As a bonafide “Cajun” born and raised in south Louisiana, Mardi Gras season is tied to my culture, childhood, family, and traditions. It starts on January 6th, known as Twelfth Night, the feast of the Epiphany and Three Kings’ Day.
Historical Roots of Mardi Gras
Arthur Hardy, Mardi Gras scholar and founder of the popular Mardi Gras Guide, credits the Krewe of Comus with establishing the first carnival organization in 1857 and the concept of a Mardi Gras “Krewe.”
Celebrating ‘The Greatest Free Show on Earth’
Today, Mardi Gras is known as “The Greatest Free Show on Earth,” with approximately 70 parades set to roll through the greater New Orleans area, plus countless other parades in towns and communities across Louisiana embodying local culture and customs.
Themes and signature “throws” from beads to doubloons distinguish each parade, some with celebrity guests who serve as Kings and Queens. Satire and Greek mythology are recurring themes of many carnival krewes.
Social Commentary of Phunny Phorty Phellows
Some, such as the Phunny Phorty Phellows, a masked krewe that kicks off Carnival Season on Twelfth Night, are known for their social commentary on current events and notorious characters. The Phunny Phorty Phellows “Herald the Arrival of Carnival” with a streetcar ride down St. Charles Ave. The masked krewe is famous for its satirical costumes and themes and dates back to 1878.
”Satire during Mardi Gras is provocative, cathartic, and hilarious. It lets us express our emotions and laugh at ourselves” said Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser, referring to a new exhibit at The Presbytère Museum The Mardi Gras Satire: Puncturing Pomposity. It features rare nineteenth-century parade bulletins and booklets of the Phunny Phorty Phellows and the Independent Order of the Moon, modern float figures, parade throws, and photographs. The museum also has a permanent Mardi Gras exhibit. of floats, costumes and throws.
Floats were originally made out of papier maché, many starting out as small models or renderings. Today, float-making is a mix of artisanal and automated techniques.
Behind the Scenes Craftsmanship of Louisiana Mardi Gras Floats
For a behind-the-scenes look at this Mardi Gras art form, I visited Kern Studios in New Orleans, which has been designing and building floats since the 1940s.
I met up with Patrick Kern, a fourth-generation float builder and director of operations at Kern Studios. He took us on a tour of Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, the part of Kern Studios open to public tours and for an insider’s look at Kern Studios, the float-making company.
Float props are made out of Styrofoam, coated in papier maché to create a smooth surface for painting and then sprayed with a coat of polyurethane.
A robot named Pixie often sculpts the props from large Styrofoam blocks following digitized renderings. “There are two types of Mardi Gras floats, signature floats that stay the same each year and themed floats that change designs each year,” Patrick explains.
Kern Studios: A Legacy of Float Building in New Orleans
Kern Studios began operations in 1947, founded by Patrick’s grandfather, Blaine Kern, son of a sign painter, founded the float-making company in 1947 after misfortune, fate and opportunity collided. Blaine’s mother was ill and needed medical care, so Blaine offered to paint a mural to pay for her surgery. The doctor performing her surgery was captain of the Krew of Alla, which rolled in Algiers on the West Bank. The doctor was so impressed by the mural that he asked Blaine to design and craft floats for the Krew of Alla. Blaine and his dad Roy began making floats in the early 1930s for the Krewe of Alla, which caught the attention of the Krewe of Rex.
Mardi Gras World offers guided tours of its prop storage facility, where you can see artists at work.
In another nearby building, the float barn, workers build the float frames out of plywood and covered them with fabric, some with little knobs embedded, known as bump outs to add depth and dimension to the float surface.
With all the drinking and revelry that goes on, you might wonder, does each float come with a bathroom? The answer is yes. The outhouse-like structure is seamless camouflage in the float’s design but here’s a look at the basic structure before it is decorated.
Kern Studios designs and builds floats for “Old-Line” parades, including the Krewe of Endymion, which parades through Midtown on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, the Krewe of Bacchus, which rolls in Uptown New Orleans on the Sunday before Mardi Gras day.
The Krewe of Rex, founded in 1872 by New Orleans businessmen, started out as a spectacle to honor visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich.
The Krewe of Rex parades on Mardi Gras day in Uptown, New Orleans.
The company also crafts floats built on wooden wheels for Proteus, the oldest night parade founded in 1881 that rolls on Lundi Gras, the Monday before Fat Tuesday.
Initially, the parades rolled through the French Quarter but they grew so large that they posed a safety hazard. In 1973, New Orleans banned parades through the French Quarter and they changed routes, traveling along St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street.
Across Louisiana, communities put their own cultural spin on Mardi Gras. In the Acadiana country of southern Louisiana, masqueraders wear painted wire mesh masks that have styles distinguished by the parish of origin, a quilted suit in purple, green, and gold, and a conical hat called a capuchin. Participants ride horses from farm to farm, singing, playing pranks, and begging for ingredients to cook a community gumbo.
Throughout Louisiana, Mardi Gras Indians dressed in elaborate beaded and feathered costumes take to the streets in various parades.
In Covington, Mardi Gras Day pays homage to the town’s indigenous past with The Krewe of Bogue Falaya, named after Bogue Falaya river, once a primary fishing and trade waterway for indigenous peoples and European newcomers. The term is derived from the Choctaw words bogu, (bayou, stream or waterway) and falaya (long).
The Washington Mardi Gras Ball
Louisiana politicians have exported the state’s Mardi Gras party to the nation’s capital, the annual Mardi Gras event in Washington D.C. The Mystick Krewe of Louisianians holds an annual multi-day event that includes a costume ball and parade featuring a king, queen and royal court of princesses and Louisiana festival queens.
2024 marks the 75th anniversary of the Washington DC Mardi Gras Ball, which dates back to the 1940s when Louisiana business leaders sought to bring a taste of Louisiana Mardi Gras to its homesick Louisiana Congressional delegation and staffers during the Carnival season, which led up to Mardi Gras day.
US Senator John N. Kennedy is the 2024 event’s Chair and selected Drew Brees as King. The 2009 Super Bowl MVP-winning quarterback for the New Orleans Saints serves alongside Camille Morrison, Queen of the 2024 Washington DC Mardi Gras Ball. The Washington DC Mardi Gras ball is set for January 27th, 2024 with 500 krewe members from Louisiana and guests from around the nation planning to attend.
For more on the art, craft and history of Mardi Gras float making, check out my special report airing on PBS stations.
More Posts of My Louisana Travel:
Why is The Blue Dog Blue? Memories & Musings About Painter George Rodrigue
The Legacy of Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame & History Museum