Friday, March 4, 2011

Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

IMG_0824 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

During the week between Christmas and New Year, one hundred of our closest relatives descended upon New Orleans for a big family reunion. I learned during this trip that rather than taking down the Christmas tree and relegating to it to the sidewalk, a true New Orleanian simply replaces the Christmas ornaments with Mardi Gras beads. The tree's next incarnation is symbolic of the seamless transition from Christmas and New Year's straight into Mardi Gras season. It seemed à propos then, that George Schiaffino led a small group of his cousins to Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World.

Blaine Kern is the self-proclaimed "Mr. Mardi Gras" and biggest float manufacturer in the world. His warehouse is open to the public and showcases the larger-than-life props used on Mardi Gras parade floats.

IMG_0809 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

A closer examination of the props reveals the foam interior of these sculptures. 

IMG_0810 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

Our tour guide explained that production begins with the sculptured blanks.

IMG_0822 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

The vast majority of the blanks are made of polystyrene because it is economical and easily tailored with a small chainsaw.

Designers dress the sculpture using styrofoam sheets.

Next comes the layer of color. Sometimes texture is applied in sheets...

IMG_0818 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

...but other times life is breathed into the characters with a masterful application of paint.

IMG_0851 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

IMG_0847 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

The characters are then installed into the float, complete with a throne for the guest of honor.

IMG_0846 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

The warehouse has no shortage of float accessories to complete the look and also to hide the mechanics of the vehicle.

IMG_0821 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

Floats are commissioned by Mardi Gras krewes. A krewe (pronounced "crew") is the organization that produces a parade and ball for the Carnival season. Historically, only the privileged were allowed to join a krewe. With a desire to serve the general populace, the Krewes of Endymion and Bacchus marked the dawn of a new era by dropping the requirement to be part of the New Orleans social elite. Blaine Kern rose to the occasion when Owen "Pip" Brennan, Jr., Captain of the Bacchus Krewe, told him: "We want the biggest. We want the best."

IMG_0829 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

IMG_0843 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

Today, the Kern family runs an empire that creates floats for parades all over the world...

IMG_0849 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

 ...including this one for the Orpheus Krewe.

IMG_0844 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

The Kerns work with the krewes, drawing inspiration from Hollywood pop culture...

IMG_0807 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

IMG_0848 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

...but also from the stories Blaine Kern heard in his childhood, like those from the Bible...

IMG_0845 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

...ancient history...

IMG_0806 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

...or Asian folklore.

IMG_0834 Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World

This coming Tuesday will be Mardi Gras, followed by forty days of Lent. Lent is possibly the only time in New Orleans without a big celebration, but don't worry, everyone can look forward to the New Orleans Jazz Fest the weekend after Easter.

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Anonymous said...

Yay! This is a great post! I'm hoping to see this when I'm in NOLA in a few weeks!! Thanks~

dona said...

Wow! Very interesting and colourful post! You can see something similar in Italy during the Carnival of Viareggio, in Tuscany.

Patricia said...

I love Mardi Gras in New Orleans with all my heart. Thank you for giving us this behind the scenes view of these wonderful creations.

Lisa Gordon said...

What a fantastic post!
Mardi Gras is truly an amazing time!
Thank you for sharing, and I wish you a wonderful weekend!

Ruth said...

This is exciting and fascinating to see these float characters up close. The variety is amazing, and the craftsmanship great (a lot better than the county fair, ha). What makes the paint shiny? I guess it's just high gloss? Or do they apply a layer of veneer, I wonder?

The Kerns are very impressive. And I am also intrigued by the information about the New Orleans elite being the only ones who used to be able to do these.

I felt a bit of a letdown knowing there would be forty days without any celebrations in N.O.!

Anonymous said...

These are all pieces of art...I can't belive the effort and time that goes in to have made me want to go to New Orleans even more than I did! I am looking forward to attending the jazz festival virtually! I love your posts, you always take me to the most interesting places!

Marilyn Miller said...

Thanks for sharing! Seeing these props makes me realize what a party there will be this Tuesday for Mardi Gras.

Margaret said...

Well, thanks for the tour! Wonderful photos and history. Lucky you to get to experience it first hand. Hope you are still there to see the parade!

rochambeau said...

Hey Dutchbaby,
T H A N K Y O U ! ! ! ! !!
You have NO IDEA how happy you just made me!!! I'm going to pass this one along for others to see. I would like to volunteer at Float Headquarters for awhile, wouldn't you? I'm serious!! It blows my mind. I adore these floats so much. The Kern's have it so down! Makes me sad I didn't go with you. ;-(........

My dad got to ride in Bacchus as a Pharaoh one year and played with Pete Foutain's Half Fast Walking Club two different years. MAGIC memories. Makes me dizzy with happiness~


rochambeau said...

Just showed my mom. She really enjoyed seeing your post too!

rochambeau said...

