Back to the Origins of Marda Gras

The Marda Gras Street Festival has been a big part of Marda Loop for decades.  Due to COVID, this is the first year that Marda Loop has not hosted a summer festival since 1985.  As we look forward to returning in 2021, this is a good time to look back on Marda Gras’ beginnings.

Marda Gras began as an initiative of a newly founded organization of local businesses, the Marda Loop BRZ (today’s BIA). Just months after the BRZ was founded, “Summerfest” was held on August 24, 1985 in large empty lot on the corner of 33rd Avenue and 21st Street – where the Marda Station shops and condominiums are today.  The event was to include a farmer’s market, charity dunk tank, car raffle, corn roast, live bands, a flea market and other attractions.  According to a BRZ document, Mayor Ralph Klein was invited “to cut the ribbon and christen the district” with the new Marda Loop name. “A shirt was made for him, which said ‘I got looped at Marda Loop’. Which he took in good humour.”

That’s the 80s for you!

We still have a few independent businesses in Marda Loop that date back to the first Marda Gras, including Mike’s Auto Service, Roberto’s Hair Studio, Dragon Gate restaurant and Wild About Flowers (then Roselawn Florists).  Safeway, ATB, Scotiabank, Petro Canada (Rebel), Circle K (Mac’s), and Liquor Depot (then ALCB) were also in Marda Loop then.

By 1987 the festival was relaunched on a grander scale and re-named Marda Gras in an irreverent play on words.  Unlike the original Mardi Gras in New Orleans, it didn’t happen on Tuesday at the beginning of Lent, but “Marda Gras Day” did have a beads-and-masks New Orleans theme.  The festival was widely promoted, including with a multi-page insert in the Calgary Herald (pictured).

Advertisement for 1987 “Marda Gras Day”

Marda Gras usually is in August, but the 1992 festival was planned for June 13, including a giant birthday cake for Canada’s 125th birthday and an appearance by Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong. But you know what happens in June in Calgary, and at the last moment Marda Gras was postponed until August due to rain!  It would be impossible to make that sort of move today – we just tough it out in our ponchos like in 2019!  The rescheduled August event included Canada’s first ever “Doo Dah” parade of random participants doing random things, inspired by the Pasadena original.

Belly dancers from 2004. The Casablanca video space is now Global Pet Foods. 

A celebrity dunk tank for charity fundraising was part of several early Marda Gras Days.  In 1992 the soggy celeb was City Council member Barb Scott. Later that year, Jon Lord, one of the founders of Marda Loop BRZ and owner of Casablanca Video, tried to dunk Barb for real in the 1992 Civic Election. Jon didn’t win that time, but he did become Alderman in 1995 after Scott retired.

Beach volleyball from 2004, on 20th Street at 34th Avenue, between OJs and where the new Marda building is today.

Marda Gras is considered the longest-running street festival in Calgary (Lilac Fest was founded in 1989).   There have been balloon rides, beach volleyball, belly dancers, martial art demos and lots of bands. In recent years there has been an emphasis on high-quality musical entertainment and – of course – the famous Pet Pageant.  This year, we are planning an online pet pageant (details soon!), and we look forward to seeing everyone in person at Marda Gras next year. Save the date, August 8, 2021.

Scene from 2019 Marda Gras Pet Pageant

P.S.  This little blog is not a definitive history. If you have memories, corrections, photos or more information on Marda Gras past, send a note to info@visitmardaloop.com.

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