Something comes over Duane Hoff when he puts on his crown.
“I start making proclamations,” says the down-to-earth Midwesterner. “The dogs get very worried.”
Like most of us, Hoff and his wife Susan are unaccustomed to the trappings of royalty. But this year the couple is crowned king and queen of the Krewe of Mid-City (KMC), the 5th-oldest continuously parading organization of the New Orleans Carnival season.
Duane and Susan Hoff at their King & Queen Soiree — Photo courtesy of Oscar Rajo
The krewe, a Mardi Gras term for social club, steps off on February 26 for the 84th time since its founding in 1933, rolling at 11:45 am from uptown and heading four miles downriver to Canal Street.
Known for its eye-popping use of animation and colorful-foil decorated floats, the parade is a family affair complete with marching bands and its signature throw: foil packets of Louisiana-made Zapp’s potato chips sporting the krewe’s overlapping hearts logo.
Throws are at the heart of Mardi Gras fun, with each krewe going beyond just beads to add its own signature touch to the baubles thrown to the crowd. The throwing of trinkets was started in the early 1870s by the Twelfth Night Revelers, and is a time-honored New Orleans birthright for revelers of all ages.
It’s good to be King (and Queen)
Being a queen takes practice — Photo courtesy of Oscar Rajo
Susan and Duane will be riding on royal floats, throwing beads and wearing the crowns they had specially made for them by Tommy and Tanya Cain at Dynasty Collection in Mobile, Ala.
The Hoffs, who retired from executive positions at Best Buy Company and now run Fantesca Estate & Winery in Napa, realize they aren’t the typical choice for KMC’s sovereigns. Traditionally, most krewes bestow the honor on locals, folks who are from or at least live in New Orleans, and that is why they're so thrilled to be wearing their custom crowns.
As royalty, they'll preside over the Krewe’s fancy by-invitation-only Bal Masque on February 24, a black tie evening of traditional pomp and circumstance that few outsiders experience. Mardi Gras balls are over-the-top parties; multi-generational gatherings that celebrate the history of the krewe and pay homage to Carnival royalty and tradition.
Debutantes are introduced to the royal court, with children serving as pages, young ladies and gentlemen as maids and dukes. The "tableau," a staged pageant that depicts stories, usually from mythology or history, unfolds at the beginning of the evening and is followed by dinner and dancing.
At the upcoming ball, Susan will be wearing a stunning crystal-studded gown designed by D&D Creations in New Orleans. “My outfit isn’t so flattering,” joked Duane. “It’s a traditional costume, a tunic and tights – not something I wear around the winery all the time.”
The royalty aspect of Mardi Gras, pageantry that dates back to the first Mistick Krewe of Comus in the mid-19th century, is just one of the many layers of tradition that surrounds Carnival in New Orleans.
It's a season of celebrating that starts on 12th night, January 6 and goes through Mardi Gras Day, Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent, which this year falls on February 28. (It’s different every year in this historically Catholic city, counting back from Easter, which is determined by the Advent calendar.)
From bucket list to royal "we"
Susan and Duane Hoff celebrating their coronation as Mardi Gras king and queen of the Krewe of Mid-City — Photo courtesy of Oscar Rajo
The Hoffs’ journey to Mardi Gras monarchy started in the late '90s, when they first met New Orleans resident Gerard Braud, a media training and crisis communications consultant. He started working with Susan and Duane at Best Buy headquarters in Minneapolis and the trio became friends. Braud, a passionate and lifelong celebrator of Mardi Gras, invited them to ride in the parade in 2001, the year he was KMC’s king.
“I knew Mardi Gras was a bucket list item for Duane and Suzy,” said Braud. “But like so many people who come to New Orleans suddenly realize, it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it gets in your blood. So many things about New Orleans get to be an addiction. They wanted to keep coming back.”
The Hoffs joined the Krewe and have returned to ride in the parade a dozen times. Unlike some krewes, KMC is open to new members. Considered boutique size with about 250 members, KMC is small compared to massive super krewes like Endymion, which has more than 3,000 riders.
Susan Hoff at a fitting for her ball gown, designed by D&D Creations of New Orleans — Photo courtesy of Oscar Rajo
Almost without exception, it costs money to join a krewe, both in dues and paying for throws, which include beads and special doodads like cups, doubloons and plush toys. “The world knows Mardi Gras as the world’s greatest free show,” said Braud. “It’s free from the street. If you’re privileged to ride on a float, that comes with a price tag.”
On the low end, riders might pay $600 in dues and another $600 for throws, and it goes up from there. In the Hoffs' case as king and queen, there are multiple parties, fancy evening wear to buy, crowns and scepters to wield and more –along with the travel costs. But both Duane and Susan agree that the experience, not just riding in the parade but taking on the roles of king and queen, is something you could never put a price tag on.
What Mardi Gras is and isn’t
“We didn’t know what to expect when Gerard asked us to our first Mardi Gras,” recalled Susan. “When we went to the ball and saw all the rich tradition and pomp and circumstance, it was just amazing. We’ve made such good friends in the krewe, that when they asked us if we wanted to be king and queen, we were beyond honored.”
“If you’re from someplace other than Louisiana, you walk around with the idea that Mardi Gras is a big drunken brawl on Bourbon Street,” said Duane.
“We knew our friend wasn’t inviting us to that. What we experienced was a real eye opener: the tradition, the family closeness. Whether you’re nine months old or 90, there’s nothing like the feeling you get out there on the parade route during Mardi Gras.”
The Krewe of Mid-City's royal couple, Duane and Susan Hoff — Photo courtesy of Oscar Rajo
Through the years, KMC has often featured husband and wife duos in the regal spotlight. Sweethearts since college, the Hoffs celebrate their 29th wedding anniversary in 2017; yet another reason to fete Mardi Gras in ultimate style this year.
Like most people bitten by the Mardi Gras bug, Duane and Susan are constantly educating friends and family about just how special and spectacular the carnival season is in New Orleans. They even decorate their winery with beads and Mardi Gras colors (purple, green and gold) and throw a themed party, complete with king cake, every year.
“What most people don’t realize is that the beer, beads and Bourbon Street experience is primarily for college-age kids and tourists on six blocks of Bourbon Street,” said Braud.
“A Mardi Gras parade is a family celebration that unfolds along 60 blocks of the city. Riding on the float feels like being a rock star. I know that in three and a half to four hours, I’ll throw beads to 5,000 people and make them smile. There’s nothing like it.”