Actually, nothing is typical around Ron Barrett’s business. King Tut’s sarcophagus shares space with Wizard of Oz figurines and enormous dragon heads.
And Ron Barrett loves it that way.
Barrett and partner Jim Sapser design and produce Mobile’s Mardi Gras balls. Last year they did 36. And in the city called “The Mother of the Mystics, ” business is good, because Carnival never ends.
Barrett’s passion for pageantry began when he was a child in Fairhope. “In those days, the Mobile Press-Register featured detailed stories and big photographs of Mardi Gras societies, ” says Barrett, sitting in the warehouse that looks like Steven Spielberg’s attic. “I was immediately attracted to the costuming and theatrics. It was more exciting than anything I’d seen in Fairhope.”
“Ron was born to do what he is doing, ” adds artist and former business partner Julia Greer Fobes. “Mardi Gras is his life. He puts everything he’s got into his work.”
As a second grader, back in the late 1950s, Barrett cut newspaper clippings of carnival balls and compiled them into a scrapbook. “The balls, costumes and parades fascinated me, ” he recalls.
His fascination was still going strong when he finished college, so he moved to Mobile, as he says, to “worm my way into Mobile’s Mardi Gras groups.”
Mobile saw otherwise.
“Builders and stage managers shunned me, ” the upstart creator remembers. “It was a tight clique, but I was relentless to be a part of it.” To break into the business, “I did great work for little money and created gorgeous centerpieces for no money, ” he says. “I came to them offering to do any job I could.”
Today the tables are turned. Mardi Gras comes to him.
His skills were honed from working 30-plus years with Zimlich Brothers Florist & Greenhouse where he met and worked with Jim Sapser. The two eventually teamed up to form a company centered on Mardi Gras. “No two days are alike working with Ron, ” Sapser says. “He challenges us and we have accomplished some great projects and goals together.”
In addition to Carnival balls, the company plans or contributes to some of Mobile’s leading events, including Providence Hospital Foundation’s Festival of Flowers, The Mobile Ballet, corporate conventions and holiday shows.
But Mardi Gras is Barrett’s trademark, his brand, and work never ceases.
On the day of this March 10 interview, Barrett is between calls. He has three meetings today with clients to plan next year’s balls. This year’s balls just ended three weeks ago.
“Everybody wants something different, every season, every year, ” he says, about the Mystic reveler client base. “They come to me with original ideas or a theme from a TV show. Some let me choose.”
On a first meeting, Barrett inquires of customers: What do you want? What’s in your mind? Do you want to be king of the world or a goofy chicken? “The choices are endless, ” he says, “Do you want to come on stage riding in a chariot with loyal subjects throwing palms at your feet or maybe with a pretty girl on your arm?”
Need a flame swallower? “I can have a dozen this afternoon, ” says Barrett. Want dancers? “What kind? I got everything from ballerinas to strippers.”
His technique is to take whatever a customer wants and twist it into a one-of-a-kind creation.
Mardi Gras balls are not static. Barrett’s productions feature professional jugglers, dancers and actors in productions transforming the Mobile Civic Center into something rivaling the Academy Awards Ceremony.
“There are some things we can’t do, ” he concedes. “For example, space – Star Wars themes don’t transfer well to stage. I had a client who wanted me to reproduce Halley’s Comet. I told her you can maybe paint something and attach blinking lights, but it just won’t work.” But those are rare.
King Tut’s tomb opens, as a mystic royal pops out. A giant flower blossoms, revealing a Mardi Gras Queen. Full size renditions of toy soldiers march around stage, billowing in fog. Barrett cautions not to think of a Mardi Gras ball as the high school prom, but to think of it as the Miss Universe Pageant.
Plans for next Mardi Gras Season often begin before the current season ends. He never stops thinking about it, literally.
“I’ll have all ideas conjured in my mind for 30-plus balls, by August, ” he says. “I start putting it together, pulling pieces out, organizing ideas and scheduling on spreadsheets around October.”
Artists congregate in the fall into a collaboration of talented people in a frenzy of creativity. Teams prepare props, gather fixtures and design sets. The end result is a staged fantasy cast in papier-mâché.
Here is what most people don’t know: Mardi Gras balls — with live productions, professional lighting and eye-popping special effects — are usually set up the day of the event. “That makes some people nervous, but we know what we’re doing, ” says Barrett.
And once the ball begins, the elaborate presentation — months in the making — has a shelf life of about 10 hours. It is then broken down as the stage makes ready for the next event. That’s show biz.
Some clients want to take the decorations home after the ball and legally they can. They bought it. But Barrett notes, “Usually customers realize their home décor isn’t complementary to 12-foot tall plywood dragons.” Before long, the souvenirs are back in his warehouse.
Today, Barrett’s team focuses on Mobile. He just doesn’t have time for Biloxi, Fairhope and surrounding cities anymore. And he has never done New Orleans. “The difference between our Mardi Gras and others, ” according to Barrett, “Others, especially New Orleans’, are commercial glossy objects made of elaborate fiberglass and Mylar. Mobile’s is more ‘homemade.’ Most everything is hand painted, personally crafted, with papier-mâché, plywood and glue.” And he adds, “I am steadfast in keeping it that way.”
And with that, Ron Barrett is off to meet another client. He has work to do. The next ball is only 10 months away.
Emmett Burnett and Matthew Coughlin are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma and Coughlin in Pensacola.
By EMMETT BURNETT • Photos by MATTHEW COUGHLIN