Also, forgot to say your site looks very nice! Your banner and your other colors work well together!

Marisa Alma said...

The New Orleans photos are amazing. You are such a good photographer. It makes me want to go to Mardi Gras. I like the Bacchus one with the giant flowers the best, the colors are breathtaking.

Ginnie said...

I wonder how many other things you and I have both experienced, DB! It amazes me. I visited this warehouse in a past life, maybe 10 years ago? It really is fascinating and exactly as you have described here so educationally. Fabululous workmanship AND accompanying images.

Now I'm trying to decide which template I like better! :) (I really liked your last one and was envious of it, to be honest.)

Unknown said...

Oh, yes! It's just one big decorating extravaganza after another in Louisiana! It's not just N'awlins, cher! When we lived in Baton Rouge, you took your Christmas wreath off the door and immediately hung up your Mardi Gras wreath. I had a really pretty one that I made and I have no idea what happened to it. Probably sold it in the garage sale I had before we moved to Pennsylvania. Didn't figure I had much use for it up there! :)

I always wanted to tour Blaine Kerns' place, even though some of the floats were a little scary-looking up close. We always passed it on I-10 as we drove to N.O. I saw Harry Connick, Jr. when he was grand poobah (can't think of the correct term) of the Bacchus Krewe. That was fun. He even threw me some beads. I still have a big sack of them in my upstairs closet. Guess I'll have to use them to re-decorate my tree this year. :)

Loved the photos!

Kala said...

You've posted some fabulous shots here with great commentary. You really get out and experience life DB!

Vagabonde said...

You have some terrific shots here. I’d love to go to the Kerns’ show room but also the New Orleans Mardi Gras. It must be something to remember for a life time. In France the big ones I think are the Nice Mardi Gras and the Dunkerque Mardi Gras, but I have seen neither. The Kerns floats are amazing. I wish I had some family in New Orleans. My mother for years was a member of the “France Louisiane Club de Paris” – I don’t know if that would count? (lol)

Relyn Lawson said...

That second picture is so creepy and cool. I absolutely love it. LOVE IT! You really do the most interesting things.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear lexagator,
I'm so jealous you will be at Jazzfest! I look forward to attending it through your new blog.

Dutchbaby said...

Cara dona,
It is one of my dreams to come to Venice for carnival. I didn't know about the Carnival of Viareggio in Tuscany. Looks like I will have to extend my dream and wish to go there too!

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Patricia,
I can't even begin to imagine the wondrous costumes you would be able to create for Mardi Gras.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear lisa,
Thank you for your visit and kind words. I hope you had a great weekend.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Ruth,
I have no idea what makes it shiny. Veneer is a good guess. Or varnish.

The krewes are still somewhat elite. For example, the Bacchus krewe did not allow women on their floats until last year when Drew Brees refused to be the Bacchus King unless his wife was on the float with him. What a man!

Dutchbaby said...

Dear tchesney,
Unfortunately I have yet to go to the NOLA Jazz Fest, but lexagator (first commenter on this post) is I believe going and I expect she will be blogging about it.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Marilyn,
According to my daughter, it was a grand party indeed. It's so great to see this city bounce back from Katrina the way it did. Let's hope the same for Japan.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Margaret,
I saw the parades a few years back. My daughter, however, got to ride one a float and toss beads for three hours.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Constance,
Your dad was a Pharaoh on Bacchus? He probably met George then. Small world.

I'm so glad you like this post, but I'm also very sad you weren't with us. Next time - with your mom!

Thanks for noticing Dutchbaby's new spring dress; I'm glad you like it.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Marisa Alma,
Thank you! I hope you make it to Mardi Gras and then I would like to read your poems about it.

Welcome to dutchbaby! Your blog is off to a great start!

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Ginny,
I'm just trying to catch up with you and Astrid, but in April you will be following Vagabonde's and my footsteps (or I should say wake).

Thank you for your feedback on my spring decor. I liked the old Dutch feeling of my previous template, but I got some feedback that the background was too dark. I used to switch back and forth between summer and winter, so you may see that old color scheme again in the fall.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Susan,
I can visualize you letting the good times roll in NOLA. Too bad you're not there any longer, we could have hung out together whenever I visit my daughter.

I agree about the creepy factor on some of those floats. They are so oversized, it's scary. I have a picture of me with the Captain Morgan head. It is quite a bit taller than me.

I envy you seeing Harry Connick, Jr. as Bacchus King and I'm jealous you caught those beads.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Kala,
I'm very fortunate that I can travel as much as I do.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Vagabonde,
Thank you. I'm pretty sure if you tell a New Orleanian about your mother's club membership, they would accept you as one of their own. Maybe they would even call you their cousin. I would love to see Mardi Gras in France one day.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Relyn,
Yup, a lot of the characters were eery and creepy looking. I think that's part of the appeal. I'm lucky I get to go to so many interesting places.

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