Blaine Kern, a.k.a. Mr. Mardi Gras, brings fantasy to life -- and life to New Orleans.
There are many
things that populate Blaine Kern’s imagination: Napoleon Bonaparte’s oversize head, for instance. A sea monster that stretches half a city block. Twenty, maybe 30, girls reenacting a scene from the Old Testament. A drunken dinosaur.
The difference between Blaine’s imagination and the imaginations of the rest of us, though, is that when something occupies Blaine’s mind, it eventually winds up occupying the time of dozens of workers too. At his instruction, they will labor to turn the images in his head into fiberglass, wood, papier-mâché, cloth, and fiber-optic realities. In turn, those realities will be mounted on wheels and paraded down the streets of New Orleans or Orlando or Seoul, South Korea, or somewhere else in the world.
At the moment, 81-year-old Blaine is surrounded by the already-realized works of his imagination as he briskly walks through a series of interconnected warehouses owned by his company, Kern Studios. Located in New Orleans’s Algiers neighborhood -- a quiet spot directly across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter -- the facility is known as Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, and it attracts a couple hundred thousand tourists to Algiers each year. But this is no museum. It’s a working operation where hundreds of parade floats, and some less-mobile figures (like the 15,000-pound tomahawk-chopping cow that was recently installed atop Turner Field in Atlanta), are made. Such crazy creations have been Blaine’s business since 1947, when he made $3,000 building his first 11 floats for New Orleans’s Krewe of Alla, one of the social clubs that pay to literally make Mardi Gras’ good times roll. Since then, Kern Studios has grown into a multimillion-dollar international operation, employing artisans who hail from everywhere from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Valencia, Spain, and making moving merriment in the Crescent City and other cities across the globe. “We do a parade somewhere in the world every single day of the year,” says Barry Kern, the CEO of Kern Studios and one of Blaine’s three sons. (In addition to Barry, Blaine’s two daughters also work for Kern Studios.) “So we’re building things 52 weeks a year.”
Even right now. As Blaine zips around his warehouses, he passes a couple of 20- something women who are running power sanders over the torso of an unpainted Neptune figurine. It’s about twice life-size -- assuming, that is, that Neptune is human-size. Just beyond the Roman god of the sea, a guy is driving a giant blue-and-black cat around on a forklift. “And look at this,” Blaine says, pointing to a headless torso the size of a pickup. “What we do is make one body type and then change out the heads. So I’ve got thousands of heads that I’ve saved over the years.” Hustling into an adjoining warehouse, he points out a few among those thousands: “There’s Elvis, Sylvester Stallone, Chaplain, Bonaparte and Washington, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Pretty much everyone you can imagine is here.”
Or at least pretty much everyone Blaine Kern has ever imagined. He’s been dreaming and doodling since he was a kid. He grew up poor in Depression-era New Orleans, the son of an artist and a sign painter who had briefly worked for the Pasadena Parade of Roses. Like father, like son: Blaine got started making Mardi Gras floats at age 20, designing for Krewe of Alla. Through those early floats and a mural that he'd painted, Blaine caught the eye of the captain of the city’s long-standing Krewe of Rex, one of the most prestigious krewes.
That same krewe captain -- Darwin Fenner, the son of Charlie Fenner, whom business types might know as one of the founders of investment firm Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith -- sent Blaine to study with European carnival craftsmen in postwar Europe so that he could learn to make increasingly elaborate floats for Rex. Which is exactly what Blaine did -- for Rex and Endymion and Bacchus and Orpheus and several other krewes that redefined Mardi Gras and led it on the path to the megaspectacle it is today. “When I came back, I did things bigger and better than anybody ever had before,” Blaine says. “We did huge floats, the kinds of things that no one had ever seen. I like being the best at everything I do, and I wanted to be the best float builder in New Orleans.”
He must have succeeded. Sometime in the 1980s, Blaine was dubbed Mr. Mardi Gras, and the moniker stuck. So well known is he in New Orleans, if you put a letter in the mail addressed just to “Mr. Mardi Gras, New Orleans,” it will find its way to Blaine’s office. There are plenty of new customers finding their way to Blaine’s office these days too. Disney is among the regulars, as is Universal Studios, for whom Blaine provides floats and props that operate in annual parades. Some of this business is sought out. But much of it isn’t. “Really and truly, we get a lot of projects laid in our laps because of what we do at Mardi Gras,” says Barry, who is a pleasant but stoic counterpart to his father’s bundle of energy. “Anywhere else in the world, we’d just be float builders. But because we’re the guys who do Mardi Gras in New Orleans, we’re on a pedestal.”
was not always on that pedestal, though. When he was growing up, his family was poor. Very poor. “I’d go to the grocery store when I was a kid, and I’d say to the butcher, ‘Mr. Eddie, cut the pork chops real thin,’ ” Blaine recalls, now sitting down in his wood-paneled, ramshackle office atop Mardi Gras World’s warehouses. “They were two for a nickel then, but if you cut them thin, you could get three for a nickel.”
