Tag Archives: Joe Cain

The Drug Lord of Dauphin Street


Bienville Square; Mobile, AL

Mobile, AL. The annual Southeastern Theatre Conference convention (www.setc.org) is a rigorous event, typically drawing several thousand participants for auditions, meetings, workshops, and panels. Activities are scheduled from early morning to well past midnight and it can be exhausting. I have been regularly attending this event for thirty-five years now and, when I get home, a good bit of recovery is required.

SETC is held in a different city in the region each year; the 2018 version is in Mobile. It’s good to be in Mobile again. I travel to the eastern shore of Mobile Bay every year but don’t cross the bay into the city that often. Since my last visit four years ago, the place seems to have blossomed. There are fewer empty store fronts downtown and there seems to be more to do on a warm March week as the city’s vaunted azaleas are bursting forth wherever one looks. I am staying at the historic Battle House Hotel, part of and close to all of the convention events.

Battle House lobby; Mobile, AL

There are more dining options in downtown than in years past. To get a heightened feel for the geography of the place, I ate my first meal of the trip at Dauphin’s (www.godauphins.com), a fine-dining restaurant on the 34th floor of the RSA Trustmark building. It’s a beautiful dining spot with floor to ceiling windows revealing sweeping views of the riverfront, the city, and the bay.


Church Street Grave Yard; Mobile, AL

On a break between meetings on Friday, I strolled down Government Street to the Church Street Grave Yard to visit the final resting place of two particular Mobile legends – Joe Cain (1832-1904), who re-established Mobile’s Mardi Gras after the Civil War; and Eugene Walter (1921-1998), the author/editor, food expert, actor, and raconteur whose influence spans continents.

Joe Cain and his wife, Elizabeth, lie beneath a stone that declares “Old Joe Cain” as the “heart and soul of Mardi Gras in Mobile.” Eugene Walter’s stone, adorned with his fanciful drawings and one of his many “monkey poems,” declares “Born in the land of lizard fever / in sweet lunacy’s county seat / this untidy pilgrim of the world / lived by the credo: When all else fails / throw a party.”

After paying my respects, I dashed over to Dauphin Street to eat at the original Wintzell’s Oyster House (www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com). After a quick lunch, heading along Dauphin Street to the convention, a guy stepped toward me on the sidewalk and informed me that I looked “like a Colombian drug lord.”

I stopped and said “Excuse me?” and realized I had heard right the first time. I was wearing a pair of khakis, a dress shirt (tucked in), and a black blazer at the time. And aviator sunglasses. Hardly a drug lord look, I think. In fact, this is essentially how I dress for work most days. The specificity of the random comment is what startled me.

When the guy saw my startled look, he began to laugh, apologized, and said, “I just had to tell you that!”

Which begs the question Why? Why did you have to tell me that? 

I continued on my way, but detoured to the hotel to change clothes before making my way back to the convention’s keynote speaker.

Later, after a long editorial board meeting for Southern Theatre magazine, I remembered that I had been seeing signs for the LoDa Art Walk, a monthly event on the second Friday of the month on and around Dauphin Street. In lieu of scoping out a place for dinner, I decided I’d walk Dauphin and take in some art galleries. Eight galleries were participating and a dozen other venues were offering live music, art on display, and other walk-related offerings.

Part of the street was closed to motor vehicles and a sizable crowd made the rounds of the event on a pleasant pre-Spring evening. Celtic musicians played in Cathedral Square in front of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Jigs and reels were danced at the pre-St. Patrick’s Day event as giant puppets glided soundlessly past and down the street.

Inside the cathedral, baritone Xavier Johnson, accompanied by pianist Clinton Doolittle, performed a short program that ranged from the spirituals “Fix me, Jesus” and “By an’ by,” through Bellini’s “Vanne, o rosa fortunata,” ending with Cole Porter’s “The Tale of the Oyster” with its memorable final lyric, “For I’ve had a taste of society / And society’s had a taste of me.”

Across the square, Alabama Contemporary Art Center (www.alabamacontemporary.org) presented a beautifully curated exhibition, “Back to Havana,” featuring fifteen contemporary Cuban artists. The Alabama Contemporary space is deceptively spacious and the various galleries surprised with visual stimulation at each turn. Baseball is an almost predictable recurring motif through the exhibit and it was intriguing to see the evocative ways Cuban artists were incorporating the symbolism and iconography of “America’s pastime.”

“Back to Havana”; Alabama Contemporary Art Center

A meandering line was filling the narrow hallway at a Mobile Arts Council (www.mobilearts.org) gallery space, viewing a group of sometimes dazzling miniatures in a national exhibit from the Spanish Moss Miniature Society. Works by Melissa and Richard Diegan, paintings of precious stones by Kristen Dunreath Harris, and the slightly disturbing “humanimals” of Joseph Smith completed the Arts Council exhibits.

Farther down Dauphin, at Cathedral Square Gallery (www.cathedralsquaregallery.org), a substantial stable of artists’ works was on display. Live music was presented by Bayou Rhythm, a quirky band playing classic and unexpected ditties, keeping the crowd moving and tapping its feet with brass and percussion, raucous vocals, and a washboard in tow.

