Fat Tuesday Kicks Off

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Braving bad weather and anxiety over the threat of war with Iraq, Mardi Gras revelers hit the streets of New Orleans on Tuesday to celebrate the last day before Lent.

Mardi Gras is the annual festival of highbrow pomp, elaborate parades and street parties that takes hold of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities before the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The time between is observed by many Christians as a season of fasting and penitence.

For the 43rd year, Jazz musician Pete Fountain and his Half Fast marching club showed up ahead of the big parades. Fountain, wearing a white, orange and green feather headdress, led actor John Goodman and others in the dancing, bead-throwing tribe.

"It's party as usual in New Orleans, that's the consensus," said Jeanette Bonura, 52, who drove in with two friends from neighboring Covington a day before Carnival season reached its climactic Fat Tuesday.

Bonura wore a purple wig and a yellow feather boa and sipped from a Bloody Mary as she danced to Zydeco music emanating from an outdoor stage along the banks of the Mississippi River.

Along historic St. Charles Avenue, a relatively light crowd endured a chilly drizzle Monday night to see parades which were scaled down primarily to floats, with many of the high school marching bands and torch-flame carriers opting out.

The route is typically packed early Tuesday morning as well, as family and friends set up barbecues and await a series of floats, from which masked riders hurl plastic beads, coins called doubloons and a variety of other trinkets to the cheering crowds.

While the city does not officially release crowd estimates until after Mardi Gras ends, many longtime residents said traffic appeared to be down this year.