Paper Plates on Parade
The Spontaneous Krewe of Platefaces has been dishing on Carnival for 25 years

by Angus Lind
Times-Picayune, Sunday, February 8, 2004

Of all the funky Carnival krewes to ever be part of the passing parade, perhaps the strangest is the Spontaneous Krewe of Platefaces.

At the end of the 1970s, as parades got more spectacular and lavish and the mega-krewes grew in popularity, one veteran parade-goer realized he did not have the wherewithal to join one of these big-name organizations. So he came up with the idea of a Carnival krewe so cheap that anyone could join.
All you needed was a paper plate and some holes in it to see, breathe and talk through and you were - voila! -- a Spontaneous Plateface.

Now, you'd think that such a dumb idea would go absolutely nowhere and wind up where most paper plates do: in the trash can.

But -- and this is a big but -- the Platefaces were led by His Anonymity, Capt. John Smith. And Smith had a runaway imagination and a line of bull that somehow won over local TV, radio and newspaper reporters and the revelers who watched, heard and read them.

As the Platefaces krewe prepares to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its first parade, the captain reminisced about its genesis.

"I think it really began out of sheer boredom," he said. "I was tired of being a spectator. I didn't want to waste money joining a krewe. I think the idea of the plates came from Captain Kangaroo or Miss Linda (Mintz, of 'Romper Room' fame) on their crafts segments, but I'm not sure."

So Smith put out press releases. "I didn't have any idea what might happen. I would make these announcements of big plans and then just see what happened."

Generally, something did. The first year the "Inner Council," consisting of the eight original and forever anonymous members, dished it out on parade routes. They wore paper plates and handed them out. As the years wore on, the themes ranged from "Favorite Dishes" to "Plato's Cave Allegory" to "Out-Lan-Dish" to "A Tribute to the Platters." (More on that later.)

One year's press release promised an anonymous big-name guest monarch, as krewes like Bacchus were doing. "Only we didn't have any money to fly someone in," Smith said, "so we said he would be coming in at the bus station on Howard Avenue."

Smith and his cohorts almost forgot the time of the alleged arrival of the "big name," and at the last second made a mad dash to the Greyhound terminal only to find a TV news van with cameraman and reporter. They had no time to prep, so Smith sent a pal who was with him, a guy from Jericho, N.Y., around the back of the terminal, with a paper plate.

He put the plate on and then began walking through the terminal -- looking as famous and important as one can look wearing a paper plate. "He was a total ham," said Smith.

And the TV camera started rolling. "They knew he was somebody famous, so they interviewed him," Smith recalled. "He just didn't say who he was." And it appeared on the news that night. "We just wanted to see how the media would respond," he said. "They bought it. It was kind of a mini-phenomenon."

Not really, if you know the media.

The year of the police strike during Carnival, Smith decided it was time to improve the krewe's image. Floats? Couldn't afford them. Horses? Same problem. So they went to a toy store and bought stick horses. Then came the strike and no parades.

"The streetcars stop at Napoleon during parades," Smith said. "Without parades, they'd go on. I thought, what better float than a streetcar?"

So out came the press releases announcing that the Krewe of Platefaces would be the only krewe parading on Fat Tuesday -- on streetcars.

When about a dozen Plate-faces showed up on the avenue to catch a streetcar, there were NOPSI officials there, worrying they were going to be overrun by Platefaces, Smith said. "They saved a streetcar just for us. We had our own streetcar."

And so they went all the way to Canal Street, throwing paper plates to absolutely nobody. But the Platefaces had kept the flame of Carnival burning. And if nothing more, they should be credited with putting traditional Carnival refuse out on the street for the street cleaners.

The Platefaces "ball" was traditionally held at Joey K's restaurant on Magazine Street the weekend before Mardi Gras. The year that the theme was a "Tribute to the Platters," miraculously, the Platters were in town. A wife of one of the singers heard about it, got in touch with Joey K's and asked to come. Smith told her, "This is not a big deal. You don't want to come."

They came anyway, and a picture is in the Platefaces scrapbook.

Another year a news anchor from Channel 8 was named guest monarch. "We knew who she was but she never knew who we were," Smith said.

And of course, that was always the idea: to keep the media and the public buffaloed. "I remember dropping a press release off to you and then you wrote about us. I was stunned," he said.

Never underestimate the desperation facing a columnist, I reminded him.

At one point, Smith's popularity was booming -- along with his ego -- so he announced he would run for mayor. He promised to solve flooding problems by lowering the streets and vowed to fight crime by legalizing everything. His campaign got off to a slow start, then faded and fizzled.

Although Plateface sightings are not as common as they once were, like UFO sightings, they still exist. So I congratulated Smith on the krewe's history, longevity and anniversary.

"You know, other krewes had a lot more history behind them when we started," he said. "So every year, I added five or 10 years. By the third year, I believe we had our 10th anniversary. So you know, this could be our 75th."

Columnist Angus Lind can be reached at alind@timespicayune.com or at (504) 826-3449.

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