Bayou Rhythm; Mobile, AL

Finally, I headed over to St. Louis Street to The Cheese Cottage (www.thecheesecottagellc.com), a really special newly opened cheese and wine shop with café. Located in an old gas station, the tiny shop has an old Pure oil sign in the front and a cozy dining pavilion adjoining the structure. I ordered a pimento goat cheese sandwich that was truly spectacular. The Cheese Cottage is clearly a project of entrepreneurial passion and heart. It was a perfect way to end a Friday night exploration of Dauphin Street.

The Cheese Cottage; Mobile, AL

Saturday is the final full day of the convention and I managed to take in workshops on vocal technique to share with my students.

Tonight, I will be joining my friends Janet, Kitty, Patty, and Russell for what has become our own SETC tradition – a relaxing dinner away from the hubbub of the convention’s closing night banquet and dance party. We all agree that the Saturday night dinner has become the part of the convention we most look forward to. It is a good way to relax, catch up, and prepare for the drives home tomorrow and the work week ahead.

Since we’re in Mobile, we’ll travel across the bay to Fairhope and Camellia Café (www.camelliacafe.com), one of several of my Baldwin County favorites.

Another successful (and grueling) SETC convention is soon to be history.



Joe Cain Day in Mobile


IMG_1124 On Sunday, February 15, I am hosting a pre-Mardi Gras celebration for Joe Cain Day. Joe Cain Day is an event that is unique to Mobile, Alabama. It is always celebrated on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday. I have heard about it for decades but only got really intrigued with its origins and traditions in recent years. The more I learned the more fun it sounded. My little get-together is a way of sharing the tradition with my friends in north Alabama.

Of course, most Alabamians know and proudly assert that Mobile was the site of the first Mardi Gras celebrations in the present-day United States. Mobile was founded in 1703, fifteen years before New Orleans, and had established New World Carnival celebrations under French rule early on. There is still banter back and forth between the two cities about the legitimacy of Mobile’s claim to being the first. And a New Orleans friend once told me, “Well, Mobile may have started it, but New Orleans taught them how it ought to be done.”

There is no controversy, however, over the origins of Joe Cain Day.

Joseph Stillwell Cain (1832-1904) is credited with reviving Mardi Gras in Mobile after the Civil War. It all started in 1866 when he paraded through downtown Mobile in fanciful Native American garb. This act is considered the rebirth of modern Mardi Gras in Mobile.

Joe Cain was a Mobile native and as a teenager was a charter member of the Tea Drinkers Society (TDS), a Mobile mystic society that paraded on New Year’s Eve. Prior to the Civil War, pre-Lenten celebrations in Mobile were customarily tied into New Year’s observances.

When the Civil War began, Joe Cain was a private in the Confederate Army. When his military service was over he lived for a time in New Orleans and participated in New Orleans Mardi Gras observances.

In 1866, when Cain returned to his hometown from New Orleans, he decided to revive Mardi Gras in the city. He and six other members of TDS decorated a charcoal wagon, dressed in Native American garb, and frolicked through the streets of Mobile. Cain led the procession dressed as a fictional Chickasaw chief, “Chief Slackabamarinico,” and declared an end to Mobile’s suffering and the return of pre-Lenten carnival celebrations.

Joe Cain’s actions had an impact and led to the city officially moving the culmination of carnival festivities from the New Year’s season to traditional Fat Tuesday. Cain was a founding member of the mystic society called Order of Myths. Order of Myths adopted the emblem of Folly chasing Death around a broken column. This is assumed to be symbolic of the Civil War, a Lost Cause for the rebel South.

Cain remained active in Mardi Gras. Later in life, he and his wife moved from Mobile to the fishing village of Bayou La Batre, Alabama. Cain died in 1904 and was buried near Bayou La Batre. After Cain’s death, Mobile’s Mardi Gras remained popular but exclusive. The mystic societies had closed memberships. Most of the citizens of the city could only participate as onlookers.

In 1966, Julian Lee Rayford, a local author, set out to honor Joe Cain and open Mardi Gras participation to more people. Cain and his wife’s bodies were moved from Bayou La Batre to Mobile’s Church Street Cemetery. Cain’s interment was accompanied by a Mardi Gras parade, jazz band, and mourners. His tombstone has a jester’s image and reads “Here Lies Old Joe Cain, the Heart and Soul of Mardi Gras in Mobile.”

The popularity of Cain’s reburial inspired the creation of “Joe Cain Day,” observed on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday. The Joe Cain Day Parade, also known as “The People’s Parade” because anyone may participate (although it eventually became so big that the number of participants had to be capped), is led by a person chosen to dress as Chief Slackabamarinico. The parade concludes at Church Street Cemetery where revelers dance atop Cain’s grave.

Throughout the day, a mystic society of mourning-clad women known as “Joe Cain’s Merry Widows” wail over the loss of their beloved Joe Cain and declare “He loved me best!” The Merry Widows wail at the grave, toast the deceased from the front porch of his house on Augusta Street, and ride in a place of honor in the Parade. In 2003, another all-woman mystic society, “Mistresses of Joe Cain,” appeared. The Mistresses are also veiled, but dress all in scarlet and proclaim that “Of course he loved us best!” They parade alongside the vehicle carrying the Widows in the Parade, taunting them along the route and creating a general caterwaul.

Rumor has it that still another all-woman mystic society might be in the works that will be Joe Cain’s “ladies of the evening” – or some more earthy variation. In any case, Joe Cain Day in Mobile is a great representation of the silliness and release of the Mardi Gras season.

(The image is of the cherry tree in my front yard, bedecked with beads for Joe Cain and Mardi Gras.)