Mardi Gras festival celebrates its 18th year in Gaslamp District
By Ashley Mackin | Downtown News
San Diego’s now-famous Mardi Gras celebration is back for its 18th year, and will dominate the Gaslamp District downtown with dancing, a masquerade parade and plenty of beads. This 21 and older event had 35,000 participants in 2011 and the hosts of Mardi Gras are expecting a bigger crowd this year. Starting at 6 p.m. on Feb. 21, the celebration will offer the New Orleans party with San Diego flair.
Brandy Shimabukuro, marketing and public relations director for the Gaslamp Quarter Association, said part of the San Diego influence on Mardi Gras includes various music styles and groups, dinner packages and the fact that participants do not have to “work for” their beads.
Shimabukuro also explained how the event, synonymous with grandeur and celebration, had humble beginnings in San Diego.
“It started out at Dick’s Last Resort, [where] there were a couple of really enterprising employees who decided that with their ties to the South, they wanted to bring a taste of New Orleans here to San Diego,” she said.
“With the impetus being that February is a rather quiet time here in downtown since it’s not really convention season…, they wanted to bring something that would bring a sense of festivity,” Shimabukuro said. “So they basically decorated a couple of cars and [rode] around the block a couple of times.”
Perri Spiller, manager of Dick’s Last Resort restaurant, has been involved with the Gaslamp Mardi Gras since the beginning. “20 years ago, Dick’s Last Resort put some employees in the back of a pick-up truck and threw beads to the people who happened to be in the neighborhood. They were pulled over by the police and given a ticket for driving too slow,” she said. “All Dick’s Last Resort wanted to do 20 years ago was make a slow Tuesday a good day for our business. The rest is history.”From then on out, Shimabukuro said, local businesses got more involved. “People really got creative with their floats and double-decker buses,” she said. “It just expanded to this district-wide block party and the Gaslamp Quarter Association has been involved for 18 years.”
While acknowledging the electronic music that frequents the celebration draws a younger, party-oriented crowd, Shimabukuro said other forms of music and entertainment make Mardi Gras enjoyable for everyone. She said several participating businesses have house bands or host dancers performing. She also said there are several restaurants that provide prix fixe menus or specialty drinks in honor of the event, and dinner packages are available for the night.
Shimabukuro said instead of copying the Carnevale from Rio or Zydeco bands from New Orleans, the San Diego Mardi Gras plays off Southern California musical roots. She said this festival is “more of a music festival and just a celebration of Downtown San Diego.”
She continued, “We have a lot of entertainers that come out from the local market, whether that’s everything from DJs to bands to the performers and dancers in the streets that are participants in the parade, so we feel that really brings out that San Diego and Southern California feel.”
Shimabukuro said the parade is her favorite part of Mardi Gras, and Spiller said she agrees. Spiller said her favorite Mardi Gras memory was her first time on a float, in 1997.
“It was my first time to not be in the restaurant and to really witness the neighborhood from the view of a float,” Spiller said. “We turned the corner onto the parade route and I couldn’t believe the [tens] of thousands of people that went as far down 5th Avenue as we could see.”
Spiller also said she is continuously proud of the staff that created the event. “Their reward is to ride the float, which we fill with beads to throw. The event always ends leaving them proud of themselves and a bit closer to each other as co-workers and friends,” she said.
“I also enjoy watching people go crazy to catch a… bead necklace,” Spiller said. “[The] next time you are in the Gaslamp Quarter, look up into the trees along 5th Avenue and notice how many beads remain hidden in them to remind [you] of that night.”
For more information about the festival, visit gaslamp.org