The grocery store stood just a block from where Blaine now sits; his boyhood home, just a few blocks further. Today, he still lives in Algiers, in a modest house with a giant pink flamingo on the front lawn. It is a remnant of a public art project in Miami that Blaine initiated, for which local artists decorated hundreds of such birds. (And, yes, all those cows and horses and sharks and the like that have similarly popped up in cities across the country were likely made by Kern Studios.)
Though Blaine has traveled the world for his business, he only once entertained the notion of permanently leaving New Orleans. That was back in the late 1950s, when Walt Disney came to town and saw the walking, snarling gorilla Blaine had constructed for Mardi Gras. “It took five fellas to operate it, and it could hold a girl in one hand,” Blaine recalls. Disney offered him a job in Florida. But Blaine decided to stay in New Orleans, in part because he had an opportunity to reinvent Mardi Gras, building his company in the process. “In those days, if you happened to be Italian, or black, or Jewish, you couldn’t get into most of the old-line Carnival krewes,” Blaine says. “But Mardi Gras was starting to democratize, to open to more people.”
To people like the new members of the Krewe of Zulu, the city’s first African-American krewe; Blaine was instrumental in helping it to gain prominence and respect. Today, several of Zulu’s golden coconuts, the most prized of all the Mardi Gras “throws” -- the charms tossed from passing floats -- are scattered about Blaine’s office.
Blaine does his
part to build on his local legend. He can, and will, tell you stories about his life for hours -- stories about Mardi Gras and crazy parties, being asked for bribes from crooked politicians, and trapping snakes and monkeys and anteaters and sloths along the Amazon River in the late 1960s with Arthur Jones, the inventor of Nautilus exercise machines. “Back then, Jones was just a snake farmer,” Blaine says. “So we’d go on adventures down to South America, trapping animals for the farm.”
He’ll also tell you about the decommissioned Spanish aircraft carrier that he'd hoped to turn in to a naval museum and riverboat casino. He bought the thing in the 1970s for one peseta, which at the time was worth less than a penny. “Christopher Columbus’s 19th descendant did the deal with me,” Blaine says. “You should have seen this guy. He wore a big gold medallion around his neck that showed his lineage.”
Of course, as regular visitors to New Orleans no doubt know, there is no aircraft-carrier casino here today. But, lest you think that Blaine is imagining this story, know this: He raised millions of dollars to actually get the ship to the Big Easy. Upon arrival and further inspection, though, it was found that the vessel was lousy with PCBs and would have cost more than $16 million to clean up. “We had to scuttle it,” Blaine laments. “So I’ve made a few mistakes.”
What Blaine Kern isn’t mistaken about, though, is that he and his family are intent on building their company into something much bigger than it is today -- and building up their headquarters city in the process. Along with drunken dinosaurs and giant alligators and all the other stuff floating around his mind, Blaine imagines a revitalized city -- particularly, a more developed New Orleans riverfront.
On the Algiers side of the river, Blaine sees condominiums, new restaurants, shops, perhaps a hotel, and maybe a casino, albeit not of the warship variety. He has been buying land around his Algiers property for years and says he now owns 1.5 miles of waterfront property. And the first phase of his vision for that land -- a condo project called Algiers Crossing -- is now being planned.
On the French Quarter side of the river, adjacent to New Orleans’s convention center, Kern Studios is about to debut a huge new home for Mardi Gras World: some 300,000 square feet of space right on the riverfront. There, all those giant heads and over size alligators and the like will be on display, next to event halls and craftsmen’s shops. Outside, a King Kong figurine may dangle from an old factory smoke stack and a wooden ship may feature dancing girls -- real ones -- in nightly voodoo shows.
The new facility will be more than four times the size of the space that Mardi Gras World now occupies in Algiers and will offer much easier access to tourists who have long had to take a free ferry to Algiers if they wanted to view the magic of Mardi Gras up close.
The new, improved Mardi Gras World is set to open, at least partly, in time for Halloween. Blaine imagines big things for Halloween -- huge, Mardi Gras–style parades through the city and a giant Frankenstein’s monster that will walk through the new buildings, scaring the paying revelers on All Hallows' Eve. “I’m going to make New Orleans the Halloween center of the United States,” he says.
Unquestionably,Kern Studios and Mardi Gras World and Blaine, in particular, stand to profit from all that. But, so, too, do the police- and fire- department charities that are supported by Blaine’s new, open-to-anyone Krewe of Boo, which will parade on Halloween. Indeed, the more that Mr. Mardi Gras achieves his long-standing dreams for developing his land, the more he and his family hope to help New Orleanians restore their own dreams. “I am a proud, seventh-generation Algerine, and I want to make Algiers a destination to visit and to live,” Blaine says, proudly. “I want to do things here that will help New Orleans and that will become part of a bigger, better, New Orleans. In the end, I want to be known as a philanthropist, not just a float builder.”