers to envy the winners and pity others for their fading popularity or regrettable plastic surgery. We fans are supposed to remain behind our TV screens with tongues hanging out as the competitive goddesses stop to model on the red carpet.

Who told them all to put one hand on the hip and let the other hang down? Who told 80 percent of them that they had to be blond with a "loose" strand glued in place? And surely, Hollywood has a drug to ease the obvious terror behind the petrified smiles.

Mardi Gras is something else. Sure, there are professional musicians and polished marchers, but the ordinary celebrants get equal billing. They, too, wear masks and outlandish outfits.

Unlike the tense Hollywood players, the Mardi Gras partyers tend not to feel obligated to starve or subject their bodies to hideous workouts in anticipation. One could well believe that some of the ladies had a hamburger for lunch before squeezing themselves into the green sequined tube. All genders may wear colored beads and masks with feathers.

In this country, Mardi Gras celebrations have spread far beyond their home in the Louisiana bayou. Wherever it happens, the Cajun and zydeco music makes everyone a dancer. And the guest lists run from A to Z.

As for dress, the devil doesn't wear Prada. The devil wears devil clothes.

Your writer attended a Mardi Gras ball in Rhode Island. (Rhode Island is often called "the Louisiana of the North" for its exotically corrupt politics and good food.) Police lingered on the premises of the old ballroom, Rhodes on the Pawtuxet, to enforce minimum standards of lawful behavior. But there were no brawny "social arbiters" deciding who got in the door.

Several real-live Louisiana musicians provided the authentic sounds. One of them was C.J. Chenier, son of the late "King of Zydeco," Clifton Chenier. An international star, he drew fans with phone cameras toward the stage.

A yard beyond, though, the dancing revelers were not worshipping but working with him. The joy produced by Chenier was making a round trip from his accordion to the so-called audience and back.

Point is, this was not a passive experience like the Oscars, where the common masses watch the festivities on a screen. The Mardi Gras participants may not be equal in their costumes, musical talents or dance ability, but they are equal as combo guests and hosts.

Like the professionals in Hollywood, they, too, are acting -- of course. Thing is, they're also having a much better time.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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