Exclusive Interview: FRANCIS GRUNOW, co-creator of the annual Marche du Nain Rouge, Detroit’s Mardi Gras Parade!
*The Nain! (photo by: Kate Sassak)
Detroit legend has it that a taunting, menacing red dwarf with glowing, piercing crimson eyes, sinisterly named The Nain Rouge, terrorizes the City of Detroit for fun.
This devious trickster is the ingenious creator of 10,000 torments for Detroiters. And every year when he manifests for a confrontation, it is our duty as Detroiters to banish him back to the shadows.
The Nain Rouge lives in the shadows. He also lurks in the sewers, inside the cavernous underground salt mines in Southwest Detroit, in the blast furnace pits on Zug Island, inside the rubble mounds of old buildings, curled up inside rusted out car trunks at junkyards, atop piles of old mildewed carpets in shipping containers, coiled inside unoccupied coffins in abandoned funeral homes, wedged in secret boroughs along the Detroit Riverfront, inside the backyard doghouse at the Manoogian Mansion, etc.
The Nain is a paradox. He is everywhere and nowhere.
You may have seen him before somewhere, in quick glimpses, out of the corner of your eye. You’re stopped at a light on Gratiot. You peek in your side view mirror just in time to see the Nain’s head quickly duck down from the open window of an old building.
You may have seen him, illumed by moonlight, lapping up pools of discarded Faygo in the sunken warp of old alleys or rummaging thru the dumpsters behind Coney Island for coney dogs.
There are even people who think the secret ingredient in Bucharest’s ridiculously good Chicken Shawarma recipe is a drop of blood from the Nain Rouge.
Legend Has It…
Nain Rouge means “Red Dwarf” and there have been hundreds of reported sightings of this strangely grinning ghoul in Detroit since 1701.
According to Marie Hamlin in her 1883 book ‘Legends of Le Detroit’, Cadillac landed in Detroit on July 24th, 1701 at the foot of present-day Griswold Street near villages of Hurons and Ottawas.
He built Fort Pontchartrain and shortly thereafter, encountered the Nain Rouge. Cadillac hit the red imp with his cane, saying “get out of my way!” That was a big mistake. The Nain Rouge laughed madly and great strife ensued.
Supposedly, the mere appearance of the Nain Rouge heralds disaster. And if offended, he can only be appeased thru flattery. In the Great Fire of 1805, the Nain Rouge was seen running thru burning buildings, doing cartwheels and cackling wildly.
Detroit’s Mardi Gras
The annual Marche du Nain Rouge was started by Detroiters Francis Grunow and Joe Uhl in 2010.
This is a free family-friendly march down Cass Avenue thru the old Chinatown section of Detroit’s Cass Corridor.
All attendees are supposed to be masked and/or fully costumed. Pets and kids are welcome.
Francis Grunow Speaks!
I was fortunate enough to sit down with the co-creator, Mr. Francis Grunow and this is his tale:
“The Marche du Nain Rouge is a family-friendly community art parade. It’s the theme of Mardi Gras meets Burning Man in Detroit’s Cass Corridor.”
“This is a ritualized Spring event of starting fresh. The entire concept is themed around the Nain Rouge in that for the past 300 years, on the Sunday after the Vernal Equinox, Detroiters gather together to banish the Nain Rouge.”
How it All Started
“My friend Joe Uhl and I were sitting at a bar in the dead of winter in 2009. I was still at Wayne State University, Joe had graduated.”
“Joe was saying how he went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and it was one of the most cathartic things he’d ever felt. There was a surging sense of renewal and a reestablishing of a center of gravity for the whole community.”
“It was then that we realized there was a void in Detroit which needed to be filled. The city of Detroit is older than New Orleans and we needed our own Mardi Gras celebration.”
“Both cities have different cultural trajectories and both have connexions with Cadillac. He founded Detroit, then became Governor of Louisiana. Both cities grew from French colonial outposts and both are important and unique American cities that have given tremendous cultural gifts to the world. What would Detroit’s Mardi Gras be like? Our response was the Marche du Nain Rouge.”
The Marche du Nain Rouge
“We want the parade to be intimate, homemade, and accessible. There’s a unique Detroitness to it. Overall, it’s about rebirth and renewal and getting the stuff that keeps us down off our backs and bringing the city together as one unified whole.”
