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Powered by motorized recliners, these Mardi Gras revelers are ready to roll on
NEW ORLEANS – Even in a city where nothing should surprise you, a group of 55 men riding down the street in electric-powered La-Z-Boy chairs can turn heads.
They're the Laissez Boys, a French turn on the popular furniture maker, and they regularly catch the attention of locals and tourists alike during Carnival. They ride motorized recliners, which each member personally styles. Some have lamps, James Bond-style pop-up bars or ice chests, fancy lighting that mimics car headlights, or a simple reading leg lamp.
The chairs, which can weigh up to 400 pounds, sit on motorized scooters. They are plush, padded, comfortable, and easy to drive. The line is drawn somewhere, however — the chairs must be recliners, no love seats allowed. Carnival season in the Big Easy is a place where people don't run away from crazy. They throw a parade for it.
"We are all thrilled to be back. We missed it terribly, much more even than I think we thought we did. I think it's true for everyone in New Orleans. We get so excited about what we get to do. We kinda can't believe we get away with it every year," founding member Chris Poche told the PBS NewsHour. "It was very difficult last year. New Orleans is all about gathering. It is about the people. When we lost that, it was really, really hard. Everyone is just thrilled Mardi Gras is back. It will be crazy out there."
This year, as revelers descend on New Orleans for the first time in two years, onlookers will be revved up to see the return of the Laissez Boys, one of Mardi Gras' newest traditions. The 55-member krewe – a membership-based social organization that puts on a parade or ball during Carnival season – rolls down the parade route in the comfort of their motorized recliners.
Last year, the chairs sat idle after all parades were canceled. Now, members have their batteries charged up and are ready to "laissez les bons temps rouler." The French saying for "let the good times roll" has become the mantra for Mardi Gras throughout the years. This year is no different, despite ongoing COVID concerns and public health protocols.
As this group stylishly rides down St. Charles Avenue at 5 mph in various states of recline, they wear dapper smoking jackets with matching shoes, a cigar in one hand and a cocktail in the other while background music from famous crooners like Louis Prima, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin blares to the enjoyment of the crowds. When the floats stop, that's when the real magic happens. The chairs may spin and put on a show. If the delay is long enough, members get out of their chairs and dance with strangers to a Sinatra song in the middle of the street.
"Our DNA is making people laugh, point, and snap their fingers along with these songs and along with us. We get 30 seconds on the parade route to have those moments with people. It's spectacular," founding member Michael Tisserand said.
Poche's chair is a Victorian wingback in classic burgundy. It's got fringes, a lamp, a reading table, and a book. He's also got screwdrivers and duct tape tucked away in the armrests for emergencies.
"Some of them are more modern. Some are pretty slick-looking chairs. A couple of huge ones [are] like theater seats; the rule is it has to be a recliner. We had one guy join the club and without asking anybody, he built a rolling loveseat and had to start over. It was beautiful, but not a recliner."
After years of bigger floats, beads that blink, and epic battles of the bands, it's the adult marching groups like the Laissez Boys that are making people swoon. It's a little Mardi Gras "lagniappe," a French term commonly used in New Orleans that means "a little extra."
Mardi Gras' most famous historian, Arthur Hardy, says the group has become a welcomed new tradition. However, Hardy, who has published the popular Mardi Gras Guide every year for 46 years, admits even he was skeptical at first.
"When people would tell me about them, I'd say 'oh man, that can't work. C'mon,' " Hardy told the NewsHour. "Then, when I got to see them, I said 'this is just bizarre. It's out of the box. Only people in New Orleans can think of something this ridiculous.' But, it works and it is so much fun."
The group started in 2013 when they joined other outlandish middle-aged adult groups of perfectly imperfect paraders like the PussyFooters, Amelia Earhawts, Muff-a-lottas, New Orleans Baby Dolls, and the 610 Stompers. All march, dance, or ride behind the colorful floats.
Even the names of these groups are enough to turn heads in a city that has seen it all, Hardy said. In hindsight, Mardi Gras needed these groups.
"They are doing it to have fun and spread joy. It has democratized Mardi Gras because It gives people who are not Krewe members or can't afford it a way of participating in a parade in a meaningful way," Hardy said. "To be welcomed into the "real parades" as units within a parade is relatively new. It's made carnival much more diverse. It's just opened up a whole new level of participation. It's a terrific addition."
Each Mardi Gras Parade Krewe has a unique history and theme. Some have been around for decades, while others have been in existence for just a few years.
Mardi Gras krewes throw the parades and charge membership fees to put on the parade and balls. Some fees can cost thousands of dollars. Additionally, each member can spend thousands on throws.
Criteria for membership vary widely, ranging from exclusive organizations requiring sponsorship to anyone who can pay the membership fee.
Sassy, sequined, irreverent dance troupes and marching clubs like the Laissez Boys are usually invited or solicit to participate. Hardy says it's a great way to be a part of Mardi Gras without the expense of joining a big krewe. They have also added back a bit of local flare to the celebration.
