Mardi Gras World
New Orleans, Louisiana
Mardi Gras parades have been in New Orleans for over 150 years. But it wasn't until Blaine Kern, "Mr. Mardi Gras," went to work that the parades became spectacular. The company that he founded in 1947 is now New Orleans' top producer of monumental parade paraphernalia. In 1984 -- the year of the long-forgotten New Orleans World Fair -- Kern opened his workshops to the public as Mardi Gras World.
The behind-the-scenes visitor tour of Mardi Gras World begins with a video that outlines the complex interrelationship between New Orleans culture, the "krewes" that host its Mardi Gras parades, and Blaine Kern Studios. Then a guide with a speaker box leads the tour into the noisy "float den," where 20 full-time artists glue, saw, carve, and paint year-round to craft props for Blaine Kern's parade empire.
Mardi Gras, you learn, is not just one day but twelve consecutive days, and not just one parade but between 50 and 60, each with an average of 25 extravagant floats, all of them different. "We have artists just working on flowers all year long; thousands and thousands of flowers," said Tim, one of our guides. "When we're about two or three months away from Mardi Gras, the artists are in here seven days a week, day and night."
All of this work produces a lot of props, and the majority of the tour is spent in Mardi Gras World's 250,000-square-foot main warehouse (it has 14 other warehouses as well), gawking at titanic interpretations of everything from The Grim Reaper to Shamu. Competition among the krewes gives the Kern Studios artists free reign to be as eye-grabbing as possible.
It's a bizarro world where Smokey Bear, Jesus, and The Three Stooges have equal billing. Rosie the Riveter, Uncle Sam, and Satan crowd into one corner; Yoda and Iron Man share space with unlikely Mardi Gras characters such as Patton and Winston Churchill. There are demi-beasts, satyrs, pagan gods, and immense bare-breasted women, too (We recognized a Babylonian fertility demon because we'd seen one just like it in New Jersey).
"Some of the work is out there and raunchy, but I think our guests are expecting to see that," said Aaron, another tour guide. "That's why people come to look at art; they want to see something different."
Tim told us that Mardi Gras World has 20,000 props in its warehouses. "We always keep 'em because somewhere down the line we're gonna be able to change 'em into something else." Artistic pride and krewe competitiveness dictate that props are almost never reused as is; they must be given new gaudy colors or transformed through surgical carving and papier mache add-ons.
Peter Pan, it was pointed out to us, had previously been Richie Cunningham from Happy Days. Sinbad was formerly Ronald Reagan. An overly-bulky Walt Disney had the barrel chest of a professional wrestler or the Incredible Hulk. "When you know what to look for," said Tim, "you see it when you look at them."
Aaron described the hunt for a useable prop as a trek through the warehouses, trying to match a form or shape to an idea in the artists' heads. "It's kind of like digging for treasure," he said. "They don't actually have an inventory list to go by." For tour-goers this continual, serendipitous reuse of props means that Mardi Gras World is different every time you visit.
Although Tim mentioned one float that cost $1.3 million and was 365 feet long, there are practical restrictions to how far Mardi Gras World can go. New Orleans' floats can't be taller than 18 feet, and they can only be as wide as the street.
"You always want to push it artistically," said Aaron, "but you don't want to take out the crowd. Or the city."