THERE WERE TWO SURPRISES AT THE annual Bacchus parade, the most raucous of New Orleans's Mardi Gras celebrations last week. First, Major Dad star Gerald McRaney, 43, presiding as celebrity float person, pronounced the unofficial Mardi Gras slogan—Laissez les bon temps router ("Let the good times roll")—with a flawless "New Awlins" accent. "You hear that?" marveled one thrilled reveler, gazing at McRaney and his wife, former Designing Women star Delta Burke, 35. "First time we had a King of Bacchus who said it right!" But after all, this was a homecoming of sorts for His Majesty: McRaney lived in New Orleans from 1967 to 1971, when he was starting out in a local theater company, and he grew up only a few hours away, in rural Collins, Miss.

The second surprise was Burke's hair—which during her five years as Women's sassy Suzanne Sugarbaker was raven-black and teased out into a modified Liz Taylor do. In New Orleans it was short, swirly and brighter than a doubloon.

Burke, a native of Orlando, explained that she had it dyed "dirty blond" for a forthcoming NBC movie, Day O, a comedy in which she plays a woman with an imaginary friend. "Then I decided to go all the way," she said. "I've been trying to talk my mom into having hers done too, so I can claim it's natural."

Her gray-haired mother, Jean, was among the family members who joined Burke and McRaney for a postparade, black-tie party of 8,000 at the Convention Center overlooking the Mississippi River. Mom admitted surprise at Delta's new hair length. "I knew it was blond," she said, "but I didn't know it was cut."

For all the partying, though, Burke, who has gained back some of the 30 lbs. she lost last year on the Pritikin diet, was positively mellow while reflecting on the infamous feud with DW executive producers Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and her husband, Harry Thomason, which ended with Delta being dumped from the show at the end of last season. (Burke and costar Jean Smart, who left the series amicably, were replaced by Newhart's Julia Duffy and Saturday Night Life's Jan Hooks.) "You go through hardships in life, and you start reexamining things," said Burke. "You gotta keep growing. I always want to keep doing that, because then I'll be a fascinating old lady."

McRaney spoke more pointedly about the de-Burked sitcom, which has met with mixed critical and viewer reaction. "I think the contrast speaks for itself," he said, lapsing into the clipped diction of his Major Dad sitcom character, Marine Maj. J.D. MacGillis. "I think what the producers of that show did makes absolutely no sense. Business sense. Creative sense. Any kind of sense. At all."

But no one's raining on Burke's parade. She has designs on playing a would-be country singer in her own ABC sitcom. Delta, with a pilot that will air next fall. To that end, she now has her own production company, Perseverance ("which ought to tell you something about the way I feel," she added). And she and McRaney, who live in Los Angeles, have just bought a two-story home in the French Quarter. (He hopes to produce a New Orleans cop series; the pilot shoots in May.)

"I just love this city," Burke gushed. "When I'm flying in and I see the Mississippi, it's like: 'Yes, home.' I love to come here and have the relatives come."

Even McRaney became less reserved as he mused municipally. "This is a magical city," he said. "New Orleans is the one mistress Delta would never mind."

Burke smiled, then quashed that notion with a touch of the old Suzanne Sugarbaker willfulness. "He might be the king," she says, "but I'm the queen."

TOM GLIATTO
RON RIDENHOUR in New Orleans

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  • Ron Ridenhour.