On a windy, mid-December evening in Coconut Grove, a group of folks clusters around picnic tables. Their meeting is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m., but at 7:00 people are still arriving. A gray-haired man sets up an amplifier and hands a microphone to Antoinette Baldwin, a petite brunette with a ready smile. She declares in a stern Donald Rumsfeld tone, "People, we work with the Strut that we have, not the Strut that we want." The whole room erupts in laughter. Antoinette has been watching the King Mango Strut for22 years, and participating for the past eleven. She knows how these planning meetings go -- rambling, loud, and wacky. "I know people who leave disgusted and say what a disorganized group we are. We say, thanks for the compliment. It's about having fun. Plus, the parade ... it's like making Jello." Despite these weekly meetings, five minutes before the Strut, participants race about swigging liquid inspiration, coming up with new skits, and embellishing planned ones. "It's just insane. People get pulled off the street -- hey, you wanna be in the parade? Yeah, sure! So you can wake up that morning thinking you're gonna watch a parade, and by the end of the day you'll be watching yourself on the news because you were in it. That's what's fun about it."
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Spontaneity is one of the things that makes the King Mango Strut great. Another is the humor that makes the parade unique. "Nobody is gonna make fun of us better than us," explains Antoinette. So many of this year's events already teeter on the border of self-parody: Bill Kamal's water pistol debacle. The presidential elections. Paris Hilton's entire existence. One man chuckles his way through a skit by the "Not-so-swift boat veterans for truth." "Who's playing Ricky Williams?" Glenn Terry asks, as the strutters peruse the list of this year's potential participants. This year is particularly poignant for him. King Mango is Glenn Terry's alter ego. Twenty-three years ago, Terry and his partner in crime, Bill Dobson, co-founded the Strut when the grand poobahs at the then-functioning Orange Bowl Parade sneered at their financially lacking, conch shell-tooting Merry Mango Marching Band. This July the Strutters put on a special Mr. Bill Dobson show with original skits. "We planned it and filmed it all over the Grove, just for him. An audience of one. And everyone was in it. We surprised him, had a party for him, did a whole spoof on cancer for dummies. We had a Mr. Bill doll, he goes through it all. He goes to chemo, takes pills, everything," Antoinette smiles. Dobson finally succumbed in October, and he'll be the parade's grand marshal in a float led by the St. Agnes Progressive New Orleans Funeral Band. Antoinette's attitude toward death is reflective of the Strutters' credo. She quips, "You don't have to be alive to be in the Strut. And as more members die, we'll put them together in a group."