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Louisiana Mardi Gras: Exclusive Behind the Scenes & A Brief History

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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

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Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, New Orleans. Photo Credit: The Design Tourist

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.”

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Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, New Orleans. Photo Credit: The Design Tourist

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.

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the Phunny Phorty Phellows illustration. Photo Credit: Louisiana State Museums

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. 

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Float from the Krewe of Underwear. Photo Credit: Louisiana State Museums

”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. 

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Papier maché float model on display at The Cabildo Museum in New Orleans. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

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.

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Float artist at Kern Studios in New Orleans. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

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.

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Karen LeBlanc, aka The Design Tourist and Patrick Kern at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, New Orleans. Photo Credit: The Design Tourist

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. 

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Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, New Orleans. Photo Credit: The Design Tourist

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.

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Behind the scenes at Kern Studios, New Orleans

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.

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Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, New Orleans. Photo Credit: The Design Tourist

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.

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Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, New Orleans. Photo Credit: The Design Tourist

Mardi Gras World offers guided tours of its prop storage facility, where you can see artists at work. 

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Behind the scenes at Kern Studios, New Orleans

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.

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Behind the scenes at Kern Studios, New Orleans

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. 

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Karen LeBlanc, aka The Design Tourist, in float barn at Kern Studios showing the bathroom structure on each float.

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. 

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1916 photo of Krewe of Rex King, Queen and court on view at The Great River Road Museum at Houmas House in Darrow, Louisiana. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

The Krewe of Rex, founded in 1872 by New Orleans businessmen, started out as a spectacle to honor visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich.

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The Krewe of Rex King exhibit at The Great River Road Museum at Houmas House in Darrow, Louisiana. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

The Krewe of Rex parades on Mardi Gras day in Uptown, New Orleans.

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Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, New Orleans. Photo Credit: The Design Tourist

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. 

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Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, New Orleans. Photo Credit: The Design Tourist

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.

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Cajun Mardi Gras Mask on view at The Great River Road Museum in Darrow, Louisiana. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

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.

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Throughout Louisiana, Mardi Gras Indians dressed in elaborate beaded and feathered costumes take to the streets in various parades.

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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).

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2024 Official Poster of the Washington Mardi Gras Ball By New Orleans Artsist: Becky Fos

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

Picture of Karen LeBlanc

Karen LeBlanc

Karen LeBlanc is a freelance writer living in Orlando, Florida with many published bylines in magazines, newspapers, and multimedia sites. As a professional lifestyle writer, Karen specializes in art, architecture, design, home interiors and personality profiles. Karen is the writer, producer and host of the streaming series, The Design Tourist (www.TheDesignTourist.com) that brings viewers a global dose of design inspiration with episodes featuring the latest looks and trends from the world’s premiere design events and shows. She also publishes a quarterly magazine on design travel that you can read by clicking the link: https://thedesigntourist.com/the-magazine/ Her journalism background includes seven years on-air experience as a TV news reporter and anchor covering a range of issues from education to politics. Her educational credentials include a Master of Arts in Mass Communications from Northeast Louisiana University and a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Louisiana State University. Throughout her career, Karen has written and produced dozens of documentaries and videos for educational, commercial, corporate, and governmental clients and appeared in many TV and video productions as a professional host.

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Karen LeBlanc

Karen LeBlanc is a travel host and writer with a popular travel show, The Design Tourist, and a companion lifestyle blog. As a widely published travel journalist and content creator, Karen is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association. She also serves as the Design and Travel editor of the national lifestyle magazine, LaPalme. Karen believes that every destination has a story to tell through its local art, architecture, culture, and craft. This immersive creative exploration begins with authentic accommodations where the narrative of place unfolds through art, accessories, accouterments, furnishings, fixtures, and food. 

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