Pekin’s Mardi Gras . . . in October?

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The annual tradition of Mardi Gras carnivals arose in the Middle Ages in Europe, originating as a practical way for cities and towns to get rid of all of their meat in preparation for the 40-day Lenten period of fasting and abstinence every February and March.

In those days, Catholics completely abstained from eating meat during Lent. Because there were no freezers or refrigerators all the available meat had to be eaten before Lent started on Ash Wednesday, since the meat otherwise would spoil long before Easter. Hence came the custom of having a “carnival” (Latin carne vale, “meat farewell”) on Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent begins. This community-wide celebration is called Mardi Gras (“Tuesday of fat”) in French-speaking Catholic countries. America’s most famous and popular Mardi Gras of course is the one held in the former French Catholic colony of New Orleans.

Many years ago, however, Pekin had its own Mardi Gras carnival. Unlike a traditional Mardi Gras, though, Pekin’s celebration took place in October instead of February or March. In fact, Pekin’s Mardi Gras wasn’t even on a Tuesday.

This event was held in downtown Pekin on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Oct. 5-7, 1950, being sponsored by the Irin Grotto of Pekin, a local Masonic organization. News reports describe it as the “first annual” Irin Grotto Mardi Gras, but it’s unclear if the event became an annual tradition. (This was about two decades before the first Marigold Festival.)

A clown announces Pekin’s first Mardi Gras in early Oct. 1950 in this detail from a Pekin Daily Times advertisement.

The 1950 Mardi Gras featured a carnival midway with a circus calliope, a parade, live music from four bands (including a Hillbilly band and a Hobo band), a talent show, a Mardi Gras costume ball, and the crowning of a Mardi Gras king and queen. Attendees were encouraged to come to the carnival wearing outlandish costumes, and judges awarded prizes for the best costumes.

“Twenty-five cash prizes will be awarded for the different types of costumes worn by the children and adults at the Mardi gras street dance this evening,” reported the Oct 5, 1950 Pekin Daily Times. “The committee urges everyone and particularly the children to come in costume or comic dress in order to help make the festivities a success for the opening night.”

Mrs. Marilyn McCabe was the Mardi Gras hostess, Mr. Louis Dunkelberg was general chairman of the Mardi Gras, Mr. U.S. Sullivan was the parade chairman, and Miss Joan Shade was mistress of ceremonies for the Friday night talent show. Crowned Mardi Gras King during opening night ceremonies was Fred Peterson of 1010 Chestnut St., a maintenance man at Pabst Blue Ribbon in Peoria. During the Saturday night Mardi Gras ball in the girls’ gymnasium of the old West Campus high school building, Miss Ellyn Morse, 17, of Radio City (North Pekin), was crowned Mardi Gras Queen. Runners-up were Miss Norine Holiday of 300 Woodland Ave., Pekin, and Miss Marilyn Schaff of 1310 S. Ninth St., Pekin.

Children enjoy the rides on the Mardis Gras carnival midway along Elizabeth Street in downtown Pekin on Oct. 5, 1950. The photograph is from a newspaper clipping recently given to the library by Glen “Bud” Christopher, whose face is circled in the picture. With him in the “tub” are Larry and Billy Conarro. The boys weren’t playing hooky from school, though — the Daily Times said there was no school during Mardi Gras due to a teachers’ institute.

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