American South

Peek Inside the Workshop Where Mardi Gras Floats Are Made

Mardi Gras World in New Orleans offers tours of its whimsical warehouse, where visitors can see floats being constructed all year round

smithsonian.com

Throughout the year, visitors to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras World can see any number of things: an artist covered in a swarm of Styrofoam dust or papier-mâché pulp, painters working on massive sculptures, and even robots carving elaborate rubber ducks. A portion of the sculptures and floats built in the more than 200,000-square-foot workshop along the river in the Lower Garden District—each one typically taking months to complete—goes to clients like Disney and Six Flags for props and shows. But Mardi Gras World’s crowning achievement stays local in New Orleans. The warehouse creates massive detailed and tech-enhanced floats for the city’s Carnival parades.

“We build 500 to 600 floats annually,” says Barry Kern, president and CEO of Mardi Gras World. “The floats that most inspire me are the signature floats for New Orleans’ Krewes. They combine the latest and greatest available technologies with our traditional build concepts.”

It all started with Barry’s grandfather Roy Kern. Roy struggled through the Great Depression, always looking for ways to put money on the table for his family, including three daughters and his son, Blaine. Roy’s passion—and money—came through his art, painting signs and names onto ships.

In 1932, Roy helped found the Krewe of Alla, one of the oldest parading organizations in New Orleans, in the city's Algiers neighborhood. He and Blaine, who was also a budding artist at his young age, worked to build the krewe’s first Mardi Gras float on a mule-drawn garbage wagon. The two worked together on another float in 1936, for the Krewe of Choctaw. Blaine then went to work alongside his father painting signs in the shipyard, until he was shipped out himself to join the military in 1945. Art, and float building in particular, never left Blaine’s mind, though, and when he returned to New Orleans two years later, he had reason to put it to use.

Blaine’s mother was in the hospital when he came back from the Army in 1947—but no one was able to pay her medical bills. In exchange for his mother’s medical care, Blaine painted a mural in the hospital. A doctor at the hospital, who just happened to be the Krewe of Alla's captain, loved the mural so much that he contacted Blaine and offered him the chance to decorate all of Alla's floats. Blaine saw a lucrative business opportunity and founded Kern Studios, the business that evolved into Mardi Gras World.

Blaine soon became the preferred builder for many major krewes’ Mardi Gras floats, so popular in the industry that Walt Disney once even offered him a job. Instead of taking it, Blaine took to Europe to apprentice under floatmakers there and further learn the trade of making elaborate displays. His floats helped several major krewes, including Endymion and Bacchus, get their start. He introduced the idea of rental floats so everyone could participate in the parades, not just the wealthy, and earned himself the nickname "Mr. Mardi Gras." In 2015, Blaine transferred full control of the company to his son Barry.

Mardi Gras World opened in 1984 to showcase the studio and the work of the artists creating massive floats for the Carnival parades. The floats come with a lot of features, and for a lot of money. One float in 2013 for the Krewe of Endymion, for example, cost $1.5 million. It was a nine-part representation of Pontchartrain Beach, an amusement park on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. Since Barry took over, his favorite float so far has been the Orpheus Leviathan—the 139-foot sea monster was the first Carnival float with fiber optics, animation and special effects. Alongside twinkling and flashing fiber optic lights, the Orpheus Leviathan sprays smoke from its mouth like a dragon spits fire. It first appeared in parades in 1998 and still rolls with the krewe every Carnival.

“[The floats are] part of our history and culture,” Barry says, explaining why they’re important to the New Orleans community at large. “It brings our community together in a very unique way, where you will see the bank president and bank janitor with their families standing side-by-side enjoying the parades.” No matter what your station or position in the community, everyone comes together to enjoy the floats.

The floats themselves haven’t gotten any less elaborate, either. This year, Mardi Gras World artists worked on a giant stacks of books, an almost-inappropriate flasher, a fierce gorilla, some sad clowns, and more.

Mardi Gras World is open year round, seven days a week, for workshop tours of past floats and new ones in progress. The tours last about an hour and cost $22. Group tours for 10 or more are available, as well as team building experiences.

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