Log in Subscribe

Sunday Favorites: The Past, Present and Future of Rubonia Mardi Gras


My personal favorite float, the chicken train, consists of a tractor followed by a train of

chikens in coops.

RUBONIA -- Comments have been blowing up Facebook all week about today’s much-anticipated Rubonia Mardi Gras. The annual event that started out as a birthday celebration for some local hippies in the 70s has gained so much popularity, it is literally the talk of the town for months in advance. But what makes this absurd display of decorated golf carts, homemade floats and bizarre characters so appealing is that there is no sense of normality about it. Participants can crack open a beer, let their mullet haircuts hang and enjoy the show!

It seems that some of Manatee County’s most colorful characters emerge from the woodwork to attend the Rubonia parade. And who could blame them? The origin of the parade says it all. In 1979 a group of extremely vibrant characters, among them Boo Ersham and Sharon Fredman, decided to organize a parade for their friend Luanne Topp. Topp was a clown-college graduate with an alias of “Ruby Begonia”. Her birthday happened to fall on Mardi Gras that year. The referred to themselves as “Crew of the Mystic Rainbow” while they assembled four make-shift floats. They marched across the highway into the sleepy town of Rubonia. You can imagine the looks on the locals’ faces when they glanced up from their paper-bag covered Natty Lights and witnessed grown men and women dressed as clowns while riding on homemade floats. The procession made a U-turn in front of the fertilizer store and went back to Luanne’s house for an after party.

“The advantage of the U-turn in a parade is that everybody participating in the parade actually get a chance to see the other floats,” Topp explained in a 2003 interview with the St. Petersburg Times.

The act gained so much acclaim that the group decided to host the event every ear. In On Sunday, February 17, 1980, starting at the Frog Creek bridge on Bishop Harbor Road, the first official annual "Terra Ceia-Rubonia Mardi Gras Parade" marched the route to "main street" Rubonia. The event featured Decorated trailers, trucks, tractors, and wagons, with garbed pranksters on foot and horseback. A professional showboat float, returning to St. Pete from a Ft. Myers event, actually detoured to join the lineup. After making the U-turn the entourage headed back to Terra Ceia for the party.

In 1981, the event became a fundraiser for Rubonia residents who were searching for funding for the Rubonia Recreation and Youth Center. Manatee County government had been offering them a budget of $3,000 a year on a cost re-imbursement basis to use an old schoolhouse for the location. The Club suggested having a children's contest, with two fundraising winners then becoming the king and queen of the event.
Of course, like everything in life, the care-free celebrations couldn’t go unchallenged forever. After 16 years of increasing numbers of spectators, Luann was confronted by government officials demanding County permits, liability insurance, security, etc., Luann decided she had to discontinue the event, agreeing that 16 years had been a “pretty good run”. But the annual parade had achieved a life of its own! Pressured by the residents, the Rubonia Community Center (RCC) agreed to host the parade and found corporate sponsors for the 1996 event.

This float was called "Choking the Chicken".

In 2006 the Bill Burger, Luann Topp, and James Gordon formed the "Rubonia Mardi Gras Trust" as a State nonprofit corporation -- Rubonia's trust being the key to continuing the event and accounting for all monies received.

The parade has had a torrid past of ups and downs. Perhaps that is part of the appeal, these days residents are kept waiting until the last minute for The Rubonia Mardi Gras Trust Inc. to tell them if the party is going to occur. This year, nails were bitten until February 12, when they finally issued a statement to the Bradenton Herald that the show would go on. With all the permits and insurance needed, it costs organizers approximately $15,000 for the parade every year. What used to be a precession of locals, now must involve corporate sponsors such as Anheuser Busch to continue. Yet somehow, the community continues to come together and support their favorite local event.

“This year is expected to be bigger than last year,” said Charles Miller, president of the Rubonia Mardi Gras Trust Inc. “I just want to thank Budweiser, USA Fence, Southern Agriculture, Peggy’s Corral , Manatee County Government, they were the biggest sponsors that really made this possible. We have a lot of other sponsors too, and without them it wouldn’t have happened.”

The theme this year is "over the rainbow", participants can join today's festivities from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. along Bayshore Road in Rubonia.


No comments on this item

Only paid subscribers can comment
Please log in to comment by clicking here.