The city's police strike forced the cancellation of every Carnival parade in town, but that didn't faze the three Vioscas.
Neither did the scramble by Krewes (parade-giving organizations) for parade permits in suburban parishes. Raoul Viosca and his sisters, Peggy and Ado (pronounced "Ah-doe"), were able to hold their 12th annual parade and ball Saturday night as scheduled, and they didn't have to worry about a permit.
The Vioscas' carnival soiree was unlike any other because it was held in the modest suburban home the Vioscas share.
Most such extravaganzas cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but their parade and bal masque , followed by a traditional midnight supper, cost less than $30.
Their organization, the Krewe of Phunsters, consists of about two dozen persons who gather there in costume the Saturday before each Mardi Gras to celebrate in the living room and to marvel at the parade -- a mini-procession of papier-mache floats peopled with dolla and "pulled" by china horses atop the Vioscas' oak dining room table.
The three siblings, who never married and are near retirement age, "started this because we had gone to one party after another," says Raoul Viosca, "and we decided to have something for Carnival. We decided on a masquerade."
"Peggy suggested having costumes," says Ado Viosca, "and I said, 'You're never going to get those crazy guys to wear costumes,' but I was all wrong, and she was all right."
Raoul Viosca, a bookkeeper whose first love is art, executes float designs on the same plywood bases year after year, using objects he finds among the bric-a-brac in every corner fo his house and garage. Costumes for the dolls who ride the floats are whipped together from remnants of dresses, stockings and costume jewelry, including trinkets that riders in full-sized parades toss to spectators.
The Vioscas did not start the annual merrymaking to fill a gap in their social lives. They wer in a family that could boast members in several old-line Carnival organizations; Ado Viosca's godfather reigned over one such Krewe one year, and his scepter was aone of her childhood toys.
"It's born in you," she says. "I don't mean that to be funny; it's something you grow up with. I was the oldest of the three of us, so I was by myself for a while, and so my mother and aunt used to have little Carnival things for me. I had a little dollhouse -- it was a two-story affair -- so they dressed all the little dolls with long trains and evening dresses."
"Every year," says Raoul Viosca, "our mother used to make us outfits for Mardi Gras. We always masked."
"Our mother," Ado Viosca says, "loved parades more than we did."
The Vioscas' lifelong familiarity with Carnival ritual showed at the Phunsters' ball, where secrecy and suspense mixed easily with socializing.
When the guests entered the Vioscas' house, a purple, green, and gold hanging separated the living and dining rooms, thereby sealing off the parade floats from view until the proper moment.
Once everyone assembled, the guests picked a man and a woman from the group to reign over the festivities, using a method that Raoul Viosca devised to fit the parade's theme. This year's method resembled a football pool, because the theme was bowls.
"Our nicest one was when we had 'Cinderella' as a theme," says Ado Viosca. "The girls each took one shoe off and put it in a box, and the man who had been picked to be king picked a shoe and went around the room until he found the foot that it fit. She was the queen."
The monarchs received their crowns, scepters and mantles from the previous yeooar's sovereigns who had been sitting in chairs in front of the hanging. The king's scepter was gold and the queen's was silver. Each was made from a dishmop handle and topped with a sunburst ornament designed for a Christmas tree.
After the traditional champagne toast and grand royakl march around the living room, the Carnival-colored hanging was pulled back, and guests swarmed around the dining room table to admire Raoul Viosca's handiwork and to try to guess the name of each float and the parade's overall theme. The winners got prizes that Raoul Viosca had designed.
The floats started simply; the first year's parade consisited of a multitiered mold of hogshead cheese, bedecked with tomatoes and "pulled" by china horses. In subsequent years, themes have included names of popular songs, the nations that have ruled Louisiana and the "Treasures of Tutankhamun" exhibit.
Since this year's topic was bowls, the floats represented the Sugar Bowl game (a silve bowl filled with sugar packets), a punchbowl (the bottom stem of a cut-glass punchbowl, filled with punch and surround by wax fruit), a fish bowl (two fake goldfish bobbing in a water-filled bowl), the Rose Bowl game (a float smothered in artificial roses) and the Dust Bowl (a barren landscape featuring an open spherical bowl half-filled with lint from the Vioscas' clothes dryer).
Leading the procession was the king's float, which, unlike the rest of the parade, never changes. The brown-bearded doll, who stood beneath an arch topped by a crown and surrounded with golden hornbolwing cherubs, saluted his queen who, according to long-standing Carnival tradition, can never ride on a float. She and her maids watched the parade from a shelf on one of the marbletopped sideboards flanking the table.
"All this costs about about $15 by the time you buy all the dolls," says Raoul Viosca. "The biggest expense is feeding all those people."
For the first 10 years, Peggy Viosca was the Krewe's seamstress, but for the past 14 months she has been struggling to regain her speech and muscle control after an auto accident. Her infirmity keeps her at hoem, but she refuses to be left out of Phunsters activities, and attended the ball.
All three are eager to maintain the Phunsters tradition, which has become their way of perpetuating Carnival.
"I just can't imagine winter without Mardi Gras," says Raoul Viosca. "Many a time, I kept wondering how it would be to go into Lent with nothing the day before. It would feel funny because we have nothing to give up."