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Feb 17, 8:32 AM EST

Mardi Gras in New Orleans: glitzy balls, then the parades


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NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Revelers danced into the wee hours Tuesday at glitzy balls, kicking off the annual Mardi Gras bash that spills costumed merrymakers into the streets of New Orleans for partying, parades and trinkets tossed from passing floats.

Al Johnson, singer of the catchy Mardi Gras tune "Carnival Time," served as grand marshal of the Red Beans and Rice foot parade, a Monday prelude to the all-out revelry known as "Fat Tuesday." He and others downed traditional fare of spicy red beans and rice before attending the Orpheus Ball, one of several as the partying began in this Mississippi River port.

Johnson told The Associated Press his catchy song - now synonymous with the annual Carnival seasons - got its inspiration from the Lower 9th Ward, a New Orleans district devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "It all started down there," he said of the Louisiana neighborhood where levees broke and surging stormwaters splintered wooden homes. But after Katrina, he said, "Life is going on."

Celebrities and celebrity watchers are also around at Mardi Gras and this year was no exception.

The cast of the CBS crime drama "NCIS: New Orleans" got to experience Mardi Gras firsthand as they rode in the Orpheus parade late Monday, tossing beads to revelers lining city streets before heading off to the ball. Their Mardi Gras episode airs Tuesday night at 8 p.m. CST.

Other celebrities joining in this year's revelry were comedian Ron White and country music star Dierks Bentley.

Ordinary folks took to dressing up. Friends Alexandra Sergutin and Ashley Dornier of New Orleans said donning elegant gowns for the Carnival balls is one of their favorite Mardi Gras activities.

"It feels good to be a part of that tradition. It really does. It touches your heart," said Sergutin, draped in colorful beads. " ... You're a part of something amazing and big."

Around daybreak Tuesday, retired clarinetist Peter Fountain was to help kick off the citywide party. The National Weather Service said some early rain was expected to clear out shortly before for the first parades, with temperatures in the upper 30s to the lower 40s by midday.

Now 84, Fountain no longer makes the walk of 10 miles or so of his Half-Fast Walking Club, which he helped found more than half a century ago.

 Celebrations also were scheduled throughout south Louisiana and in coastal Mississippi and Alabama, sharing the traditions brought by French Catholic colonists in the 18th century. In Louisiana's swampy bayou parishes, costumed riders on horseback go from farm to farm, collecting ingredients for a huge community gumbo.

After Fountain's Half-Fast Walking Club, parade groups were to follow, including the "krewe of Rex, king of Carnival," who wears a golden crown and carries a golden scepter. That group features some of the season's most wildly fantastic floats. After Rex two groups were to follow in "truck floats" - hundreds of flatbed trailers topped by costumed riders - whether families, clubs or other social groups.

The parades wind down late Tuesday afternoon and outdoor celebrations cease at midnight, when the solemn Catholic season of Lent begins. New Orleans police ride horseback down the French Quarter's Bourbon Street to clear the last tipsy revelers at the end, signaling the party is over for another year.

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