The Lost Boys of Mardi Gras

For almost 50 years, the Catholic Boys Home fielded the loudest, most exhilarating, most talked-about, most raucous marching band the city of Mobile had ever seen. Now, 53 years after their last parade, former band members explain how it all came to be — and how a band of orphans found a way to steal the show.

Black and white photo of the Catholic Boys Home Band in 1962
The CBH Band poses for a photograph in 1962. Band director Walter Holmes stands at the far left, beside a 16-year-old Jim McEnery. Head drum major Jose Roca holds his white hat at far right. The pecan orchard, where CBH boys could gather pecans for five cents a gallon, is visible in the background. Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Mobile Archives
Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Mobile Archives

For the youngsters living at the Catholic Boys Home in Mobile, secondhand was second-nature. The orphanage, which occupied the long, low structure on Dauphin Street that most Mobilians would identify today as the Mobile Gas building, was a well-known destination for hand-me-downs and leftovers. Day-old bread rolled in by the truckload from Smith’s Bakery. Milk that had slipped past its expiration date arrived in 5-gallon cans from Barber’s Dairy. (If it was fresh enough to drink, it’d go to the boys. If it was sour, it was mixed in with the chicken feed.) The basketball team sweated through jerseys emblazoned with “Spring Hill College,” and the marching band played castoff instruments.

But those band uniforms: those dazzling white pants, those cardinal red jackets, those white shoes. Those were bought new, thanks to a little creativity. Brother Roy, the firm but beloved prefect at the Catholic Boys Home (CBH), paid a visit to a scrapyard on Dauphin Island Parkway in 1961, where he found boxes and boxes of decommissioned fire hose doing nothing but taking up space. He asked the proprietor if he could find it in his heart to donate the tattered canvas to the Boys Home. It took some convincing, and five trips to haul away all of the boxes, but before dark, Brother Roy owned enough fire hose to lasso the moon.

It took so long for the boxes of hose to burn that one boy was made to stay up all night monitoring the inferno. The next morning, all that remained were the charred brass hose nozzles. Brother Roy could sell those and put the money toward band uniforms. New uniforms.

The city’s favorite marching band deserved as much.

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The Keepers of the Strut

If you attended a Mobile Mardi Gras parade anytime from the 1920s through the 1960s, here’s how it likely played out. First, you probably heard them before you saw them; the Catholic Boys Home Band was an ear-splitting bunch, as if they took silence as a personal affront.

“Here come those struttin’ boys,” the parade-goer next to you might’ve said, and the crowd would’ve stretched its neck. Then, he’d come into view — the head drum major. The strutter. Dressed in white from his shoes to the tall plume on his head. With a whistle in his mouth and a baton in his clutch, the strutter would’ve sidestepped and zig-zagged, foot-dragged and shuffle-hopped. The crowd would’ve whooped. Next would’ve come the little strutters, seven or so of the Home’s younger residents dressed in their red uniforms and mimicking the head drum major’s strut, step for step. The crowd would’ve awwed. And of course, the band of about 50 would’ve followed, blasting their used instruments, marching straight and proud in their tailored jackets and military-style hats.

Catholic Boys Home band marching down the street
The CBH strutters take to the streets of Mobile. “There were certain spots on the parade route where you’d really turn it on,” says former head drum major Jim McEnery, “because you might have WKRG out there filming, or you’d pass by the Bishop’s house.” Outside Barton Academy was a popular place for the band to go all out. Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Mobile Archives

“The band director at McGill used to always tell me, ‘Well, we were much better than the CBH Band,’ says Doug McEnery, a former Boys Home resident and band member. “I said, ‘Yes, you were. But we were much louder.’”

Doug, now 76, remembers with amusement that there wasn’t much choice about being in the band, let alone what instrument you played. That was up to longtime, no-nonsense band director Walter Holmes.

“‘You’d be good on the clarinet,’ he’d say, so I learned how to play the clarinet. Then after a while, we needed a saxophone player because somebody graduated, so he put me on the alto sax.” When Holmes walked into the band room one day with a donated baritone sax, Doug changed instruments yet again.

