By Val Schoger Photography by Harold Bramton
In February, with its cooler temperatures, no event excites locals and visitors as much as Mardi Gras. Just as its famous counterparts in New Orleans, the Mardi Gras parades in Historic St. Andrews and Panama City Beach attract visitors from near and far. Spectators compete in catching (and hollering for) beads, sometimes congregating hours before the event, large bags in hand. It’s great fun, especially for the young and the young at heart. Floats roll, the crowd cheers, and beads fly!
But not all floats are alike. With countless volunteer hours leading up to the festivities, the Jewels of the Sea, an all-female Mardi Gras group and offshoot of Bay County’s Krewe of Dominique Youx, make a spectacle of presenting the prettiest of all floats. Dressed as mermaids or wearing embellished gowns, The Jewels of the Sea clearly receive the most “ahhs” and “ohhs.” Decorated with large colorful flowers, vivid underwater scenes, leaving clouds of bubbles in its trail, and with several of the mermaids seated in giant shells up front, the float is one of the greatest attractions at the local parades. What the spectators do not see are the logistics, maintenance, and countless hours of work to transform a former flatbad trailer (that once was used to haul cotton) into the Mardi Gras parade showstopper that it is today. The Krewe of Dominique Youx’s chief float builder, Tom Knoll, has constructed several floats to date, from building the wooden frames, to supervising the application of foam, to adding amenities and technical features.
But it was Tom’s wife, Shelia Knoll and artist Karen Seubert, two founding members of the Jewels of the Sea, who created the unique maritime look with artistic skill and prior detailed research. “When we first decided to redesign the float, we spent a weekend at Mardi Gras World in New Orleans where all the floats are made. We took photos and got many great ideas,” Karen explains. She mastered the construction of the large wire-enforced flower petals that decorate the sides of the float after a few trial and error attempts. A water-resistant flower petal prototype was created and fellow Jewels of the Sea members helped Karen produce the petals in large quantities. The foam structure was painted a new soft blue color with nautical elements. “All in all, the process took about a year,” Karen explains and adds that most of the materials and expenses were funded by Dominque Youx founding member, Gary Walsingham.
While The Jewels of the Sea share the work and the fun, clearly the former takes much more time. The costume committee spearheaded by Shelia Knoll and Jennifer Goodwiller created the skin-tight mermaid costumes and supplies, beads, and pins have to be purchased and replenished frequently with the pins presenting a very popular trade item among visiting Krewes. When not in use, all Dominique Youx floats are stored in a warehouse and kept out of wind and weather. Precautions have to be taken when traveling to the site of the parade and protective netting is draped across the float before it travels. There are dozens of details to be considered but by the time the Jewels are climbing aboard, the many hours of painting, installing, maintaining, and the struggles of shimmying into the skintight mermaid costumes do not come to mind.
The Jewels Of The Sea are proud of their float but even prouder of the camaraderie among the 41 women who are its members and, of course, the happy faces in the crowd persistently hollering, “More Beads!” The Jewels of the Sea participate in three parades a year; The Pirates of the High Seas Festival, The Historic St. Andrew’s Mardi Gras Parade, and the Panama City Beach Mardi Gras Parade. The parade schedules for 2018 can be found online at standrewsmardigras.com and visitpanamacitybeach.com/mardigras/
THE KREWE OF DOMINIQUE YOUX
Bay County’s first Mardi Gras group, the Krewe of Dominique Youx, is named for infamous privateer and hero, Dominique Youx (born approximately 1770 and died 1830). The first parades started on a small scale as a neighborhood event with its members riding in (and throwing beads from) golf carts, according to one of the founding members, local businessman Gary Walsingham. In 1997, the Krewe organized its first full-fledged parade in Historic St. Andrews. While the Krewe of Dominique Youx only allows male members, spouses join the yearly banquets and are encouraged to participate in the parades (on their own floats) which resulted in the formation of the Jewels of the Sea.