Party Hounds on Parade

Participants in a Williams College reunion go all out for the 8th annual Mystic Krewe of Barkus parade, with a yellow Labrador, Ryerson, a.k.a. Lady Ryerson de Bark, cross-dressing as a Medieval damsel and Belle, a black Lab, got up in a suit of armor à la Joan of Arc.

Party Hounds on Parade

Choppy Rheinfrank's Black Lab, Belle, got up as Joan of Bark in a full suit of armor with a sword hanging from the side, a fleur de lis in gold raised relief and a helmet topped with a big red plume.

How to outfit a dog in a full suit of armor, a la Joan of Arc?

This was among the more formidable challenges facing Sal Salamone, a Hollywood costume designer commissioned to create human and dog regalia for a select group of participants in the 8th annual Mystic Krewe of Barkus canine parade, rolling through the French Quarter on Sunday, February 27. Theme: “Joan of Bark.”

“I had been interested in armor-making and making a suit of armor for myself,” says Salamone. “So the idea of doing it for the dog sort of came to me.”

The dog in question is Belle, a feisty black Labrador Retriever owned by Lamson “Choppy” Rheinfrank and his wife, Sally, who hail from Kansas City, Mo. Choppy Rheinfrank, a self-described “party hound” who loves dogs, wanted Salamone to do something special not only for Belle but also for his yellow Labrador, Ryerson.

Ryerson, a.k.a. Lady Ryerson de Bark, will cross-dress as a Medieval damsel, garbed in a sumptuous, yellow brocade skirt and a conical, period-style lady’s hat with a billowing yellow veil. Attached to the bottom of the hat is a braided brunette wig that’s sewn onto a spandex hood, which slips over the dog’s head and snaps onto the body of the costume. Low-cut sleeves, designed for maximum cleavage, will cover his forelegs, and a pair of furry boobs will protrude from his chest.

For Belle, Salamone has fashioned a full suit of “armor” out of a special foam, L200, which is often used for special-effects costuming in movies. The sculpted pieces of foam are covered in plastic chrome that, says Salamone, “really looks like metal from five or 10 feet away.”

There’s also a raised-relief Fleur de Lis backpiece attached to the section of the costume covering the dog’s spine. (The Fleur de Lis, stylized after a three-petaled Iris flower, is a popular emblem of New Orleans and was once used by the Bourbon kings of France.) A sword hangs off the side of the outfit. And for an added touch of authenticity, Salamone has created a knight’s headpiece with a visor. It’s topped off with an enormous red ostrich plume.

The white Maltese — seated on a black velvet pillow supported by a tray and a rope that wraps around the back of Karen’s neck — looks positively regal in her purple-and-gold cape.

As with Ryerson’s regalia, the Joan of Arc costume is sewn onto a spandex body suit outfitted with velcro fasteners. “We don’t want this thing to be so skin-tight [that] it’s uncomfortable…,” explains Rheinfrank, adding: “We want the dogs to have fun in the end.”

Lady Belle and Lady Ryerson—along with Princess Louisa, a white Maltese—will comprise the “Grand Marshal Court” in the Barkus parade. Louisa is owned by Charles Dickson, a Williams College classmate of Rheinfrank’s, and his wife, Karen. They live near Hartford, Conn.

Traditionally, the Barkus Grand Marshal has been a dog owned by a New Orleanian who has worked hard to help organize the parade and support the krewe. But for Barkus 2000—in an effort to expand the pre- and post-parade festivities, as well as raise additional money for local animal shelters and the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—organizers have made a big push to attract new corporate and private donors.

That’s where the Krewe of Choppy comes in. In 1960, as sophomores at Williams College, Rheinfrank and Dickson came to New Orleans for 10 days to celebrate Mardi Gras. On their flight down, they bumped into another classmate, Jim Evans, who had family ties to New Orleans and also happened to be heading to the festivities.

