New Orleans Attractions: Mardi Gras World

A MAJOR TOURIST TRAP TREAT
MGW MeOne of my goals for My Year of Mardi Gras is to create an archive of popular New Orleans Tourist Attractions, thus Mardi Gras World is an obvious must-blog destination. Blaine Kerns Studios is the premiere producer of Mardi Gras floats and Mardi Gras World is the name they use to advertise the exhibits and guided tours offered at their flagship  location (one of sixteen local warehouses). Although thematically relevant, Mardi Gras World‘s advertising can appear a bit touristy so I was a little more hesitant in visiting compared to my unabashed excitement at seeing the National World War II Museum. MGW’s media and publicity director, however, was kind enough to respond to my inquiry so I headed out on a recent rainy Wednesday and found myself not only pleasantly surprised but reluctant to leave.
MGW Monkeys MGW No Admission
WHIMSICAL, FANTASTIC, SUBVERSIVE
Located just upriver from the Convention Center at the end of Convention Center Blvd., Mardi Gras World is a working warehouse where floats for Mardi Gras come to life along with exhibits for

Jimi Welcomes You To Mardi Gras World!

Jimi Welcomes You To Mardi Gras World!

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.

 

I wandered the modest gift shop and café for a few minutes before backtracking to the entryway to snap pictures of the dozens of float MGW Mermaid and Dragondecorations arranged in a winding, welcoming path. Something about the whimsical, fantastic, and at times subversive folk art of Mardi Gras instantly puts me in a good mood. Although Fat Tuesday is a tradition inherited from the French settlers of New Orleans, the spectacle that springs up in the streets  every spring is unlike anything else in the world.
Or so the film at our tour’s beginning claimed!
Lest You Forget Who Hosted The Super Bowl...

Lest You Forget Who Hosted The Super Bowl…

HEY, THAT GUY LOOKS FAMILIAR!
There were only six or seven of us waiting on this off-season weekday but the theater seats a hundred or so visitors so I’m guessing tours can be jam-packed during high season. MGW Tourist 2As we filed in, Linda, our guide, gave us a few moments to dress-up in Mardi Gras Krewe costumes hanging on a rack and pose with props lining the walls. When I asked to take pictures for the blog, everyone graciously agreed except a foreign couple with spotty English who didn’t understand and became very alarmed. Creepy Americans and their smart phones!
MWG Tourist 1 MGW Tour Guide Taking Pic
After a few minutes of playing dress up and scaring foreign tourists we were seated for the film. Updated during Mardi Gras 2011—coincidentally that fateful year a group of friends and I attended with Marquis de Metairie—it provided an informative overview of Mardi Gras’ history and significance. I won’t go into detail since I’ve discussed this at length, but I still discovered a few new nuggets. More exciting, though, was reliving the familiar sights from that memorable visit, including footage of the 2011 Orpheus Ball which we attended. I swear I even caught a glimpse of myself in the crowd screaming and reaching for beads!
I was also surprised to see oft-mentioned Better Than Ezra pop up to talk about the importance of the holiday to the city. That was the year of their first Krewe of Rocckus, which has sadly been cancelled for 2014.
 THREE IS THE MARDI GRAS MAGIC NUMBER
Sculpture In Progress With Sketch In View

Sculpture In Progress With Sketch In View

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.

MGW Float SketchThere are three primary materials used in decorating floats–fiberglass, styrofoam, and cardboard–and we caught glimpses of all three mediums. The most permanent props are made from handcrafted fiberglass molds and typically reflect a universal symbol or a famous person or character that can be incorporated into different floats. There were several jesters made from the same mold but painted differently scattered about the floor along with busts of countless celebrities ranging from George Washington to The Three Stooges. Over fifty parades rolled through greater New Orleans last Mardi Gras and building all those floats from scratch would be cost prohibitive. These stock props, though, can be mixed and matched depending on the theme to save time and money, with pre-fab bodies available to be re-decorated as needed before a head is attached.
Mardi Gras Mount Rushmore

Mardi Gras Mount Rushmore

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.

