By Jeffrey Allen Federowicz
For The Daily Item
— WILLIAMSPORT -- This weekend downtown Williamsport will take on the persona of The Big Easy when Billtown celebrates Mardi Gras in connection with Lent starting later next week.
For many years, Mardi Gras was an excuse for a decadent party in what was originally a chance to rid one of sweets, rich foods and personal vices for the coming Lent, a time of reflection and sacrifice.
Although there are some aspects of Mardi Gras in Williamsport that are family friendly, such as a Mardi Gras Parade Saturday evening and fireworks in front of City Hall at the corners of Third and Hepburn streets, most events taking place are designed for the 21 and older crowd.
The parade kicks off at 6 p.m. at Saturday in front of Franco’s, 12 W. Fourth St., and travels west before ending in front of City Hall, the intersection of Fourth and Hepburn.
“I’ve been coming over (for Mardi Gras) since I was going to Penn College, so that must have been about nine years ago. It’s either become more tame or I’ve become less wild,” said Morgan Shultz, of Bloomsburg. “Still, it’s a fun way to get out, try some of the different specials and there are always a few good bands. I’m glad the weather is somewhat warmer than it was a few weeks ago or it would have been too freezing to be wandering out in the cold.”
Shultz said she and a few friends will visit The Cell Bock, Rum Runners, The Whiskey Room and if open, the new Irish pub, Raven and Moon.
Her comments about former Mardi Gras events being more colorful and loud are correct.
In the first few years Williamsport hosted Mardi Gras — in the mid-1990s — celebrations (an idea derived from the owners of the Bullfrog Brewery) were a wild experience that included open containers of alcohol allowed on the streets in the downtown area, ear-throbbing music, and party-hearty wilder, younger crowds. There was also an eyeful of nudity from that crowd — a large number of young women (and a few males, for some reason) would often hop on top of steps, vehicles, walls and planters where they would flash the crowd and thereby gather a huge mass of Mardi Gras beads.
Although it has simmered down over the years, Mardi Gras continues to be a fun few days of music, especially later in the evenings on Friday and Saturday when there are more people, dinner specials and an assortment of live music — everything from blues and rock to jam band and old-school rock and roll.
“If you are tired of looking outside at the snow and want to go out and have some fun, a visit to Williamsport’s Mardi Gras this weekend is a must,” said Jason Fink, executive vice president of the Williamsport Lycoming Chamber of Commerce. “Mardi Gras gives the winter weary people in the area a chance to get out, let their hair down — if they still have hair — enjoy some great music and just relax and have a good time.”
About 12 to 15 restaurants and bars in the downtown area, from the Peter Herdic House to 33 East and points east and west, will take part in the weekend celebrations with many offering a variety of Cajun-inspired dishes and menus.
There will be a gumbo cookoff at participating establishments.
In addition, many bars and dinning venues will be entering one of their employees into the King or Queen Mardi Gras contest with proceeds from the contest going to a regional charity.
Free trolley rides with River Valley Transit will be offered Friday and Saturday starting at 9 p.m.; making convenient stops central to the celebration every 10 minutes. There will also be free rides home with River Valley Transit to all regular bus stops in the Greater Williamsport area from midnight until 2 a.m. departing from the Transit Center on Pine Street.
For more information on Williamsport’s Mardi Gras, visit www.williamsport.com.