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For additional information about Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans, contact the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau at (504) 566-5011 or 1-800-672-6124. Or visit the Web site www.neworleanscvb.com.

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Unmasking Mardi Gras
From the elaborate costumes to the magnificent floats, the frivolous fun of Carnival season is the result of plenty of hard work behind the scenes

By Deborah Reinhardt
Managing Editor

Published: Jan/Feb 2001

About 60 parades are staged during Carnival season in the New Orleans area. The floats themselves can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to create, and krewes can spend thousands more on throws /Louisiana Office of Tourism photo
Mardi Gras is serious business to Brian Kern. His family’s company builds most of the floats for Carnival parades throughout greater New Orleans. Yet Kern still gets a kick out of the annual spectacle.

“Imagine driving down streets, 20 people thick on each side and everybody is yelling ‘Throw me something mister,’” said Kern, who is general manager of Blaine Kern Artists in New Orleans.

It’s perhaps surprising that a man who works 365 days a year on parade floats, who can’t turn around in his warehouse without bumping into Carnival statues and props, delights in the annual festival. However, Carnival and Mardi Gras run deep throughout the Kern family history.

When Blaine Kern, Brian’s father, was 19, he painted a mural for a New Orleans hospital. Dr. Henry LaRocca noticed his work and hired the elder Kern to design and build a float for the Krewe of Alla. As a result, Blaine Kern Artists was founded in 1947. Four years later, Kern won the contract for the Rex (King of Carnival) float, which the company has built ever since.

Every day is Carnival

According to Brian Kern, the company manufactures 80 percent of parade floats for the New Orleans Carnival season. About 100 full-time employees work on floats throughout the year. Kern said they design and build about 15 new floats each year, but the company will remake between 300–350 floats annually.

“Unlike parades in other cities, Mardi Gras is one day, but Carnival season begins Jan. 6,” Kern said. “About 60 parades are staged each year.”

Parading organizations, or krewes, bring their themes to Kern’s company, which is already working on sketches for 2002. The most challenging float by Blaine Kern Artists was built in 1998 for the Krewe of Endymion. The riverboat float was in five sections and measured 240 feet long. Previously, the longest float was 150 feet in length and came in three sections. It tracked like a train, Kern said, and used thousands of fiber optic lights. This imaginative work of art cost $800,000 to create.

Visitors to New Orleans can experience Mardi Gras year-round by touring Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, open daily. Guests see artists building or repairing floats. The tour includes a video, a chance to dress up in authentic Carnival costumes and a taste of King Cake. Call 1-800-362-8213 for information.

Blaine Kern Artists also creates floats for parades outside New Orleans, including Universal Studios theme park in Florida, as well as theme parks in Japan and Korea. Sculptures by Kern artists are also in Las Vegas.

When Mardi Gras parades step off this year, Kern’s crews will be waiting for floats to return to the warehouse.

“We’ll take off the props and figures and begin for next year,” Kern said.

For more information, visit the Web site www.kernstudios.com.

He writes the book on Mardi Gras

"Imagine going to all the parades and parties during Carnival–and getting paid for it.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the city,” said Arthur Hardy, publisher/editor of “Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide.”

Articles on history, personalities, safety, parades and schedules are featured in the guide. This year’s guide will be the 25th annual printing.

Coming up with his biggest Mardi Gras memory was difficult for Hardy because “each year is so bizarre.” One can imagine the things Hardy has seen in covering every parade since 1986 for WDSU-TV in New Orleans, in addition to the information disseminated via radio (WWL 870 AM) and through the Internet at the Web site www. InsideNewOrleans.com.

Hardy, who attended his first parade at the age of 2, insists that Carnival and Mardi Gras is good, clean family fun, and is not about drunken, naked people in the city’s French Quarter. No Mardi Gras parades have been a part of the French Quarter since 1973, he said.

“Unfortunately, thanks to the Internet and late-night television, people think it’s not safe,” Hardy said. “Actually, 99 percent of Mardi Gras is oriented toward the family, but that’s not what makes headlines.”

Visitors to New Orleans during Mardi Gras should use common sense to ensure personal safety. Streets crammed with millions of people are a challenge to navigate. A page of safety tips can be found in Hardy’s “Mardi Gras Guide,” but he suggested keeping flashy jewelry at home and beware of pickpockets. Also, be sure to wear comfortable clothes and shoes.

“The hardest thing is finding a bathroom, so plan ahead,” said Hardy.

Know that most masked balls and extravaganzas are usually private affairs, although parades are open to the public. However, tickets to the Orpheus post-parade extravaganza on Feb. 26 are sold to the public. Tickets are $125. The Krewe of Orpheus was founded by recording artist and actor Harry Connick, Jr. For information, call (504) 822-7211.

Planning ahead seems to be key in a safe, enjoyable Mardi Gras experience, and the guide is a good place to start. For more information, or to place a phone order for the guide, call (504) 838-6111 or visit online at www.mardigrasguide.com.

You can dress them up

Since childhood, Diane Barrilleaux has enjoyed designing things and doing crafts. Her love of creating today is reflected in her costuming business, D & D Creations in Kenner, La. With more than 40 Mardi Gras organizations as clients, Barrilleaux says she’s the largest costumer in New Orleans.

Costumes have been a part of Mardi Gras since the first modern pageant was staged in 1857. Barrilleaux and her husband, Ray, became involved in costuming by making hats for a krewe. Then Ray moved into making elaborate wire collars. This grew into a full-time business that’s been going strong for 14 years.

Barrilleaux credits her husband as the talent behind the business. His collars, which are often covered in feathers, can measure eight to 10 feet in diameter and weigh up to eight pounds.

Gowns and tunics created for an organization’s royal court are equally elaborate. Usually made of satin or velvet, the costumes are often covered in rhinestone appliques. A king’s tunic might involve 90 to 100 yards of appliques, Barrilleaux said. A queen’s gown takes about 50 hours to create and averages $5,000. It might weigh as much as 30 pounds.

Krewe members dress according to the year’s theme. Often made of satin with sequined trim and brilliant braid, these “throw aways” are worn once and then discarded. Barrilleaux admitted that tossing out these creations on which she has worked so hard breaks her heart, but after a number of years in the business, she’s learned to live with the loss.

D & D Creations employs eight full-time workers that work year-round on costuming Carnival participants. Already designers are doing sketches for 2002 themes. Beginning in November, Barrilleaux will add another 30 seasonal workers.

Even if it’s only for a day, her clients are resplendent in their regal costumes.

Mardi Gras allows the royal and ridiculous, gorgeous and gaudy to come together. It’s a chance to throw caution out the window, to forget problems and celebrate pomp. So put on the feathers, sequins and face paint and come out and play. Hey, throw me something mister!


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