No business like throw business
They may be free to parade-goers, but Carnival throws are a multimillion-dollar industry.
The most prized throws from the Krewe of Zulu parade are coconuts hand painted by the krewe’s members.
“In essence, throws are the currency of Carnival, and Carnival is a large part of the currency of the city.”-Throw Me Something, Mister: The History of Carnival Throws in New Orleans by Lissa Capo.
According to Sections 34-33 of Chapter 4 of the Code of the City of New Orleans, the following are among the things you cannot throw off a Mardi Gras float: insects, marine life, rodents, fowl or other animals, dead or alive.
Luckily, that leaves plenty of treasures for Carnival’s aristocracy to fling to the adorning throng. In fact, a study conducted on 2011 Mardi Gras celebrations reported that “superkrewes” such as Endymion and Bacchus tossed more than 2 million cups, 3.5 million doubloons and more than 50 million beads.
Dan Kelly, owner of the store Beads by the Dozen and president of the Krewe of Endymion, says that each of the roughly 2,700 members of his krewe throws an average of 2,500 strands of beads.
Until the 1960s, the most common form of beads were glass - multicolored strings made in Czechoslovakia. These have now been replaced by the less expensive and more durable plastic beads from China. In all, about 25 million pounds of Mardi Gras beads are shipped to New Orleans each year.
Beads by the Millions
Started in 1983, Beads by the Dozen now has sales of more than $10 million and imports around 8 million pounds of plastic annually.
“This year, between beads, plush, feather masks, trinkets and vinyl ball products, we will import about 150 containers,” Kelly says.
The store’s primary site is 200,000 square feet, but it also stores product in another 125,000-square-foot facility. Kelly says approximately 300 people work at the plant during the regular season, and about 400 in the weeks before Mardi Gras.
Although local Mardi Gras krewes help stoke the business, Beads by the Dozen also benefits from branching into other markets. The company supplies beads and other products to event organizers throughout the U.S. According to Kelly, the future of beads is very bright.
“The riders and public do not want the cheaper, smaller beads anymore,” he says. “Bigger is better, and lighted is best!”
Money from Above
In 1884, the Krewe of Rex began throwing wooden medallions into Mardi Gras crowds. Gradually wood was replaced by aluminum, and in 1968, John Barr and Col. Bill Cox began producing aluminum doubloons at The New Orleans Mint at 117 Lasalle St.
Forty-seven years later, John Barr’s sons, Peter and David Barr, now run the Mint, which sits right next door to their other business, OPA Signs & Graphics.
“The Mint is so important to us because it is keeping our father’s legacy alive,” says Peter Barr. “We are proud to be a local company making a local product for the local people.”
The business operates out of a 3,000-square-foot space that is just a doubloon’s throw from the Superdome and has annual sales of between $350,000 to $400,000.
“We are the only mint in Louisiana that strikes its own doubloons,” says Pat Feeney, the Mint’s manager, who’s been with the business for 35 years. “We easily do 3 million doubloons in a season.”
The process starts in August and by November is in full swing, guided by Joe Fisher, who has manned the machines for 18 years.
“Rolls of aluminum are cut into blank coins, and then the machine takes over, striking out the image from the die onto thousands of doubloons,” he says.
In addition to Mardi Gras, the Mint’s doubloons graced the front page of the very first New Orleans Saints programs and commemorated many of NASA’s shuttle launches. And when Larry Dias, the set decorator for “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” went looking for “pieces of eight” doubloons for the movie’s Isla de Muerta cave set, he called on The New Orleans Mint.
“We did 250,000 of them – now that was something to be proud of!” Feeney says.
Giacona Container Company
The first plastic souvenir Mardi Gras throw cups were thrown in 1980 by the Krewe of Alla. They were made by a local company, Giacona Container Co., owned by Corrado Giacona II.
During the 1960s, Giacona revolutionized the idea of direct, high-speed, dry, offset printing onto metal cans. Eventually, he began using the process on plastic and the Mardi Gras cup, or “New Orleans fine crystal,” was born.
“We manufactured metal cans for the syrup, oyster and crabmeat industries for years after American Can and Continental Can closed in New Orleans,” Giacona explains. “But in the 1970s, I designed new plastic containers to replace all metal cans and created a new printing technique to print on metal and plastic.”
Giacona Container Co. operates in a 20,000-square-foot space and has approximately 20 employees, many of whom have been with Giacona for 10 to 25 years. The company does not publish sales, but Giacona states that more than 80 percent of his sales are outside of Louisiana, in countries all over the world. Some of his clients include Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Disney.
Giacona’s business is decidedly a family affair. His wife is the company’s secretary/treasurer, and all three of his children have been active in the business. His daughter Gina Giacona Lynch is the chief operating officer of Giacona Container and the creator of Party Cup Express, a division of Giacona Container.
“She is the ‘today’ of our business,” he says.
In 1910, Zulu introduced the first thematic throw of Carnival – gold-painted walnuts called Golden Nuggets. It is thought that Zulu switched from walnuts to coconuts in the early 1920s. The first were unadorned “hairy” coconuts purchased at the French Market because it was a throw the men could afford. The more elaborately decorated coconuts distributed by today’s riders didn’t enter the picture until the late 1940s.
“By creating their own form of currency, one which could not be obtained from any other krewe, Zulu enticed more people to attend their parade and therefore enlarged their share of the developing throw economy,” Capo explains in her book.
Today it has been estimated that each Zulu rider on a float handles an average of five cases of Zulu coconuts a season – at 34 coconuts per case with an estimated 20 riders on 30 floats, that adds up to a total of 102,000 coconuts from one parade.
Founded by Staci Rosenberg, the Krewe of Muses first paraded in 2001. Its glittery real shoes are some of Carnival’s most-coveted throws.
“From the very first year, we set out to work with local artists,” Rosenberg says. “What is amazing is that through our custom shoes, we ended up bringing out the artist in many of our members.”
The krewe throws plenty of beads and other items from China but makes an effort to throw items that are made locally and that people will want to keep after the parade passes by, such as scarves, bracelets and totes.
As to what all these trinkets cost krewe members, Rosenberg says, “We have to keep some secrecy in Mardi Gras, but our members definitely save year-round to buy enough throws.”
A Little Something Different
Caesar Meadows formats his comic strips into tiny comic books that fit inside 2-inch plastic vending capsules. The 1.5-inch-high-by-1.25-inch-wide format makes an excellent parade throw. In 2013, he created a new method of hand-assembling that increased the amount of throws he could make in an hour from 40 to 500. It meant he could offer the comic books at prices comparable to other throws. He called the throw a Qomik. Last year, Muses ordered 30,840 of them.
Meadows’ goal is to establish the Qomik as a popular Carnival throw that becomes as collectible as doubloons.
“It has been a complete dream come true for me to have the Krewe of Muses toss my little Qomik,” he says. “I feel quite fortunate to have contributed something unique and enjoyable to the New Orleans parade experience.”
Members of the Krewe of Muses save year-round to spend thousands each on throws for awaiting parade attendees.