As told to Patrick J. Sauer
In 1947, an artist named Blaine Kern formed a company to build Mardi Gras floats in his hometown of New Orleans. Today, Blaine Kern Studios is a $20 million holding company for four businesses that build floats, props, and sculptures; manufacture carnival beads; stage parades; and host hundreds of thousands of visitors annually at Mardi Gras World, a 100,000-square-foot facility on the western bank of the Mississippi River in the Algiers neighborhood. Artists at Mardi Gras World build their creations as tourists wander among tigers, wizards, superheroes, and the S.S. Captain Eddie, an $850,000, 240-foot megafloat. The 2006 Mardi Gras, willed into being six months after Hurricane Katrina, was Kern's 49th as captain of the Alla Krewe. Last month's was his 50th and last. At 79 he's taking the title captain emeritus and devoting more time to rebuilding his city.
As a kid, I loved H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Jules Verne. In my head we were going to the moon long before Sputnik. I was always sketching, sculpting, and painting. Even when I was in the Army during World War II, I got a job drawing murals for Stars & Stripes.
Our core business is building floats for the krewes of New Orleans. Krewes are nonprofit social clubs of various sizes. The dues-paying members fuel the Mardi Gras engine, but we get half of our revenue from business outside the city. Being the first family of Mardi Gras opens a lot of doors, but without New Orleans, there is no Kern Studios.
My first commissioned artwork was to paint a mural at a local hospital in exchange for my mother's medical bills. I didn't know that secretly my father had guaranteed the work. The doctor happened to be captain of the Algiers Krewe of Alla and asked me to design and build floats for their carnival parade. Offers started pouring in and the captain of the Krewe of Rex, Darwin Fenner, paid me to travel throughout Europe to apprentice under the world's leading float and costume makers. I brought the master designs back home and started building more elaborate creations.
In the 1950s, Walt Disney saw the King Kong float I built. It walked, snarled, and held a live girl, like Fay Wray, in its hand. It took five guys to operate it. He asked me to come work for him. What could be better? I'm going to Hollywood. But Fenner convinced me to stay in New Orleans. It came back around, because Disney (NYSE:DIS) is one of our larger customers.
I set out to democratize a holiday that had previously been the province of the upper class. In 1968, I founded the "super" Krewe of Bacchus with some restaurateurs and hoteliers to compete with the established organizations. The walls that were knocked down encouraged other krewes, like the Zulu, to parade from the black neighborhoods onto the main routes. They're known for throwing out the coveted golden coconuts.
Twenty-five years ago, Trammell Crow, the real estate entrepreneur from Dallas, asked us to build him a float for the Cotton Bowl. I told him it would cost $50,000, but that he had to pay only if we took the grand prize. We did. Today we have our own workshop at Universal Studios and handle its Halloween parade, and we do work for corporate clients such as Captain Morgan, Harrah's (NYSE:HET), and the South Korean theme park Everland. We've always been aggressive about finding new markets. We're in discussions with all the casinos to bring a major parade to Las Vegas, which would be the biggest event of our lives.
Adding the bead business just made sense.
There is a big misconception about what Mardi Gras is really all about. The French Quarter may be NC-17, but the rest of our New Orleans fun is G or PG.
I came home two days after the hurricane. It was frightening watching the military helicopters flying overhead as my city burned. I went to the headquarters of the Rex Krewe and found it submerged in five feet of water. There was a dead man lying in it. I knew we had to have a Mardi Gras parade or New Orleans would never recover. I understand why some people felt we shouldn't throw a party in the aftermath of Katrina, but tourism is our main industry. It was essential to show the world that we are open for business. Within a few days, I called all of the krewe captains and got assurances from most of them that they'd participate, including Rex.
Last year, Zulu marched even though 80 percent of its members lost their homes and many hadn't returned to New Orleans. I helped fill out their ranks by using a connection in South Africa to bring over a group of actual Zulu warriors. The crowds roared for the Zulus when they started stomping and kicking.
During Katrina, Mardi Gras World sustained severe wind damage, but the western side of the Mississippi River didn't flood, so our buildings were usable. Many of my employees live in Algiers, so we emptied out a warehouse, cranked up the generators, phones, and ice machines, and started serving meals to whoever took refuge. Eventually, the 82nd Airborne, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army used our property as a staging area. Six months later, when it was all said and done, our facility had helped serve 775,000 meals. We wore out two forklifts.
I own a lengthy stretch of waterfront property, and we just broke ground on a $300 million development of condos and apartments. I'm a partner in the deal, and it's the first step to turning the western riverbank into another must-visit stop alongside Bourbon Street and the Garden District. My ultimate dream is to have a hotel with a big ballroom, a cruise ship terminal, a New Orleans food and wine museum, restaurants and bars, public parks, a television set for a Cajun cooking show, a movie studio, and a penthouse apartment where all my friends can come over for a cold Abita beer and look out at the lights of our hometown.
More important, I want to bring thousands of good jobs to Algiers, create a city within a city. Our young people need to learn high-paying trades. A good plumber makes more than a college graduate these days.
My sons Barry and Brian handle most of the day-to-day operations of Kern Studios now, but I'm still in the office almost every day and out on the town almost every night. Don't forget, in 1988 the Rex School of Design issued a proclamation naming me Mr. Mardi Gras. At first I thought the title was audacious, but then I thought I should copyright it. Now it's how I sign autographs and receive mail.
I used to think I was wasting my talent making giant ogres, but how do you beat bringing happiness to people every year?
Everybody on planet Earth knows New Orleans and they love our people, food, music, and parades. It's delicious what I've accomplished, and it's all because my heart belongs to New Orleans. In spite of ourselves, we'll be successful like the phoenix rising from the floodwaters. God, I love this city.
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