Universal Studios, Disney World, and Vegas shows. As I rushed to check in at the ticketing desk between downpours (I biked), I was informed I had several minutes to spare before the next tour which departed every half hour.
Afterwards we exited onto the warehouse floor to observe Mardi Gras (and a couple for the brand new Krewe of Boo rolling this Halloween!) floats from conception and sculpting, with the sketch artists’ renderings posted beside Styrofoam sculptures in progress, to painting and touch-up. Because Mardi Gras is constantly evolving, the tour is constantly changing based on the work being performed. In fact, Linda assured us she sometimes gives several different tours on the same day as floats are shuffled in and out.
Every Krewe has a different theme each year (there is no overarching Mardi Gras theme) so Mardi Gras has dozens of themes going on at once. Thus, a fiberglass Abraham Lincoln head may be used for one Krewe’s ‘American History’ theme, another’s political satire the next year, a ‘Great Debates’ display some years later, and later still a ‘Great Frontiersmen’ motif. You get the idea.
Blaine Kerns Studios retains ownership of their artwork, renting it out for the floats, but the structures themselves belong to the Krewes and run over fifty-thousand dollars a piece. This is before a single cardboard flower is applied. Because of local laws limiting parades to 27 floats, the actual structures aren’t ordered that often (though, as I’ll discuss below, the Krewes find ways around that). Thus, we were lucky to actually see a float being assembled. (The second guide added that they have been producing new floats for a couple of months now, a rarity, but she’s not sure what for.) These two story structures are designed out of steel beams anchored on a truck’s flatbed and then filled out with plywood. Each one includes bathrooms on both floors for imbibing riders and city-mandated waist hooks lest the tipsy treat tossers tumble out.
It costs several thousand dollars for even a cost-conscious krewe to refurbish a float for each new theme while the elaborate Super Krewes can spend forty or fifty thousand dollars on a single ride. My local guru Pat once told me that Mardi Gras is a party that the rich of New Orleans put on for the poor and at prices like this, I see what he means!
And the krewes keep upping the ante. Per city ordinance, a krewe must have a minimum of 14 floats but a maximum of 27, yet since a float is defined as whatever is pulled by a single tractor, the Super Krewes simply started attaching multiple flatbeds together into super floats. This year Endymion set a new record with their Pontchartrain Beach Then & Now float weighing in at 9 cars and 365 feet! (A Blaine Kern production, of course!)
THE REAL KING OF MARDI GRAS
Although five other studios in town churn out floats, Blaine Kern (whose sons now run his enterprise) was the first to design the modern floats we enjoy today, cornering the market on major Krewes, including the three ‘Super Krewes’ of Endymion, Bacchus, and Orpheus, the satirical all-female Super Krewe of Muses, and the two oldest and most tradition rich Krewes rolling on Mardi Gras day: Rex (the King of Carnival) and Zulu (the traditional African-American Krewe and perennial local favorite that dresses in black face, originally in mockery of Rex).
As our tour of this impressive collection wound up, our guide set us free to wander the floor and snap pictures as artisans busily willed whimsy into reality. I was like a kid in a candy store stealing one last peek at Orpheus’s 2013 floats that have yet to be deconstructed and trying to guess which of the above Krewes had ordered the masterpieces under construction for Mardi Gras 2014. In fact, I was having so much fun that I fell in with the next tour group to glean additional bits of wisdom. With the studio constantly changing, I could take this tour every month and remain captivated at the site of Mardi Gras in genesis!