Confessions of a Venetian Mime on Bourbon Street

Justine Bird recalls her first gig as a mime—at a stranger’s wedding in the heart of the French Quarter.

Jean-Jérôme Raclot in Marcel Marceau on Broadway, 1983. Photo by Martha Swope. Via the New York Public Library.

On a grey Saturday afternoon, my phone buzzed with the fateful text. “Would you like to be a mime in a wedding tonight?” My college roommate, an eccentric filmmaker who has a habit of speaking in stream of consciousness, now makes her living as a booker for a talent agency. As a recent grad, I immediately accepted the job.

That evening I drove through the spitting rain to a quaint duplex that houses the agency. I was greeted at the door by a sculpted man completely covered in gold paint. He stared at me blankly, holding a candelabra with a head harness attached to it in his free hand.

“I’m here to be a mime for the wedding?” my voice lilting as if it were a question.

“Oh,” the gilded man responded. “Betty is in there.”

A short blonde woman swooped in and introduced herself as Betty, leading me into the costume room. An entire wall was stacked with cubbies full of wigs in every color and style. I wondered if I was more of a green-haired Marie Antoinette or a rainbow Cleopatra. Betty, who I learned was one of the owners, introduced me to my costume—there were no stripes in sight. I zipped into a yellow, satin, floor-length robe and velcroed a matching tulle, tutu-esque collar around my neck.

“You can put your hat on later,” Betty said, presenting a four-foot-long pointed hat in the same yellow satin. “I’m not sure why the bride wanted this, but whatever!”

She puzzled at my getup. It had an undeniably evil presence.

“Would you be okay wearing a mask for four hours?” she asked, indicating a plain white mask with small eyeholes.

I obliged. It might be nice to be anonymous. I learned that my cultish getup was inspired by vintage Mardi Gras costumes, which were similarly terrifying. I optimistically mused that at least I wouldn’t have to deal with any advances from drunken wedding guests in this costume, an all-too-common experience based on horror stories from my friends in catering.

Suddenly a young guy with a mighty red beard entered the wig and costume trove. He was rhythmically snapping and tapping on his suspenders. “Mad Hatter!” Betty scuttled around grabbing an oversized top hat, ballooning purple pants, and a matching jacket, while the Mad Hatter drew circles of purple makeup around his eyes.

What could the theme of this wedding possibly be? I had barely finished the thought before a high fairytale accent chirped from the other room, “Oh but I am not sure if the headdress looks better pushed forward or back! Actually, I quite like it forward. It’s quite dramatic!” A tiny older woman in black strolled in wearing a tan lace dress and a dramatic beaded headdress with hair-like grass streaming from the crown. “I like to add a little glitter!” She pointed at her sparkly cheeks, which admittedly added flair to her otherwise traditional mime makeup.

Betty introduced the cast to the other owner, who was also named Betty. Betty One corralled me—the Venetian mime—along with the Grass-Headdress Mime, the Human Candelabra, and the Mad Hatter into her Honda. We hadn’t driven five minutes when Betty realized we’d forgotten something.

“We need the tablecloth for the Human Candelabra!”

I suggested that the venue would probably have a tablecloth.

“No,” Betty shook her head, “We need one with a hole in it for him to stand in the table.”

He was going to be inside the buffet table. Betty One called other Betty, and we swooped around to grab the tablecloth, still managing to leave on time. At this point, the Mad Hatter began incorporating scatting into his snapping and tapping routine. I started to sweat.

Betty One dropped us off on a corner of Bourbon Street. I tried not to stab anyone with my giant plastic-wrapped hat as we wove through the rain to our venue, the Maison Bourbon. On the first floor, four greying musicians were adding some Santana-style guitar licks to Bob Marley covers. The black linoleum was coated with Bourbon Street sludge. An inebriated audience screamed unintelligible praise to the band, their Mardi Gras beads clinking with every off-beat clap. We filed through the musicians, resembling some odd experimental band ourselves, and up a spiral staircase. The staircase must have been some type of wormhole because we promptly found ourselves in a decadent entryway with a ballroom to the left and a bar to the right. The walls were covered in velvet brocade and red light shone through strands of gems on wrought-iron sconces. Three platforms rose out of the velvet. A nervous wedding planner greeted us and instructed us to get onto each of the platforms, and the Human Candelabra popped into his buffet table.

Guests streamed in wearing fascinators and beaded retro gowns. I even spotted a couple of steampunk Mad Hatter look-alikes in the crowd. I quickly learned that I couldn’t make any sudden movements if I wanted my giant hat to stay on so I decided that stillness would be a mainstay of my performance. While guests loaded their plates at the Human Candelabra, a little boy ran by, noticed me, and started crying. Couples pointed at me from across the room asking each other if I was real or not. A couple of the Mad Hatter-like guests asked for a picture, so I hopped down and made some jazz hands, hoping that it was an approved Venetian mime pose.

When the planner announced that it was time for first dances, guests flooded out of the bar into the ballroom. I tried and failed to sip a Coke through the small mouth hole in my mask. My breath fogged up the entire inside surface of the mask until my face was covered in my own spit. I slipped a napkin under for some relief.

In the bar, the wedding planner climbed a chair to adjust the projector for a slideshow of the bride and groom. We watched the bride crying on Santa’s lap as a toddler. We saw her at high-school dances in braces. I was equally freaked out and moved to be part of some strangers’ wedding. My thoughts were broken by the cameraman introducing himself. He was the sort of person who laughs enthusiastically at the end of every sentence.

“You could just be making awful faces at everyone and no one would know! You look like you’re really attractive under there, but I suppose you could be a complete mongoloid.”

I laughed weakly, trapped at my post. Apparently there is no costume too unattractive to deter creeps from bothering a girl at a wedding.

The cameraman was pulled away as the bride entered the room. I had just seen her grow up in the slideshow, and now she was married and dazzling in an ornate, beaded, strapless gown. She ran onto my platform and tightly hugged me. I patted her back with my gloved hands.

“Thank you so much for being part of my wedding. You look amazing!” She pulled her groom over for some pictures with me, and I couldn't help but feel relieved as they were laughing and bringing other guests in for more pictures. After four hours of being trapped in a mask covered in my own spit, making children cry, while wearing one of the scariest outfits I have yet seen in a matrimonial setting, the bride’s genuine joy made me grateful to be on Bourbon Street on a Saturday night for the first time. As the bride left to rejoin the guests, an old man slipped me a twenty. I can’t say I minded the tip.