 THEIR YEAR OF MARDI GRAS
MGW SculptingIn my introductory posts I mention how Mardi Gras is a year round endeavor rather than a few weeks of planning leading up to a blowout, yet Linda revealed that this is  more true than I ever imagined. I was shocked when she stated that Krewes turn in next year’s theme the day after Mardi Gras! (That’s Ash Wednesday, for those scoring at home.)
Later I fell in with another tour and upon my amazement at hearing this from a second source, that guide confessed that she’d seen years when next year’s Mardi Gras prep began before all of that year’s parades had rolled!
MGW AirbrushImmediately artists begin shifting through their knowledge of available props and sketching out ideas for the Krewe’s approval. And though they recycle as much as possible, creativity is the heart of Mardi Gras and you can’t top last year’s floats (or more importantly a rival Krewe’s floats) by merely mixing and matching. Thus, most float themes require elaborately carved figures made from layers of glued Styrofoam. Once the sculpture is finished and sanded it is moved elsewhere to be coated with paper mache and then painted.
A PARTY THE RICH THROW FOR THE POOR
Ironic Juxtaposition?

Ironic Juxtaposition?

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.

Images From the Krewe of Zulu Can Be Shocking To The Uninitiated

Images From the Krewe of Zulu Can Be Shocking To The Uninitiated

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!

Even Reusuable Props Need Touch UP After A While

Even Reusuable Props Need Touch UP After A While

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

Ever Feel Like You're Being Watched?

Ever Feel Like You’re Being Watched?

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).

Other Krewes handled by Blaine Kern Studios include: Hermes, Alla, Eve, Tucks, Selene, Olympia, Babylon, Caesar, Cleopatra, and NOMTOC. This Who’s Who of Mardi Gras along with their theme park clientele is proof that when it comes to 3-D fantasy, Blaine Kern Studios is the true king of Mardi Gras!
OH THOTH ORPHEUS, WHERE ART THOU?
For a Games & Sports Theme: Mouse Trap (I LOVED That Game!)

For a Games & Sports Theme: Mouse Trap (I LOVED That Game!)

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!

Smokey MaryAs I finally reluctantly hopped back on my bike for the soggy ride home, my renewed spirit of Carnival revived my urgency for joining a Krewe to document the road to Mardi Gras 2014. I have a contact in Chewbacchus–the grass roots, humorous, DIY sci-fi Krewe that runs early in the season–and I plan on contacting them this fall when meetings resume, yet still aspire to a major Krewe. I began reaching out to members of Thoth during (and even before in the Hilton elevator!) their 2013 parade and have since sent out feelers via the internet, yet no one has returned my inquiries.
Preview!

Preview!

Krewe Of Boo

Krewe Of Boo

During my soggy bike ride to Mardi Gras World that morning (no one warned me that a New Orleans summer was Seattle south!) I stopped by the library and found myself trapped by a driving rain. As I waited it out, I stumbled on a copy of Harry Connick Jr.’s release from this past Mardi Gras, Smokey Mary, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Krewe he founded in 1993. Every Krewe has trademark floats that don’t change with the theme and Smokey Mary is one of Orpheus’s most well known. I checked out the CD not knowing that I’d soon stumble on the floats from that parade in storage at Mardi Gras World. Throw in the video of the Orpheus Ball I attended in 2011 and it seemed to be a sign. (Or perhaps I’m just being delusional again!?) It’s time to turn my attention to Orpheus and pray I will not only be granted admittance, but can afford to ride! At 50k a float, Super Krewes are known for their Super Dues!

Comments

  1. I hope I make it back to NOLA, I totally need to visit this place!

  2. Loved your article mate. Even I love NOLA for Mardi Gras and Haunted Tours. I have also penned down about NOlA. Do have a look at it 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. […] though it’s a small segment of the population that is so engaged. As I revealed in my post about Mardi Gras World, most Krewe Captains hand in next year’s theme on Ash Wednesday—and sometimes before the last […]

  2. […] thesis was confirmed last summer during my visit to Mardi Gras World—a tourist attraction that provides the public a behind-the-scenes view of how Mardi Gras is […]

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