“The Marche is a sort of younger brother to Theatre Bizarre. It’s participatory, we’re giving people a large theme/concept they can make their own and keep evolving.”
“There’s a tremendous amount of creativity, self-expression and participation at the Marche. The level of involvement and effort and attention to detail that are put into the costumes and parade floats every year, just blows me away.”
“We’re working on how a thing like this can be more popular, accepted and evolve to be more inclusive for the greater community. I want everyone to feel like they can absorb themselves into this parade and use it and evolve it.”
“In the 1500’s, Rabelais talks about how the role of the fool in the court was very important. The fool was able to put everyone on an equal level, bringing the king and the peasant into the same space. The Marche du Nain Rouge is the same type of deal. It serves a healthy role in society to have this safe space where people can be ridiculous in a safe and fun way. We need creative outlets like this.”
Sponsors and Organizers
“We have 30 or so sponsors. Midtown Detroit Incorporated gives us half of our $60,000 budget. There’s also the two dozen local bars, restaurants, and retail shops in the area who help out.”
“Ralph Taylor, a native Trinidadian, is our host and he runs Caribbean Mardi Gras Productions.”
“We’re a non-profit and we have a core group of 6-10 committed people who actively work on the Marche du Nain Rouge throughout the year, giving thousands of hours of unpaid volunteer time. Then we have an extended base of 40 or so volunteers who help with marshaling (crowd control) and other aspects.”
“The City of Detroit has been a great partner in this amazing journey with us. It’s officially endorsed by them every year and they work with us on public safety. We pay for Detroit Police and Wayne State Police, Detroit Fire Deparment, porta johns, Poco barricades, etc, it’s a lot to organize.”
“Scrubby Bubble from Eddy Bullock’s Three Fifty Concepts will be there.”
“Our creative director Vince Keenan, designs a lot of the banners, costumes, and so forth.”
“This year, we have Anime Manga mechanized, toy, roboty Japanese type stuff, designed by Dave Presnell. Dave works as a fabricator at The Parade Company.”
“Our design this year was done by local artist Pink (aka: Nicole LaPointe) she’s an awesome collaborator from Woodbridge. She did this year’s poster and the comic book.”
“Ryan Doyle did the cockroach and the fire-breathing dragon. He’s a visual artist and film set designer, he did work on Kong: Skull Island.”
“Clare Pfeiffer is our PR and media person. She also does great marketing work for the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores and the Henry Ford Fair Lane Estate on the campus of University of Michigan-Dearborn.”
“The Masonic Temple has been a tremendous host to us over the years. We are grateful to them and love working with them.”
“I grew up on Detroit’s Northwest side. Then there was a period where I lived in NYC for 10 years. Went to Columbia University to be a city planner, lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I came back to Detroit in 2001 and now I do consulting, community development, and housing policy.”
What kind of costumes should you wear?
“We encourage homemade costumes, the more creative the better. Anything goes. People do really cool things both as individuals and as groups. It can be conceptual or free form.”
“Whatever the case, at least do something, rather than just coming plain. Wear an accessory, even a little something. You are the spectacle. There are no observers, everyone is a participant. For example, one year, this guy had 50 stuffed animals torn open and attached to his body in different ways.”
“Every year, we also have custom art cars with a different look and aesthetic. We have a lead car at the head of the procession and the art cars follow. We would like to incorporate more custom cars, bikes, parade floats as time goes on.”
Advice for First Time Attendees
“Come with an open mind. Come dressed as an alter ego. Come ready to explore Detroit in a different way and experience the Cass Corridor, talk to new people. The streets are open to you on this day, they are yours.”
The Marche du Nain Rouge is an incredibly fun time. If you have never experienced it, do yourself a favor and go check it out!
8th annual Marche du Nain Rouge
Sunday, March 26th, 2017
Noon = everyone gathers outside Traffic Jam Restaurant (511 W. Canfield, Detroit)
1pm = the March starts. We walk down Cass Avenue to the steps of the Masonic Temple (500 Temple Street, Detroit)
3pm = March disperses
2pm-6pm = official after party inside the Masonic Temple Theater. There will be DJ’s, beer, food. There will also be a Kid’s Area.
Some surrounding bars to check out: Temple Bar, Old Miami bar, TV Lounge, 8 Degrees Plato, etc
Parking Lot #72 (4510 Cass) $7.00
Structure #8 (91 W. Forest) $7.00
Any other questions?
Facebook event page