Stringed beads slapping against bare bosoms. Drag queens in mini-skirts. Near-vomiting masses drinking blood-red hurricanes. These are only a few of the sights awaiting revelers at Soulard Mardi Gras, a one-time ragtag, neighborhood gathering that has become an ever-growing bacchanal as it approaches its 26th year.
But the days of extreme boozing may be numbered, as larger crowds continue to give rise to more sobering rules. First, the city ordered Soulard bars to shut down at 11 p.m. on the Saturday of the Grand Parade. Then, last year, the excise commissioner banned kegs on parade floats.
And now, with New Orleans still reeling from Hurricane Katrina and St. Louis poised to become the nation's leading Mardi Gras destination, the city's police department wants to further curtail hours at Soulard's watering holes. There's also serious talk of clamping down on other city neighborhoods including ones that don't even host Mardi Gras celebrations.
Police are proposing that Soulard halt outdoor alcohol sales at 4 p.m. and close indoor bars at 8 p.m. on Saturday, February 25, the date of this year's Grand Parade. The department also wants every establishment serving liquor in a swath of town extending from Cole to Chippewa streets, and from the riverfront to Jefferson Avenue, to shutter their doors that night at 11 p.m. possibly earlier.
Lieutenant Anthony Russo, the department's commander of operational planning, floated the idea during recent meetings with Mardi Gras organizers, city officials and Soulard bar-owners, according to City Excise Commissioner Bob Kraiberg and others who attended.
"I immediately piped up and said I really felt like the merchants on the Landing would not like this idea at all," recalls Dawne Massey, executive director of the Laclede's Landing Merchants Association. "They tell me that's their biggest night of the year."
"I think it's an absolutely crazy idea," seconds Seamus McGowan, co-owner of Flannery's Irish Pub and Lucas Park Grille, both located on Washington Avenue. "Last year, that was a huge day for us. They probably think one night wouldn't hurt us. But it will."
Besides appearing anti-business, the abbreviated hours and extended geographic boundaries seem arbitrary to McGowan and other bar owners. Their question: Why penalize people who don't attend Mardi Gras but still want a beer on a Saturday night?
Rudy Piskulick, manager of Johnny's Restaurant and Bar in Soulard and a member of the Mardi Gras Inc. board, predicts the city risks a major hangover if it enforces early closures.
"Nobody's done partying at eight p.m.," Piskulick argues. "Where's everybody going to go?"
Police spokesman Richard Wilkes declines to offer any specific reasons on why there's a need to lock up the city's liquor cabinet on parade night, nor would he permit Russo to answer any questions on matter.
"Whatever Russo said, those were suggestions," Wilkes maintains.
"I think it has to do with manpower restrictions," offers Kraiberg. "I think it gets down to the number of people that have to be called in to service Soulard and still patrol nine police districts."
Kraiberg adds, however, that he's unaware of any past troubles associated with keeping normal bar hours on parade night.
In fact, "the crowds get better-behaved every year," notes Rick Weiser, district supervisor for the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control.
Barring a direct police order, Kraiberg says he will make the final call on which bars and restaurants close and when. "I'm listening to all the arguments, and I'll try to make the best decision I can." He promises a decision by mid-January.
Mardi Gras festivities begin with Twelfth Night on January 6 and continue through the Fat Tuesday Parade on February 28, with the Grand Parade down Seventh Street the biggest event of all. Hundreds of thousands of revelers local and tourists are alike are expected, thanks in part to efforts by the St. Louis Convention and Visitors' Commission to lure partiers at a time when conventioneers are scarce.
"We spend a lot of time letting people know this is one of the biggest and best Mardi Gras celebrations in the country," says spokeswoman Nancy Milton. "And I think we'll get even more attention this year because of New Orleans."
Milton, who says she's unaware of the bar-hours proposal, recently sent a brochure detailing special Mardi Gras hotel packages to more than 250,000 households in the Midwest.
Last year the Soulard bash provided a $21 million boost to the local economy, according to the Regional Chamber and Growth Association, and until two weeks ago, organizers thought they had St. Louis' biggest and most sophisticated party in the works for this year.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the mayor's office, several aldermen and neighborhood residents all suggested extending the party's geographic footprint in order to relieve congestion in Soulard, according to Mardi Gras Inc. spokesman Mack Bradley. The group quickly set in motion a plan to have national musical acts perform on two soundstages one just east of Seventh Street and another at the intersection of 12th Street and Gravois Avenue.
Off-duty military police officers from Scott Air Force Base agreed to provide security for the event, and Anheuser-Busch "was going to buck up some money for it," says board member Rudy Piskulick. Mardi Gras Inc. was within a day of signing a contract with a band when the nonprofit learned that police opposed hosting music venues in Soulard. Five days later, organizers abandoned the project.
Says Bradley: "That leaves us with the question: What are we going to do [to accommodate extra people]?"
"We'll get all these people here," answers Piskulick, "and then show them what a true one-cow town we can be."