Doug’s brother Jim, on the other hand, didn’t find his niche in the band room. “I strutted for 7 years because I couldn’t play an instrument,” he says, to the laughter of his big brother across the room. “Mr. Holmes tried his best.”

“But Jim got to be a famous drum major,” Doug interjects. “He developed his own strut.”

“Well, my own brand of it,” Jim says sheepishly. He credits a boy named Jose Roca, the head drum major before him, for bringing some unique dance steps to the role. “The crowds loved our strutting, and we drum majors loved the attention and applause they gave us,” Jim says. “The company we bought our shoes from must have loved us, too. We wore these white shoes with soles that weren’t meant to be strutted for 5 miles in a parade. So they would wear out. I mean, I’d march in maybe three or four parades, and my shoes would be worn out. Brother Roy, who could do anything, came up with a way to put taps on the bottoms and all along the sides of my shoes. And that helped with the wear and tear. But as the taps wore out, they’d get pretty sharp, and as you kicked your feet back, you’d cut the bottom of your pants.” It was nothing that Mrs. Rudder couldn’t handle; the seamstress hemmed and stitched all the boys’ clothes from her house across the pecan orchard.

Aside from strutting, the head drum major’s job revolved around his whistle. With a blast, he could strike up the band. “Or tell ‘em to move over because we had some mule droppings comin’ up,” Jim adds. Mules pulled all the floats in those days, and remember, those boys were wearing white shoes. Barricades weren’t yet a feature of parades, setting the scene for some memorable encounters with the liquored masses.

“The best memory I have is when people would just jump out there with us and try to do the strut,” Jim says. “Some had their wits about ‘em. Others did not.”

The CBH Band members straddled two worlds — dancing to the direction of a drum major’s whistle at 9 p.m., then waking to the shrill pierce of a whistle at 6 a.m. Life was far from easy at the Catholic Boys Home. It was regimented. Strict. Every hour of the day was accounted for. Brothers doled out punishments, sometimes with a leather barbershop strap. If you were caught smoking — clean out the chicken coop. If you were heard cursing — 1,000 lines on the chalkboard. By sheer coincidence, every former CBH resident interviewed for this story went on to serve in the military, and every one of them said the same thing: After CBH, basic training was a piece of cake. 

“There was no meanness to us,” Doug explains. “There were 100 boys there at a time, and only five Brothers to look after them — it had to be regimented. If you did something you shouldn’t do, you got punished, and you deserved it. There’s no fence around that gas company today, and there wasn’t around the Home either. If you didn’t like it, leave. They didn’t run you down or anything. So every once in a while, somebody would run away.”

Across the room, Jim raises an index finger.

“You ran away?” Doug asks. “You dirty dog …”

“Me and a couple other guys decided to run away,” Jim says. “We had a code we’d tap on our metal beds when we were gonna do it. We had left a door ajar going out the back, and we took off in the middle of the night. Got as far as the railroad tracks between the Boys Home and UMS. We stopped in the pitch black and asked ourselves, ‘Where are we going now?’ So we turned around and went back in. I don’t even know to this day why we ran away. It was just something to do.”

The truth is, for boys like the McEnery brothers, the Catholic Boys Home was the best option they had. Doug and Jim were just 5 and 4 years old, respectively, on the day in 1950 that their parents walked out of the apartment in Mobile and didn’t return. “Our situation was never explained to us, and I didn’t know how to ask about it in those early years,” Jim would later write in a memoir. “But how do you tell children that their parents don’t want them?”

An undated photograph shows the CBH Band outside the Lafayette Street home, with some members hanging out of a nifty bus with “Boys Industrial School Band” on the side. Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Mobile Archives

Tuning Up

The origins of the Catholic Boys Home can be traced back to 1847 when, following a series of yellow fever epidemics, Bishop Michael Portier sought help from the Brothers of the Sacred Heart in France for the care of local male orphans. A boys facility was established at the intersection of St. Francis and Warren streets, and the Brothers began their work with 18 orphans.

