17 March 2023

Riverina Rewind: 'Gaily costumed figures' have celebrated on our streets for 75 years

| Michelle Maddison
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Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras in Wagga has a surprisingly long tradition. Photo: Lost Wagga Wagga (Facebook).

As the glitter settles on the streets of Wagga from a huge Mardi Gras weekend, the Museum of the Riverina takes us back to the pageantry of the past.

The first of the current iteration of the Wagga Mardi Gras took place on 9 March, 2019, and was the brainchild of Holly Conroy.

Some 10,000 onlookers packed Baylis Street and the Victory Memorial Gardens in support of the pride event, which comprised 17 floats and 700 participants in the parade.

But back in the 20th century, an earlier version of the Wagga Mardi Gras parade hit our streets.

On New Year’s Eve 1948, the Wagga and District Chamber of Commerce planned the first carnival procession to see out the old year and welcome in the new.

Comprising just a couple of floats and a handful of “gaily costumed figures”, over the next few years, this procession of humble beginnings would grow into the annual Wagga Mardi Gras.

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Floats populated by people in bright costumes and a procession of decorated cycles, billycarts, clowns, film stars and costume troupes were led by representative teams from every one of Wagga’s many sporting bodies.

The Mardi Gras became an annual celebration, with events running throughout the week, from the opening of the Mardi Gras through to the colour and excitement of the grand street procession on the following Saturday.

Mardi Gras

Thousands were on hand for the 2023 Wagga Mardi Gras. Photo: Ketura Weston.

In 1953, 40,000 were expected to attend the festivities.

Novelty events held as part of the 1949 Mardi Gras included a bubble gum championship (the winner would blow the biggest bubble after a quarter of an hour of chewing), a milk-drinking competition, a custard pie-eating competition, a men’s pillow fight over a water tank, a talent quest and a jitterbug competition.

In 1953, a crowd of between 7000 and 8000 attended the second night of the Mardi Gras where they watched a Charlie Chaplin impersonation competition and the introduction of three Miss Wagga candidates.

From 26-31 December, 1953, a special outdoor dance floor had been erected to accommodate about 60 couples.

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Other features that year included a square dance championship, senior and junior talent quests, and pick-a-box quiz sessions. And for each night of the Mardi Gras, a different theme for attendees to dress to – there was a ”Night in Hawaii”, a ”Fancy Dress Night” and a ”Hillbilly Night”.

The culmination of festivities each New Year’s Eve was the crowning of Miss Wagga.

The Wagga Mardi Gras continued to be celebrated until at least 1967. Do you have any memories or photos of the Mardi Gras?

Let us know in the comments!

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