The celebration is "as Woonsocket" as dynamites and mill buildings.
Northern Rhode Island Council of the Arts has announced the date for Woonsocket's 2012 Mardi Gras celebration and is expanding the party to two venues this year to offer a wider variety of food and entertainment.
On Feb. 11, from 5:30 to 11 p.m., St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center and Father Marot CYO Center will be transformed into a New Orleans-style celebration of French culture and heritage with costumes, dancing, feasting and prizes. The Mardi Gras King will be unveiled and will join his queen at the head of the ball. A free shuttle will carry revelers between the two party destinations, each offering a unique buffet and live music.
But first, Woonsocket's potential queens must step forward and compete for their crown. The queen contest is NRICA's biggest fundraiser of the year, and proceeds keep the annual festival alive.
In 2011, ten city women competed for the crown and their efforts sparked renewed interest in Woonsocket's Mardi Gras, a festival which dates back to 1954.
In its heyday, the city's week-long celebration was dubbed "Mardi Gras of the North," with a parade and festivities that brought in visitors from across New England. The tradition gradually died down, but was revived in 1995 with the help of NRICA. From 1995 to 2005, three to five venues offered various bands and menus.
But loss of grant funding and a downed economy during the later half of the decade nearly destroyed the celebration. For several years, the queens were simply chosen by the king because few contestants stepped forward.
2011's Mardi Gras, however, may have marked the start of a new era for the Woonsocket tradition.
"Last year was great. We almost sold out our tickets," said Romeo Berthiaume, a chairperson for both the 2011 and 2012 events. "We would like some of the contestants to come back."
The queen contestants make their run for the crown by selling raffle tickets at $1 a piece. The ten girls that took part in 2011 generated needed funding for the event, along with some added enthusiasm.
So far, five girls have thrown their names in the hat for 2012 and more contestants are still being sought. Chandler Cross, Arianna Ciosek, Emily Forte and Ainsley Morisseau Cantoral have already begun selling raffle tickets for prizes to be drawn the night of Mardi Gras, including a $300 grand prize. The lady with the highest ticket sales takes home the crown.
Potential queens are asked to contact Marlene Gagnon, owner of Harlequins Costumes on Main Street at 766-0788 to declare their run.
Dave Richard's of WOON Radio 1240 has chosen this year's King Jace and is expected to release photos and clues to his identity in the near future. Watch for the pictures here on Woonsocket Patch and in other local media outlets. The celebration will also include a children's Mardi Gras, to be held this year at the CYO Center.
Zydeco band Slippery Sneakers will head up the entertainment at the CYO Center and a cajun buffet will be provided by Russell Morin Fine Catering. At St. Ann, the king will be unmasked in a party that Berthiaume hopes will draw in the local crowds.
"Since not everyone is a fan of Zydeco music, we are offering a second venue at St. Ann’s for a more eclectic type of musical entertainment,” explained Berthiaume. The food at St. Ann will be provided by Gary McLaughlin from Kevin's Galley, and while including some cajun elements, will also have traditional American dishes. The Jeff Gamache Orchestra will play swing, blues, country, disco and rock and roll.
For a full menu and more details on the 2012 Mardi Gras, visit NRICA's website at http://www.nrica.org/mardigras.html#comm.