Blaine Kern, architect of lavish Mardi Gras floats, dies at 93

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Blaine Kern, architect of lavish Mardi Gras floats, dies at 93
Mardi Gras World, the tourist attraction Blaine Kern opened in New Orleans in 1984, on Nov. 23, 2005. Kern, who helped turn Mardi Gras into a huge event known around the world, most notably through the innovative and spectacular parade floats he designed and built, died on June 25, 2020 at his home in the city. He was 93. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times.

by Steven Kurutz

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Blaine Kern, who helped turn Mardi Gras in New Orleans into a huge event known around the world, most notably through the innovative and spectacular parade floats he designed and built, died June 25 at his home in the city. He was 93.

His son Barry, who confirmed the death, said he had developed an infection after falling from an exercise bike.

Like Walt Disney, to whom he was often compared, Kern was an artist, a businessman and a showman all in one. He was also a visionary designer: His parade floats had double decks, multipart structures, lights, animation and many other features that later became common in the various parades in the city.

Two of Kern’s more famous floats include the Bacchasaurus, a nearly life-size dinosaur, and the Bacchagator, a 105-foot-long alligator, both built for the Krewe of Bacchus, one of the social groups behind the celebration and one known for its elaborate parade floats. Since the late 1960s, Bacchus has invited celebrities including Bob Hope, Hulk Hogan and Will Ferrell to reign as king of the krewe and ride its float in the parade. They “turned my dad loose to do whatever he wanted to do,” Barry Kern said. “There was no budget.”

Kern’s roots as a float builder went back, if not to the beginnings of Mardi Gras, at least to its days as a more modest celebration. As a boy in the 1930s, he once recalled, helping his father build a float for the Krewe of Choctaw out of six old trash wagons.

“A dynamic force” is how Arthur Hardy, publisher of the annual Mardi Gras Guide, described Kern. Kern was, he added, “one of the most significant people in the whole history of the event.”

Kern supersized Mardi Gras with his floats, but he also enlarged the celebration through tireless promotion and by democratizing it. In its earlier days, in the mid-19th century, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, with its parades and social balls, was the province of the well-off white men who controlled the city’s business and society. To get a parade permit, an organization needed to stage more than a dozen floats, which were expensive to build, store and insure.

“What Blaine did was, he created a pool of rental floats so many groups could participate without being a blue blood or having a zillion dollars,” Hardy said. “Now, this was a business move. I don’t think Blaine was trying to save the world by doing this. But it made it available to more people.”

In 1968, Kern lobbied successfully for one krewe to appoint a Jewish parade marshal, something unheard-of at the time. And in 1991, when a Black City Council member introduced a law that would deny parade permits to social clubs that discriminated in their membership ranks, Kern, who belonged to a krewe with Black members, supported the law, which passed. (He did not, however, want all-male krewes to welcome women.)

In 1984, Kern opened Mardi Gras World, a popular attraction giving tourists the opportunity to visit the 300,000-square-foot warehouse where his floats were built and, in a sense, experience Mardi Gras year-round. The gift shop does a robust business.

Having grown up in the Algiers neighborhood, a historically poor area on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, Kern delighted in the local fame and wealth he achieved. He “lived unapologetically large and loud,” as The Times-Picayune put it — driving a Mercedes, handing out business cards referring to himself as “Mr. Mardi Gras,” traveling the world. He married four times, most recently in 2010, when he was in his 80s, to a woman 49 years his junior.

“He ran all the gas out of the tank, so to speak,” said Barry Kern, who today runs Kern Studios, the parade attraction business he and his father formed.

He added: “My dad had a big ego. But nothing was more important to him than the adoration of people who would see his parades.”

Blaine Salvador Kern was born May 17, 1927, in New Orleans. His mother, Josephine (Gendusa) Kern, was a homemaker. His father, Roy, was a sign painter who spent more time fishing and drinking than working.

At one point the family was unable to pay rent, and Blaine, along with his mother and three sisters, moved in with neighbors who were retired schoolteachers. Kern credited his time in their book-filled house, where he read H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and other authors, with awakening his imagination.

In the 1950s, Kern, not long out of the Army, began building floats for Rex, the most prominent and well-funded Mardi Gras organization. Its captain, Darwin Fenner, paid for Kern to travel to Europe to study artistic techniques in Valencia, Spain; Viareggio, Italy; and other places known for parades and festivals. Upon his return, Kern incorporated the bright colors, large props and animatronics that forever changed the look of Mardi Gras.

By 1981, Kern’s company was turning out 350-400 floats a year and had contracts to produce 30 of the 51 parades that rolled during the Mardi Gras season that year. Competitors soon emerged, but Kern retained market share. Ultimately, his son said, in the ’90s when the superkrewes accelerated their float rivalry, the cost of some Kern floats exceeded a million dollars.

He later expanded to theme parks, parades in other parts of the world and even Chick-fil-A billboards (his firm made the papier-mâché cows that adorned them).

In addition to his son Barry, Kern is survived by his wife, Holly Kern; two other sons, Blaine Jr. and Brian; two daughters, Thais Barr and Blainey Kern; 10 grandchildren; and one great-grandson.

Early in his career, the story goes, Kern was recruited by Walt Disney himself to work in California. He passed up the opportunity and chose to stay in his home city, where he instead became the “Walt Disney of Mardi Gras,” as The New York Times once proclaimed him. By his own account, it worked out pretty well.

“Life’s been good,” Kern told U.S. News and World Report in 1986. “I have met three or four presidents, dozens of governors. I’ve been everywhere.”

“And,” he added, “I’m a float builder.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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