HOT SPRINGS — Bill Freeman remembers how it all started.
“It,” being the Hot Springs Jazz Society’s annual Mardi Gras costume ball and pageant, the only major fundraiser for the non-profit organization, whose mission is to keep jazz alive in downtown Arkansas.
The first ball was held in 2013, three years after Freeman joined the company’s board.
It took place at the Clinton Field House in Hot Springs, a relic of former President Bill Clinton’s high school and a building in such poor condition that firefighters nearly put a stop to it. And right after the event ended, heavy rain added to the building’s problems. Then he was sentenced.
But the jazz society’s tradition of the New Orleans theme was well underway.
“Everything went really well,” Freeman said. “We probably worked really, really hard, but we made money.”
This year, the omicron strain of covid-19 prompted the jazz society to postpone the ball – which did not take place at all in 2021, due to covid – from its usual Saturday timeslot before Shrove Tuesday and to postpone it to Saturday, when it will be held in his favorite place: the ballroom of the Hot Springs Hotel.
The event, dubbed the 10th anniversary, will have longtime costume competition darlings Richard and Beth Gipe, who run the city’s Legacy Fine Art Gallery, as king and queen.
The ball is presided over by Freeman, a retired print shop owner, current publisher of the Arkansas Senior Resource Directory and former chairman of the Hot Springs Jazz Society board.
“When I joined the jazz society, they did a few things…they brought in military bands, mostly things they had to pay for because they didn’t really have a lot of money….They had a few people helping, but they’d never had a fundraiser,” Freeman says. “And so they were sitting down and they were like, ‘What could we do? … donna [Freeman’s wife] and I was sitting there one day and we said… ‘They don’t do Mardi Gras in this town.'” The couple, former Houston residents, recalled how impressed they were by the massive crowd drawn by a parade of New Orleans Mardi Gras floats they had witnessed on a trip to Galveston, Texas.
They decided they couldn’t have a parade in Hot Springs because it would be held so close to the world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade, also held in the city. They would have a ball.
“And then, of course, the most important thing was, where [are] we will do it ? Freeman says. Hotels were outside the company’s budget; some suggested the Clinton Field House, which had been the site of the Hot Springs Music Festival and which would be free.
The building, however, was in a state of considerable disrepair. The society assembled a team of volunteers to clean and beautify it.
“Everyone participated because everyone wanted to try to find a way to make money — to do something for the city and for the people and make money too,” Freeman said.
As the date got closer, they lined up musical entertainment, food vendors, and a King and Queen ball. “And all of a sudden it was February, and we saw the forecast,” which was for low temperatures. They rented a handful of propane heaters to keep revelers warm.
On the day of the event, as they were making last-minute preparations, “this guy walks in, in uniform, and introduces himself,” Freeman recalled. It was the fire chief.
“And he said, ‘What are you guys doing?’ I said, “Well, we’re having a Mardi Gras party here. We’ve got all this stuff” and he said, “I can tell you right now. You can’t put those heaters in this building. There is no fire extinguishing in this building at all. In fact, there aren’t even fire extinguishers in this building. And some of these exits here are locked. And he said, ‘You just can’t do that.’
“Our hearts just broke…I said, ‘This will practically bankrupt the Jazz Society. And [the chief] called one of his guys and they talked for a bit, and he said ‘OK, here’s what we can do. You cannot install these heaters here under any conditions. You can put them in the hall and here in the front, but you can’t put them in this building because there’s too much wood here.
“‘And we have to open these exit doors and you have to go buy fire extinguishers. And I’ll tell you where to go to buy them.’ And he said, “We have to put them in different places here,” and he said… “You can hire two of my guys; they will take care of these outings.” “The company agreed. They also hired a policeman for security.
“We had done a lot of publicity and we had a bonus crowd. Everyone had heard of it [and] of course, it was really cheap back then. … So the dance floor was packed.
“And that was the start of Mardi Gras,” Freeman concludes. “He grew tremendously after that.”