Through his roommate at boarding school, Pierce Hurley, a native New Orleanian, Dickson had become friends with two Carnival debutantes, Ginger Borah and Sheela Burke. The year the Williams boys came to partake in the revelry, Borah was queen of Rex and Burke was queen of the Krewe of Proteus. Dickson and Rheinfrank attended the Rex ball and escorted two of the maids in Burke’s court to the Proteus ball. Evans, through family connections, secured entre into the balls of Proteus and the Mistick Krewe of Comus.

Choppy Rheinfrank and his gang, with Ryerson and Belle facing one another in costume in front.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of that Mardi Gras experience, Rheinfrank decided to organize a Williams reunion in conjunction with Barkus. (The festivities included a costume “Dog Bawl” the night before the parade; Ginger and Sheela were among the attendees.) The idea for including Ryerson, Belle and Louisa in the krewe’s royal court came about basically at the last minute, thanks to Rheinfrank’s daughter Lydia.

Lydia, who lives in San Francisco, had signed on as an associate producer for an upcoming Discovery Networks production entitled Inside Mardi Gras. In the course of her research, she got in touch with the executive director of the Mystic Krewe of Barkus, Sean McKean. Out of their discussions came the plan for a collaboration between the krewe and the Williams reunion celebration.

Rheinfrank and Dickson, along with another Williams classmate, Price Gripekoven, who lives in Portland, Ore., have made donations to Barkus—money that will go to support local animal shelters and the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Gripekoven, escorting Lady Belle in the parade, and Rheinfrank, escorting Lady Ryerson, will be dressed as the dogs, in costumes made by Salamone. Karen Dickson will carry the other member of the Grand Marshal Court, Princess Louisa, on a black velvet pillow. Underneath the pillow is a platform, which sticks out from Karen’s midriff and is supported by an ornate taseled rope looped around her neck.

Rheinfrank found out about Barkus after the 1999 parade, when a friend faxed him a copy of a write-up that appeared in the New York Times. The story had a particularly memorable description of the queen, a Whippet named Hero, arriving at the staging area for the parade in a “shiny green BMW convertible…behind a roaring escort of police motorcycles.” The writer, Kevin Sack, went on to note that she “looked positively elegant in a black velvet cape and a gold lame Norma Desmond top knot with her title, ‘Queen,’ spelled out in shimmering stones.”

Sal (got up as a Medieval Bishop) and Lydia (as a peasant in sackcloth) hamming it up at the Dog Bawl, which took place at the historic Bucvolt House in the French Quarter

Rheinfrank got a big kick out of the story, and began making plans to attend Barkus 2000. He got in touch with Salamone, a former track star at Williams (Class of 1993). Salamone had dated one of Rheinfrank’s daughters, Emily, and established himself in Los Angeles as an up-and-coming costume designer. (He’s created attire for the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus, Janet Jackson and the Rockettes, of Radio City Music Hall fame. For an upcoming live-action remake of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, starring Jim Carrey, he made shoes for the Whos of Whoville.)

Although he’d never heard of Barkus before the call from Rheinfrank, Salamone had already proven his designing chops in the realm of pet masquerades. Several years ago, for a costume contest sponsored by Pet Supply Depot in San Deigo, he dressed himself and a friend’s dog as Elvis impersonators. The dog, a Lhasa Apso named Princess, appeared in a full white jumpsuit, with a large belt, scarf, sunglasses, sideburns and wig. The contest is an annual event, and judges pick winners in three sub-categories—pet, pet + child and pet + adult. Salamone took home the $1,000 grand prize, awarded to the best of the sub-category winners.

For Barkus, Salamone will march with the Williams contingent as a muscled Medieval Bishop. His friend, Fred Sciortino, who lives in New Orleans, will ride in a shopping cart dressed as a dwarf. “Choppy told me that dwarfs were a popular form of entertainment in the Middle Ages,” relates Salamone, who originally created the dwarf costume for a play. “They were held in high favor in royal courts.”

Note to Barkus parade-goers: Beware of a human (i.e., Choppy Rheinfrank) dressed as Ryerson. For the get-up, Rheinfrank had Salamone fashion a special “apparatus” out of the innards of a high-powered squirt gun. Loaded with water and concealed behind a piece of fur covering his groin, it will be fully functional.