When Ken French settles down to tell you the story of how New Orleans’ most barking mad parade came to be born, he really settles down.
“Let me get comfortable,” he says as you hear him arranging himself. Then, he begins. This story, by the way, is one that starts with WDSU Chief Meteorologist Margaret Orr.
“I used to see Margaret Orr every morning on Channel 6 doing the weather, and she was always up and cheery, even when she was giving bad weather, and something about it just clicked,” French said. “Wouldn’t it be great to have a Margaret Orr fan club, and we could do all these things and la-la-la?”
On a lark, French reached out to Orr to get her blessing — ”That wasn’t a thing back then. I went, ‘What? I have a fan club?’” Orr remembered — and rounded up some friends inside the Queens Head Pub above Good Friends Bar.
French’s goal was to maybe use the little club to raise money for a charity Orr supported, which they did, gathering funds for Christmas presents for a family in need and hosting a cakewalk for another cause.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have a Margaret Orr fan club, and we could do all these things and la-la-la?” – Ken French
“The group of guys who helped start the krewe just really had this kind of genuine friendship with her and admiration for her,” explained Barkus President Gregory Curtis. “She sees no color, sees none of those things that divide us. She sees just the good in people, and I think that shines through.”
During one meeting of the Margaret Orr Fan Club as French and his friends gathered in the pub, the bar’s owner, Tom Woods, had his rescue dog, Jo Jo, along for the night as usual.
“We’re all drinking, having fun, being very New Orleans, and one night, we said, why don’t we do a doggie parade for Mardi Gras?” French recalled. “And it’s like, ‘Yeah!’ And Tom says Jo Jo can be (queen) for the rest of her life because no one likes her and then everyone has to like her.”
Somehow, the group followed through. Within weeks, Barkus was born, and Jo Jo ruled the streets as Queen Barkus I. Joining her at Mardi Gras in 1993 was King Barkus I Jager Freeman, whose human parent Scott Freeman also co-founded the parade.
“…it is the one thing that brings together these various groups, whether they be pet lovers, pet owners, gay and lesbian groups, families and children who live in the suburbs or Metairie, the whole spectrum of individuals…” – Barkus President Gregory Curtis
In the nearly three decades since, Barkus grew rapidly. From just dozens of dogs in its infancy to today, when parade organizers cap the number of woofs at 1,500, French said, the parade has raised more than $1 million for local animal welfare organizations.
“Being a lifelong resident of the quarter until a couple years ago, it is the one thing that brings together these various groups, whether they be pet lovers, pet owners, gay and lesbian groups, families and children who live in the suburbs or Metairie, the whole spectrum of individuals really comes together with one single voice and that is to show our love for pets,” said Barkus President Gregory Curtis. ”One single day in the French Quarter (which) becomes a really safe place for children and families and our pets.”
While by New Orleans’ Carnival standards a parade with roots in the 1990s makes it one of the younger krewes, Barkus certainly maintains its own traditions, like a visit to Galatoire’s for the king and queen to enjoy a specially prepared lunch, and a ball on the Friday before the parade rolls. They also continue to carry the Ron Williams-created banner from the parade’s very first year and celebrate with punny themes, like this year’s “Bark to the Future.”
The oft-copied costumed dog parade has long outlived the Margaret Orr Fan Club, but that seems to delight its namesake even more, who continues to serve as the parade’s emcee, called it “the greatest thing I’m associated with.”
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“To say that I have helped with a parade of dogs through the Quarter that brings joy to so many people who get to dress up their dogs and walk through the Quarter with their dogs, and the people who stand on the side, it’s just fun. It’s good, wholesome fun for the entire family,” Orr said. “There is no place like New Orleans, and… who doesn’t love their dogs?”
How to join Barkus
While Barkus royalty is restricted — the queen is always a rescue, and the king is always the pet of someone involved with the organization — marching mutts are more than welcome. Registration for the parade can be done online. Parade fees start at $60 for a Dogluxe Membership, which includes entry for one dog and one human escort. Get more details on Barkus’ website.