While the group admits it is elevating a common male stereotype, members also say the rolling show is comedy with intention. "It is the illusion of laziness," Tisserand laughs. "We'd argue that 'laissezness' is not laziness. We're reclining, but we're reclining for a purpose. We recline to bring joy to your heart and make connections. The chairs bring us to eye level with people. There is so much contact with people. It's all the little jokes and fun with people that propel us down the parade route."
The Laissez Boys only roll in two of the dozens of parades that make up the Mardi Gras season in New Orleans. Members say the Krewe of Tucks — a Mardi Gras parade born in a pub — is a perfect fit. It's a group known for its toilet humor and satirical floats, including the King's Throne – a giant toilet. Tucks is known for tossing bawdy throws like plungers and blue fuzzy balls.
The other parade is the Krewe of Muses, named after the daughters of Zeus of Greek mythology. Muses, with 1,100 women members, is one of Mardi Gras revelers' favorites. Their ride is all about female empowerment, friendship, and generosity, and they are known for handing out glittery shoes and their 160-foot-long massive rubber duck float.
The Laissez Boys admit convincing the first all-female Mardi Gras krewe to parade during night parades to let them join their parade took a lot of work.
"We picked up Muses after a very long courtship. They weren't keen on us in the beginning but we won them over with a letter-writing campaign. We sent love letters until they relented," Poche says with a deep chuckle.
In fact, they begged repeatedly. One of the letters sent by the secret Laissez Boys "Chairman" to the Krewe of Muses reads in part: "Tucks is on Board, but you elude us …The Laissez Boys will be yours … They will ride where you ride … lead you or follow you. They are at your service and at your mercy," the letter professes. "So, I beg you openly, find a place for them."
Eventually, Muses agreed to a Mardi Gras date following a 2017 Valentine's Day message sent via Facebook. The rest of the love story could be found in the lyrics of one of Dean Martin's songs, "Ain't That a Kick in the Head," which asks, "How lucky can one man be?"
Members of the Muses say they weren't playing hard to get. They are just typically inundated with requests for the coveted spots in the parade. This one stood out.
"I liked the persistence. I like that they had a unique swag about them," Muses marching unit coordinator Dionne Randolph told the NewsHour. "The poems of course were so charmingly different. No one has done that before. While they were begging, I secretly wanted them in the parade. So it was more of 'How am I going to get them in there?'"
The rest is "herstory," or one might say, a match made in heaven. The rolling recliners now have a permanent spot along with a dozen others like the Rolling Elvi and the 'over 30-something' majorettes called the PussyFooters.
"They must be having a good time. They continue to profess their love for the muses, and they show up every year, and they show up for us. The relationship has grown. We are all in," Randolph laughs.
Since that first year, the group has gotten a bit more sophisticated. Early on, the motorized chairs were a bit primitive. Most didn't make it to the end and had to be tossed into a trailer following behind them.
"It was really just a chair on wheels. We didn't even know if they'd work," Poche said. "We kind of lied and said they could make six miles easy. We had no idea at the time. By the time we got to the end, the trailer was covered with chairs, and we were pushing chairs down the street. It was a bit of a fiasco."
Now, years later, Tisserand says " our standards rise every year. You will not see any frayed edges or cigar holes in the fabric of the chairs that we roll these days."
Poche boasts that they've not had a breakdown in the last five years. But "there's always a chance a string of beads will get caught around the axel, and it'll take you out."
This year the group will have to navigate their leisure mobiles around the pandemic as much as they do New Orleans' infamous potholes. Poche says some guys' "lives were upended by the pandemic" and a few won't participate.
"Everyone is on board with whatever it takes to get us back out on the street," Poche said. The city has imposed strict "vaccine or test" COVID restrictions on Mardi Gras Krewes. Muses has gone further and are requiring that all must be vaccinated and won't accept negative tests.
The only other option is to stay parked. Last year, not only were batteries ruined but spirits crashed.
As Tisserand puts it, "there is nothin' more lonelier than a motorized 'laissez boy' chair that has not been ridden."
"Last year, I put on my clothes and I got on my chair and drove down St. Charles Avenue alone at 4 in the afternoon because I had to do something," Poche says. "A few of us then gathered socially distanced by the chairs in someone's yard. So, for this year to be able to do it for real is crazy."
Tisserand can usually be found singing along to a Louis Prima song like "Buona Sera" in his leopard recliner with a jaunty cigar in the corner of his mouth and a jacket that matches as if he and the chair are one.
In a period when Mardi Gras was stalled by a pandemic and some argue the "dad chair" is dead, the Laissez Boys say "long live" to both. Members are just glad to once again have a front seat to the "Greatest Free Show on Earth."
"I feel like the bond is deeper than ever with both. When you come close to losing something, you treasure it all the more. Having gone through a year without being able to ride and having our chairs on blocks in storage, I'd say the bond this Mardi Gras is deeper than ever."