"We've been doing this since my grandfather in the 30s, so it's been quite a while. We have pieces dating back to the 40s and 50s," says Brian Kern, Blaine's son who now runs the company.
Mardi Gras World is constantly busy constructing floats, props, and other pieces not only for New Orleans' carnival, but for theme parks, hotels, and parade events worldwide. The process of building floats and props is fairly simple, but takes a team of skilled artists to make it a true product of Mardi Gras World.
The process of Mardi Gras float construction starts with a single page.
"Everything starts off with a sketch," Brian explains."We meet with the Carnival Captains immediately after Mardi Gras every year, and we come up with new themes, and we do some rough pencil drawings. Once they approve it, the sketch gets some color." After the floats are designed on paper, the eye-catching props that adorn the front of the floats are either pulled from the mass amount of props in storage or made from new materials.
"Most of the stuff we do now is made out of Styrofoam. It's sheets of Styrofoam and they glue it together. Once it's glued together, he starts cutting it down and doing the detail. Once it's made, they paper over it and put a hard coat of plastic over it, and then it gets painted," Brian said.
Mardi Gras World has hundreds of thousands of square feet in storage space just for their props and figures, and new figures are being made reguarly.
"The props that go on the floats we either have in inventory already or we have to make from scratch. Depending upon the krewe and what they spend each year like Bacchus, Endymion, Orpheus, the ones that spend more money, get new figures that have never been seen before. Once they're built, they go in our inventory and we use them in the rental parades," Brian said.
Not only are the floats fully painted and propped, but they receive an additional layer of embellishment of flowers. Paper-mache flowers fully painted to match the float's colors and measuring about a meter wide are attached to the sides of the float.
"Now all the floats will have their props and figures, and then some, depending upon the krewes, will embellish the floats with flowers. They are made for the theme. It just gives added dimension to the float. A lot of flowers are made for Orpheus," Brian said.
The construction of the float itself has changed to accommodate more riders and bigger, better throws as the carnival season has grown to be the world's biggest free party. Tractors must tow more weight than ever before, powerful LED lights are used to illuminate the props and paraders, and some floats are covered in amazing fiber-optic lighting on the sides of the float.
Even the basic wooden body has something special under the paint to add more character. Brian explains the skeleton of the floats, "It's a steel chassis, and then we put lumber across it, and put lumber down as decking, and build up on it. Once this is all done, they'll come back and add bits of wood to give it an uneven surface they call 'bumps.' Then they cut the railing at different levels."
"In the 60s, the average float carried a dozen riders. Now our average floats carry 40 or 50 riders. So they've gotten bigger. They have to carry not only more people, but the throws. The evolution of throws has changed the structure of the floats. It's kind of a battle that's gone on between carrying lots of people and things and the aesthetics and beauty of the float. The ideal thing is to carry people and things in a big box loaded down with stuff, but it would look like a big box with no personality. So you want to have the sides come out in spots. You want to break up the lines of the floats to make it look better, and when you do that, you end up sacrificing some of the room on the float. However, it makes a better looking float. What we try to do is make them look as good as possible and still accommodate people and throws. And beer. Lots of beer," Brian said.
"Everything starts off with a sketch"
With the Kern's cornering the market on parades during the season, they have a lot of work to do year-round. "You can knock out a float if you're really going fast. If it's already built, you prime it out white, and you already have the props made, you can probably knock out a float in a couple of days. But if we have to build it from the ground up, it takes several weeks. The thing that takes long is making the props and figures. You can spend the same time building a prop as you do the actual float. But the props are also the things that make our floats stand out from everybody else's. And the painting, the artistry, and all that." Although they reuse much of their huge inventory, repainting takes time to do and many new props and entire floats must be made from scratch. "Every year we build a few new floats. There's floats that change every year to match the theme, and there's floats that are traditional. They stay the same year-in and year-out. People associate them with the organization."
With as many floats that Mardi Gras World churns out and the intricate detail of each one, you may think it takes a huge team of people to make these rolling pieces of art. But the staff aren't that numerous, explains Brian. "We have two or three people just paint props, it's all they do. We have about ten people who work on creating things, building things, we have several people who do nothing but flowers, we have several construction crews made up of three or four guys who build floats and install props, we have about six float painters, that's all they do all year."
Even though Ash Wednesday signals the end of Carnival, the floats are never really done rolling. Once the season is over, the floats are stripped down and wait for their next design and props are taken back to the warehouses.
"So what happens after Mardi Gras is the floats come in, the construction guys take off the old props and figures and flowers, we prime them out white, patch any holes that may be on the float, then the artist comes by and sketches out the design in charcoal pencil and marks the colors that need to be painted on there. He then gets with the guy who put the primer on and he applies the basic colors on there. And once the basic colors are on there, the artist comes back and does all the detail. It's kind of like a big paint-by-numbers. Once that's painted, they put the props on there, then we'll come back and add the flowers, fringe the bottom of it. And then before it rolls, we have an electrical guy come out and inspect all the wiring. We have people that check the chasses, the tires, make sure everything is structurally intact. And then we have a fleet of tractors that pull the floats, those get inspected. We have PTO's on each float that supply the power for the lighting on the floats. We have a whole crew of people; everybody's got a specific job to make it all happen. And during Mardi Gras, we actually have people come in to clean up the floats and move them. When you have five or six parades going on at once, there's a lot of organization that needs to be done lining up the floats because some floats get used multiple times in a carnival season," Kern said.
The Kern family's fame extends beyond New Orleans. In fact they make floats and props for parades all over the world, including Carnival celebrations in Mobile, Galveston, and Lafayette. "We went up to Montreal and they have a jazz festival up there and we did a parade there. We shipped these lower units up there and all the props were in containers. We assembled everything there. We do parades for Universal Studios in Orlando, we have one in Japan that rolls every day that we build the floats for, and there's one in South Korea in Seoul that rolls every day."
From horse-drawn wagons to sections-long, double-decker behemoths covered in lights and loaded with sound systems, float design has changed the face of Mardi Gras without compromising it's incredible spirit. Now the question is how much bigger can everything get? That might be up to the spectators.
"The longest float we've ever had was in the Krewe of Endymion. With the tractor and everything, it's almost three-quarters of a football field in length. It's about 220 feet with the tractor. But the problem you have when you build floats that large is negotiating turns. On that float, what we ended up doing, the rear wheels turn in the opposite direction of the front wheels so it tracks like a train. In the past when we did these three-section floats, you'd have to turn really wide. You were cutting into the curb dangerously close. Now it tracks like a train perfectly. Ideally, you could go even longer, but that's about as long as we want to go. We can't get much bigger than that because the size tractor you would need to pull it are closed-cab. And when you get a closed-cab tractor in a parade, there's safety issues. People ask why floats aren't self-propelled in New Orleans, and the problem is the crowds. In between each section, you've got gaps that people crawl through, people go under the floats for trinkets, they'll do anything."
With technology changing rapidly, floats could be very different in the years to come. Figures could become more life-like or the entire float could be a screen playing a concert. Mardi Gras World is ready to experiment and find the best new innovation.
"We just keep changing things, making it nicer." The floats may be getting larger and throws nicer, but the spirit of Mardi Gras will never change.
Kern believes in keeping the creativity of Mardi Gras in the hands of the people and not business. "I like Mardi Gras because it's not commercial. We'd make more money if it were corporately sponsored, but we don't want to see that happen because we think it will destroy what we have here. These are unique to New Orleans."
Header photo by Steve Hatley