Zerbys are masters of the Mardi Gras mask

Published 6:00 am Sunday, January 14, 2007

The scene grows glitzy at Moreton’s Flowerland as Mardi Gras celebrations near.

Silver, gold, shiny purple and red are colors of choice, and the tables where Brenda Zerby and mother-in-law Belle Zerby work are filled with feathers, appliqués, jewels and other lavish materials that go into the grandest masks they prepare for revelers.

The two have been creating masks since the revival of Mardi Gras in Natchez by the organizers of Krewe of Phoenix in 1983.

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“At first, no one around here knew much about masks,” Brenda said. “John Callon was the first Rex for the Krewe of Phoenix, and he wanted a mask. We just decided to do it.”

The Zerbys decided to consult the masters — the New Orleans artists known for their elaborate masks.

“We went to New Orleans. There were not a lot of masks for sale in the novelty stores then,” Brenda said.

The cooperation offered by the New Orleans mask designers was key to their learning how to make them for Natchez customers, Belle said.

“They let us really look at them. We looked underneath and saw how they were made,” she said.

The Zerbys pulled old materials from the attic that first year. Some of it was left over from Christmas wreaths and decorations. They found some of their best ideas among those items — the right colors and the right amount of shine and glitter.

After a couple of years, their reputation as mask-makers grew. “When Alexandria and Monroe had balls and couldn’t find people there to make masks, those people would come to us,” Brenda said.


The first year of Phoenix was special, as the late John Callon, Rex I, and his wife, Betty, lived in Melrose at the time.

“We decorated Melrose, with glitter and glitz everywhere,” Brenda said. “The big statue in the hall wore lots of beads, and we hung small umbrellas from the chandeliers.”

Learning to make masks was something they could do for their customers, Brenda said.

“The artist-made masks in New Orleans were very expensive. We could take leftovers and a few new things and make beautiful masks that were not that expensive.”

The idea of masks took off slowly in the beginning but grew steadily through the years. Now, with other krewes organized since the Phoenix revival in the early 1980s, masks are more popular than ever.

The costume inspires the design of most custom-made masks. “And the theme each year can be an inspiration,” Brenda said.

A big challenge is creating a unique mask for each customer. “We don’t like to make any two alike,” she said.

The Zerbys have sharpened their techniques and now can create an elaborate mask in several hours.

“You take the base, which we buy already made, either the cat-eye shape or the bolo —the Lone Ranger shape,” she said. “Then you lay it out completely before you start gluing it together.”

Another challenge is to keep the mask from being flat. “You want it to be three-dimensional. You need three or four layers to do that,” Brenda said.

They learned important tricks from the New Orleans artists, including the finishing of the back of the mask. The back should be as neat — if not as elaborate — as the front.

“And you don’t want too much weight. That can be uncomfortable,” she said.

Masks can be recycled easily, taking any small parts that have become dated or tired and replacing them with new parts. “You just add some new vivid feathers and some fluff,” Brenda said.

She showed off a fancy mask that was her own when she was a duchess 20 years ago. “It looks a little on the antique side now,” she said.

A recent trip to New Orleans yielded new feathers and frills, and the workshop is taking on the Mardi Gras air. “It’s been fun,” Brenda said. “It stretched our creativity and gave us another venue. It’s a different kind of art. And besides, it’s something fun we can do for our friends.”