The pandemic may have upended the city’s traditional Mardi Gras plans, but the show must go on. Residents of the University Uptown neighborhood have raised the curtain on a fleet of Broadway-inspired house floats, following the theme of “2020: The Musical!”
This Krewe of House Floats has stepped in during a Carnival season of no parades, no bars and no partying in the French Quarter after curfew.
“Krewe of House Floats has really been building the plane while flying it. The humor and the whimsy of our neighborhood really shows through with our theme,” said Jenna Rockett, captain of the University Uptown subkrewe. “It’s that ability to look around and laugh and make it work.”
The subkrewe also plans to give back to neighbors in need through a social media fundraiser. Each house float can create a hashtag that starts with #ThrowThemSomething.
For every person who uses the hashtag on social media, the homeowner will agree to make a donation to the Krewe of House Floats fund, which supports homeless outreach efforts at Grace at the Greenlight and food distribution at Culture Aid NOLA.
“That’s really just the spirit of who we are as a community here in New Orleans,” Rockett said. “We’re going to party, and we’re going to take care of each other.”
Notable floats include “Little Shop of Horrors” on the 2400 block of Nashville, “COVID-19 Frozen: The Kingdom of Isolation” on the 5500 block of Magnolia, and “Bye Bye Rona” on the 5800 block of South Robertson. The last house features a cut-out of a nurse waving away coronavirus balls made out of paper lanterns studded with red spikes that were twisted from 1,200 pipe cleaners.
There are also house floats in the neighborhood that don’t follow the musical theme, but still steal the show. The circus-themed “Animal House” on the 5500 block of St. Charles rivals the Audubon Zoo, while the eye-popping “DinoGras” float on the 5800 block of the street can compete with Jurassic Park itself.
Broadway Street was the obvious inspiration for the musical motif, but the theme also reflects the neighborhood’s creative, colorful residents.
For homeowner Dodd Loomis, the theme was almost too appropriate: he directed the North American tour of the “Lion King” musical, and his wife is a musical theater performer who has appeared in works like “Cabaret.” So of course, his house on the 2400 block of State Street had to be a showstopper.
Taking inspiration from the megahit musical “Hamilton,” the house float proclaims we’re “not throwin’ away our shot.” Lights swoop over the house all night, illuminating a cut-out of the 10-dollar founding father holding up a vaccine.
Loomis hired artist Reed Tribou to create a spray-paint mural of King George III, who’s saying his signature line, “We’ll be back!” The phrase “beautifully encapsulates what the city is about,” says Loomis: the city may be old, but it’s still scrappy and hungry, and it’s still going to stay alive.
“It’s very much of the New Orleanian spirit to rise above it, put your chin up, find a creative solution, and keep your sense of humor,” said Loomis.
Reed Tribou also helped Loomis’s neighbor down the street, Charlotte Viguerie, create a “Wizard of Oz”-themed house. Loomis said that the second the musical theme was announced, his neighbor called him and said, “You need to come over. We’re pouring whiskeys, we need to brainstorm what to do with my house.”
The result of these cocktail-fueled brainstorming sessions is a magical sight, as a bicycle flies in midair above a yellow brick road that leads up to a pair of giant ruby slippers on the front steps.
Another house on the 2600 block on Jefferson Avenue references the signature song from the musical “Rent”: “Seasons of Love.”
“In 525,600 minutes, how do you measure a year in a life?” sing the musical’s characters, who are artists struggling to survive the AIDS crisis of the 1990s.
For homeowner Courtney Newberry, the question has a deeply personal meaning. She saw the musical’s debut on Broadway when she was a nurse in an AIDS ward. She later worked as a paramedic in Dallas during the Ebola scare.
Her father died suddenly during Mardi Gras 2019, with no chance for his family to say “goodbye” or “I love you.” And on top of everything else, the pandemic is hitting the one-year mark in the U.S. All of these experiences have helped Newberry recognize the precious fragility of life.
“Every moment, every second, every minute of the 525,600 that we get in a year is precious, because it could be our last minute,” she said.
Though the message is somber, her presentation is joyful. Newberry, who makes masks and custom body glitter for Gliterrati NOLA, decked the trees in front of her house with heart-shaped cut-outs featuring all the ways that the season of love is measured in the song: in sunsets, in cups of coffee, in journeys to plan.
“There’s a season of life and love that you celebrate,” Newberry said. “It might be the end of someone else’s life, but you should still celebrate how much that person meant to you.”
The musical is particularly beloved in the LGBT community, and Newberry’s youngest child, who is gender non-binary, adores it.
“We celebrate love between same-sex partners, we celebrate love between elderly couples. The music of “Rent” is incredibly important to my family,” Newberry said.
Newberry’s charity hashtag will be #ThrowThemSomethingForTheLove. For everyone who tags the house in a social media post, she’ll donate $1 to the Greater New Orleans Foundation. “Being kind and treating each other with love and compassion is the only way that will get us through this,” she said.
“I just want people to realize that our minutes count, because they could be the last,” Newberry added. “So be kind and gentle with each other.”