Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), February 20, 2020

 “People love the idea of Mardi Gras in Asbury Park,” says Cindy Wolfson Ciullo — and, as the impresaria behind the area’s most “something-for-everyone” observance of Fat Tuesday, the owner of Asbury Park’s Backward Glances has almost singlehandedly spearheaded a hyper-local happening that fits right in with such “seagrass-roots” annual events as the original Zombie Walk, the Asbury Park Promenade of Mermaids (returning on July 11), and September’s AP Porchfest.

This Saturday, February 22, the Asbury Park Mardi Gras celebration returns to the downtown business blocks for a fifth annual slate of activities and entertainments, with the vendor of vintage clothing and nostalgic gifts (located on the lower level of the Shoppes at the Arcade mini-mall, 658 Cookman Avenue) serving as anchor site for the event that began as a promotion for the Downtown Merchants Guild in 2016 — and which survived the disbanding of that organization to take on a vivid life of its own.

As Wolfson Ciullo tells it, “My love of New Orleans inspired me to bring the party to New Jersey…we have many people who attend the (Masquerade Ball) every year, and the daytime events are a great way to show what the downtown has to offer.”

The “Fat Saturday” festivities kick off at noon with the King Cake Baby Hunt, an all-ages scavenger safari inspired by the Mardi Gras tradition of baking baby figurines or other symbolic trinkets into “king” cakes, the Carnival pastries that have historically commemorated the Magi’s presentation of gifts to the baby Jesus.

In this case, the babies are hidden inside various neighboring businesses around the Cookman Avenue corridor — with all who take part in the five-hour hunt invited to stop by Backward Glances to pick up a list of the scavenger sites (there’s no charge to participate in the event).

As Cindy explains, hunters should “visit the shops and find each baby…each one is holding a secret word. Write all the words on your entry blank, then return to the start and get a mini king cake as a reward.” In addition, all scavengers are encouraged to hang on to their lists for dropping off back at the Backward Glances base camp by 5 pm, since “a random entry will be chosen to win great prizes.”

At 2 pm the fun gets down on all fours, as the 2020 edition of the Mardi Paws Pet Parade invites proudly strutting pets and human handlers to dress up in festive regalia for a promenade that proceeds from out front of the Shoppes, continuing along Cookman Avenue, then returning to be judged in the costume contest for which prizes will be awarded in multiple categories.

Pet Parade participants can register in advance for a discounted $5 via Eventbrite.com, or sign up for a $7 fee on-site by 1 pm Saturday. All registration proceeds will help fund the good works of the Oakhurst-based nonprofit Wag On Inn Rescue, with additional information available by calling Paws Pet Boutique at Shoppes at the Arcade, 732-449-5000.

From there the good ship Mardi Gras finds Happy Hour harbor in a delightfully unusual port of call, as Taka (660 Cookman Avenue at Bond Street) offers revelers a selection of “Mardi Gras inspired cocktails and festive food with a Japanese flair” between the hours of 3 to 7 pm. It’s an aperitif to the evening’s centerpiece and main event, when Scott Stamper’s Main Street mainstay The Saint plays host once again to a musically minded Masquerade Ball.

Headlining the hullabaloo — as they’ve done each year since its inception — are The VooDudes, the Highland Park-based specialists in Big Easy bontemps roullez who are familiar from countless summer-stage appearances in Long Branch, Asbury, Red Bank and other shakin’ Shore points. Fronted for more than 25 years by guitars-and-drums brothers Gary and Dave Ambrosy (as well by vocalist, harmonicat and washboard-vest virtuoso Andy B, pictured), the globe-trotting and glove-tight quintet is charged once more with dialing up the cajun-spice heat on a midwinter’s night, there in downtown AP’s boxcar berthplace of rock and roll.         

Cindy Wolfson Ciullo and 2016 King of the Ball Patrick Barnes, pictured at 2019’s Mardi Gras Masquerade at The Saint.

 Doors open at 5:30 pm for the climactic crawdad-boil of the day, with the ‘Dudes lent expert support by The Outcrops, the North Jersey co-ed unit whose debut album (the very recently released Peace of Mind, produced by Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone) met with the acclaim of Bob “Dean of NJ Rock Critics” Makin, who observed that the quartet of musicians “expressively and joyously scratch a Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers Band itch with a psychedelic mix of blues, funk, soul and roots music.”

Participating masqueraders are invited to meet at the Saint-ly stage at 8:15 sharp, at which point costume contest judges will crown an official King and Queen of the Ball for 2020. Admission to the Masquerade is $20 at the door, with $15 advance tix available at Backward Glances, at The Saint, or via Ticketweb.

Of course, after February 22’s “Fat Saturday” festivites comes a little thing called actual Mardi Gras — and some of the city’s grooviest grottoes for live music are doing their part to brighten the drab foothills of the work-week / school-night hump on February 25. Upside Tim McLoone’s Supper Club over the famous boardwalk, the Jersey-based act known as The Gumbo Gumbas brings its proprietary mix of “authentic New Orleans speaghetti jazz with a side of Creole” to a set that runs the good-times gamut from Armstrong (Satchmo) to Zydeco. Down the boards at Langosta Lounge, Asbury’s own Dark City Strings star in a special Tuesday night “Party Gras” promenade, while downstairs at the Basement Bar of the Bond Street Complex, a Mardi Gras multi-band Mirliton Casserole spotlights the “nerd-wave ska punk” of Marlboro-based Backyard Superheroes, plus additional skapunk spelunkers, Asbury Park’s Carnival of Shadows and Eye Defy.

Take it to the Music Listings page in this week’s paper for details on these events, and a whole lot more going on during a winterlude that continues to put the FIB into Feb’s “dead time/ off season” narrative.