In 1856, farmland was purchased on North Lafayette Street to produce food for the orphans, and as the operation grew, it became known as “The Male Orphan’s Farm and Industrial School.” An early 1900s aerial photograph found in the Archdiocese of Mobile Archives tells the story; the new boys home, a grand four-story stone structure on Lafayette Street, sits on a tract of farmland, where the boys toiled to grow food for themselves and the public. Greenhouses and rows of crops occupy the land where St. Mary’s Church and McGill-Toolen sit today.

It was around this time that one Brother is said to have come into an inheritance. He used the money to purchase band instruments, and within a year, the boys were marching in a Mardi Gras parade. Though little is known about the band’s earliest days, a few photographs survive. One shows the troupe outside the Lafayette Street home, posed around a bus with “Boys Industrial School Band” lettered on the driver’s door. Another shows the boys surrounding a visiting Babe Ruth, who wears a Yankees hat, a half-smile and a tuba. Though Ruth wasn’t an orphan, at age 7 he was sent to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible and Wayward Boys in Baltimore. Whatever the story behind this photograph from 1929, Ruth no doubt felt a kinship to these lads he met in Mobile. Four years later, the band would even travel to Washington, D.C., to march in the first inaugural parade of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Yellow fever had created the need for an orphanage; the Civil War, the Great Depression, two World Wars and alcoholism helped keep it full. After almost 50 years of use, the Lafayette Street building was deemed inadequate, and construction began on the Home’s final Dauphin Street location. The 37-acre stretch of rich farmland, which now makes up Sage Park, was well beyond city limits when the building was completed in 1949. Across Dauphin Street, cows grazed at Graf’s Dairy, and crops grew in overflowing rows; some say that even today, after a hard rain, a faint smell of cabbage lingers in the air. 

And so the Brothers packed and transported their unique brand of care and discipline to the western end of Dauphin Street. Walter Holmes, meanwhile, brought the music.

Portrait of the Catholic Boys Home band director
Walter Holmes, band director at CBH for over 30 years, learned much of what he knew about music while growing up in an orphanage himself. The experience would inspire him to devote his life to the boys of the CBH Band. Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Mobile Archives

Making a Little Magic

“Walter Holmes, the band director for 30-plus years, was my father,” an 85-year-old Rose Sawyer-Grimes says sweetly over the phone. “So the Catholic Boys Home Band was all that I knew.” 

Sawyer-Grimes remembers standing on Bienville Square during the parades, listening for her father’s band and looking out for his cream white suit. Holmes was known to keep a bag of confetti in his pocket, ready to sling its contents on his family. The band director, donning a white cap and black bow tie, is easy to spot in grainy parade footage. He always marched alongside his boys, rain or shine. (Although in his later years, Holmes granted himself the right to slip off into the crowd and cut a shorter parade route.) 

Sawyer-Grimes also remembers a good number of those boys in the CBH band. “When I got to be a teenager, I was in love with one of them,” she laughs over the phone. “Something about a man in a uniform, you know. Daddy put a stop to that.”

Born in 1909 and raised in Prichard, Holmes had a special place in his heart for the boys at CBH. Not many band members knew then, or even now, that their director had lived for some years at the Alabama Boys Industrial School in Birmingham after his father abandoned the family. “The only time he was not working at CBH was when he was drafted into the Army during World War II,” Sawyer-Grimes says. “I had a man tell me that had been on the ship with Daddy coming home from the Philippines — and he’s the only one that has ever told me this — he said, ‘I talked to your dad a lot, standing outside and smoking on the deck. And he said that he wanted to give back what had been given to him.’ So I think his time in Birmingham at the Boys Home informed his life’s work.”

The band’s acclaim is universally credited to Holmes, who insisted they play catchy, popular tunes: “Green Onions,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Red Sails in the Sunset,” “Rock Around the Clock.” Other marching bands were stiff, conventional, proper. Not the Catholic Boys Home. Holmes’ group, however, was by no means the first to march with attitude and flair; William P. Foster, founder and celebrated director of the “Marching 100” band of Florida A&M University, is considered the father of the modern marching band. In 1946, Foster’s first year at FAMU, the once-staid world of militaristic bands was upended by his group’s high-energy, high-stepping performance. As Foster’s new, dazzling approach rippled across the South, the CBH Band became one of the movement’s earliest local adopters, in both the way they swaggered and the songs they played. “Other bands played beautiful music,” Doug McEnery says with a laugh. “Good music. But not popular music.”