This year’s event will feature the music of the Delta Brass Express, which will “play blues and classic rock with a touch of jazz and a little Cajun for good measure.”
NEW AND IMPROVED
New this year: a Cajun buffet—with red beans and rice, okra, muffaletta sliders, and bread pudding—included in the ticket price. (Previous balls have included refreshments for an additional fee.) Libations will be sold.
The evening will include three raffle prizes, for $10 per ticket (12 for $100). The first prize will be a special piece made to measure by Lara’s Jewelry and Design: a fleur-de-lis pendant in gold and diamonds. Second Prize: A case of Tito’s vodka, “which we’ve done every year,” Freeman says. “And then we put together a case of very fine wines”, the bottles of which are offered by each member of the society, for the price of third place.
“Then we’re going to do the other thing that we’re doing that’s been really successful for us. We take an envelope and stuff it with gift certificates. We guarantee the amount…that’s in that envelope, and then people buy the envelopes . … These usually go away within the first 20 minutes.”
There will also be the usual silent auction — and, last but not least, the costume contest, which will bring cash prizes for the best and most creative costumes: best man, best woman, best couple and favorite of the crowd.
“We’re still looking…to see who we’re going to bring in for the costume contest,” Freeman said. “We will do [it ] a little different this year.” They will have a panel of judges who will name and then choose all the winners except for the crowd favorites, who will be chosen by applause.
All festivities will be overseen by the Gipes, who, once again, have stood out as costume contest favorites over the years. One year he was Alfred Hitchcock; she was being attacked by Tippi Hedren blackbirds. Another year he was Rhett Butler; she was Scarlett O’Hara, wearing the green dress made from the draperies – Carol Burnett-sketch style, with an attached curtain rod. Then there was the year he was the voodoo priest and she was the doll.
ROYAL ORDER OF QUEENS
And Queen Beth Gipe will now join the Royal Order of Queens, organized by Sharon Turrentine, a former prom queen. The group consists of current and former Mardi Gras queens of Hot Springs and is a spin-off chapter of the original group in Monroe, Louisiana, where Turrentine served as queen in 1986. A third chapter of the Royal Order of Queens is in Lafayette. , La. In Hot Springs, queens gather to celebrate Mardi Gras season and spend a day at the races in Oaklawn Park.
Meanwhile, proceeds from the ball are used for the society’s programs, which, according to the jazz society’s website, include:
• Scholarships for Arkansas high school students to attend summer jazz camp. “We send as many as we have money,” Freeman says, adding that the company has sent students to jazz camps in Monticello and North Texas.
• Free concerts of America’s Art Form at the Garland County Library.
• A free one-day outdoor concert, “JazzFest Block Party”, during the annual Hot Springs JazzFest.
“Part of jazz society [mission] is to do things for the community,” says Freeman. “We got a call last month from the library. …And the library hired the Jazz Society to do a show “one Wednesday a month for a year.
“We bring different types of groups for these programs, which will be educational,” says Freeman. “It’s a great thing that’s happened to jazz society in terms of getting back to the public.”
The company also offers musical instruments. “We donated keyboards,” Freeman says. “We just donated an expensive Ludwig drum set – the complete set too. It was given to us by someone who had moved on.
“So anyway, there’s a lot going on. … We’re interacting with schools more now.”
By the way, you don’t have to play an instrument to join the Hot Springs Jazz Society.
“We have different people in jazz society doing different things,” Freeman says. “A lot of them are musicians. I’m not a musician. I’m the guy who listens [to] the guy playing it. I am the aficionado.”
The Tenth Mardi Gras Costume Ball and Pageant hosted by the Hot Springs Jazz Society, Saturday, 6 p.m. (doors open 5:30 p.m.), Hotel Hot Springs, 305 Malvern Avenue, Hot Springs. Tickets: $70, individually; $700, tables of 10. Visit hsjazzsociety.org/product/mardigras-tickets.