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One of the guys who started Mardi Gras in St. Louis still lets the good time roll

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 13, 2009 - As anyone who’s lived through it knows, St. Louis winter can be one heck of dreary time. Think low, gray skies, nasty slush on the streets, and bulky multi-layered outfits for months on end. It’s enough to make one want to curl up inside with hot spiced cider and one’s honey until March … or even early April, depending on the year.

Lucky for St. Louisans, one big party never fails to get us out of the house each winter: Mardi Gras. The party provides the answer to the perennial question, “How will I make it until spring?”

Before you head out for the festivities this weekend, though, take a minute to step back in time with Bob Brinkman, the only living founder of St. Louis’ carnival.

Q: Thirty years ago, you and four friends – Hilary Clements, Bill Coleman, Jim Rabbit and Bill Stubbs – decided to host a Mardi Gras party. How did you guys know each other?

Brinkman: I used to stop at the Door Lounge in Mansion House every night for a drink and play Liar’s Poker. So, you get to know people. Stubbs was an attorney, Bill Coleman was a Terminal Railroad yardmaster, Jim was a plumber, and Hilary was a school supplies salesman. I was and am a jeweler. The five of us would always meet on a Saturday. I’d work until 2 p.m. and go over afterward.

Q: When did you hatch the idea for a Mardi Gras party?

A: It was a bitterly cold day in January, nothing to do. I don’t remember who threw the idea out there…you could put any one of our names in there. But we each put in $250 and invited 50 people.

Q: You had the party at Hilary’s place on Russell Boulevard. Today it’s Johnny’s Restaurant and Bar. What was it like back then?

A: Hilary had bought this place in Soulard for $1,000 on the courthouse steps. The building was a piece of junk. Had stairs going up just like Johnny’s now. The second floor was his home, the third floor was nicknamed the “Blue Zoo” and rented out to tenants, and the first floor was all wood. We thought, “Why not have it on the first floor?” You couldn’t hurt anything.

Q: What about the party itself?

A: We hired a doorman from the Chase and had police checking tickets. We hired somebody to do Cajun cooking. Don Shear and his Dixieland band played. Each partner wore a tuxedo. Mine still fits, actually. I wear it to the Mayor’s Ball every year. Hilary had a green tux and a green top hat. Everyone came in costumes. A lot of clown suits, a priest, baseball players. … All the women wore beautiful gowns. My wife, Joyce, wore a blond wig and a white sweater.

Q: Who was there?

A: The majority of people I invited were tennis friends. Stubbs invited business friends. Coleman brought people from the Mansion House. Jim Rabbit had his first date with his future wife. She didn’t have a ticket though, and the police wouldn’t let her in. Finally, she found us and told us who she was with. Our first king and queen were Lee and Jackie Kearney.

All these people come up to me now and say, “I was there!” If they were all there, we had 10,000 people that night.

Q: What was the first parade like?

A: There was 20” of snow on the ground. We got it plowed by the city street department and marched up Russell Boulevard from Hilary’s to McGurk’s. They didn’t know we were coming up. We were carrying a casket and somebody was lying in the casket. It was pretty heavy. Afterward, we had to go clean up, and then we partied the next night.

Q: Everyone must have had a good time, because you put it on again the next year.

A: It was a rousing success. The next year, we made arrangements to march down to Mike and Min’s, (doesn't exist any more). When we left the house, there were 2,500 people outside waiting.

Q: Since then, the event has exploded. In recent years, there’s been some controversy over sponsorships and local bar owners with Mardi Gras Inc., which now runs the party. What’s your take?

A: That’s the only way to make it happen. The people running it are doing the best they can. The narrow mindedness of some of these bar owners … Mardi Gras has had a tremendous affect on Soulard. They would not have street lighting down there. All of the houses, people moved in and fixed them up. The houses are now worth – well, who knows how much now – but Johnny’s was worth $300,000 a few years ago. Just the building, not even the business. It has been a boon for the city. Last year, there were 600,000 people there and only 300 arrests. I see nothing but positive.

Q: What about the flashing?

A: As far as women flashing, I think that’s great! If they’re stupid enough to do that in the cold. I take my grandchildren every year. One year the kids made a sign that said, “Please keep your breasties covered.” We had a policeman come up and say, “Son, signs like that aren’t allowed.” There was a woman one year we threw beads at for her to put her shirt back down. It’s an adult parade, and it’s humorous.

Q: Have you been to every Mardi Gras?

A: I’ve missed a couple. We used to go to the Cayman Islands, but now I go to all of them. I go from tent to tent where everything is warm and free.

Q: I bet you get a lot for free during the party!

A: I do. I’ve gotten a lot for my $250.

Q: You’re a local celebrity, but do people recognize you when you’re out and about?

A: No. I was at one meeting with Mardi Gras Inc. at the A-B party room, and [Mayor] Slay was there. We were talking for 15 or 20 minutes before it started. Then they introduced me and Slay said, “Bob, I didn’t realize you started this.”

Q: What’s it like being mostly incognito?

A: It’s great, I don’t have to answer all these questions.

Q: How many times have you given this same interview?

A: I don’t know how many times. Now I can understand a musician who makes a hit song and everybody wants to hear that song. The difference is that musician makes money every time he plays it.

Q: Still, it must be cool to see how far the party has come.

A: Something I’m starting to realize is I am – me and my four friends are – a part of the history of the city. What really gives me pleasure is the amount of young people who come up and say, “Thank you.”

Q: One last thing: I hear you’re a war hero.

A: Yes. When I was in the Coast Guard in the '50s, I was on shark patrol on the Mississippi.

Q: But there aren’t any sharks on the Mississippi…

A: I did a good job, didn’t I?

Anna Vitale is a freelance writer.