Sawyer-Grimes remembers her father writing the arrangements for those songs himself, dotting out the parts for each instrument by hand in the family’s Prichard dining room. Some were original compositions; one song, “Broy,” was named for Brother Roy, the prefect and firehose burner. 

“Any time we wanted Brother Roy, Mr. Holmes said we never said ‘Brother Roy.’ We all said ‘Broy,’” remembers Tom Lewis, who lived at the Home from 1954 to 1962. Lewis, now 80 years old and living in Pennsylvania, arrived at CBH in the fourth grade. Like most boys there, Lewis wasn’t a “true orphan” but rather the child of a single mother who simply couldn’t afford to raise her children. “It turned out to probably be the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “I loved all my years at the Boys Home.” At 6-foot-1 and almost 200 pounds as a teenager, Lewis earned himself a spot behind the hulking bass drum. “I beat that drum up and down all the streets of Mobile, and that became my job — maintaining the rhythm for the whole band.”

The boys of the band meet legendary TV personality Ed Sullivan in this undated photograph. Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Mobile Archives

The band practiced every afternoon before supper. Mr. Holmes, positioned up front with a conductor’s baton, didn’t suffer fools; his band received $25 for marching in a Mardi Gras parade, so this was serious business. The boys marched in about a dozen Carnival parades a year, but they cut their teeth all over town: McGill football games, the annual Blessing of the Fleet in Bayou La Batre, the Junior Miss Parade. “When we were on the street, we knew what we were doing,” Lewis says. “There weren’t many sour notes. If Mr. Holmes heard something he didn’t like in the middle of practice, he’d stop us, scream and yell and holler. Not mean, you know, just to make sure we were doing it right. We may practice the same song all day long until we got it right.”

Even during the summer, when the boys relocated to the Home’s waterfront cottage in Coden, the band members were never far from their music. “We’d be out on the pier playing our instruments and people would stop, park and just stand out on the road, listening to us play,” Lewis remembers.

The hours of practice paid off. “You could feel the tension as our band came by,” Lewis says. “We were loud and proud.” And they succeeded in attracting the attention of one key demographic: Girls. Female admirers sometimes followed the band for the entire parade route. “There was a lot of that,” Lewis says. “Girls would chase the boys in uniform, that was true.”

Jose Roca, the head drum major whose dance steps inspired Jim McEnery, calls from Hoover, Alabama. “Girls used to write letters,” Roca says, still amused after all these years, “telling you they wanted to meet you.” He suspects that a lot more of their letters failed to make it through the Brothers’ mail monitoring process. 

Roca was born in Guatemala but followed his mother to Mobile when she secured a job working for a local Guatemalan family. He arrived at CBH in 1958 knowing only a few words of English but more than a few dance moves. “I took over as head drum major from Tommy Wilson. He took over from John Boy.” Sure, the previous drum majors strutted, but Roca added a little rock ‘n’ roll shuffle. “I started doing some steps, and everybody liked it.”

Six years after Roca’s last strut, the music came to an end. The boys marched in their final parade in 1969, and the Home’s doors were shut for good in 1970. Nationally, a growing preference for foster care rendered large facilities for orphans obsolete. Today, the Catholic Boys Home Band is largely wiped from the collective Mardi Gras memory, but it’s still alive for those who witnessed the strutting boys in person. “I hear really good memories from people, and I really don’t understand it to tell you the truth,” Doug McEnery says. “My wife tells me that when her grandfather would see us coming, he would just start cheering. And I say, ‘Why?’”

His brother Jim offers one theory. “The boys who played the trumpets, clarinets, saxophones, trombones, tubas, cymbals, drums, and the strutters made a little magic under the direction of Walter Holmes.”

If you go to a Mardi Gras parade today, you can still see them. The uniforms are different, maybe the songs, too. But keep an eye on that drum major and the way he stops and slides his foot across the asphalt. When you’ve seen that, you’ve seen a little William P. Foster, a little Jose Roca, a little Jim McEnery. You’ve seen a CBH strutter, or at least his ghost. Give him a whoop.

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