'Mr. Mardi Gras' sees endless possibilities for float building

Mr. Mardi Gras

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - It's now a multi-million dollar business, but for Blaine Kern Sr., it was a dream come true for a New Orleans kid who just loved to draw.

Kern is the founder of Blaine Kern Artists and Mardi Gras World. But his rise to earning the name "Mister Mardi Gras" started more than 70 years ago with one painting.

"My mother was sick. I painted a mural for her on a hospital wall," said Kern.

That mural helped pay the hospital expenses for his mother. Dr. Henry Larocca, who worked at the hospital, was impressed with Kern's skills.

"Doc says, 'Blaine, do you think you could paint and design a parade?' I'm 20 years old. I can do anything," exclaims Kern.

Larocca was the captain of the Krewe of Alla. He hired Kern in 1947 to build the floats for the westbank parade. Getting started was a tough job. Kern said he didn't have a lot of money in the beginning, but he got a lot of help from family, friends and even neighbors.

"I didn't have money to pay anyone," Kern said.

It didn't take long until Kern's talents were noticed by the Captain of Rex. Kern said that Darwin Fenner liked his work and saw his potential. He wanted him to get better at his craft, and so he sent him on a trip to Italy to learn from the masters. He learned extravagant concepts, how to work with colors and even learned about float animation.

He brought back those talents and soon became one of the of city's premier float designers, doing work for Rex and the Krewes of Zulu, Bacchus and others.

As Kern finessed his talents, one day Walt Disney himself came calling and personally made Kern an offer that he thought he couldn't refuse.

"I stayed out there a couple of days, I came home and I went to go see the captain of Rex. 'Captain, I'm going to Hollywood, I'm going to work for Walt Disney,'" Kern said. He said, 'Son, you go to Hollywood, you are going to be a little bitty fish in a big pond. If you can help Mardi Gras grow, you'll be a big fish in a big pond.' So I took his advice."

Turning Disney down may have been the best career advice the now-89-year-old may have ever received. The work kept coming, and Kern got the idea to rent floats to krewes.

"My first Alla parade I owned the floats, so I was renting to Grella, Alla, Pandora. I started renting floats and it allowed me to make more elaborate floats just doing that," said Kern.

Kern and his team of artists have pushed the creative limits on floats for the super krewes of Endymion, Muses and Orpheus.

Kern's business has continued to blossom over the decades.  His son, Barry, now runs Kern Studios and Mardi Gras World and has expanded the business worldwide. He even does work for many of the Disney parks now, as well as some of the Universal Studios theme parks.

Blaine said he knew early on that he had big dreams, but what he has achieved has surpassed anything that he could have imagined.

"I always felt in my head and in my heart, it sounds corny, but that I had things to do. I don't even know what it was. I always felt like I was trying to go to the next step beyond. I've always felt that way. I dream every night of my life in technicolor for God's sake," said Kern.

When it comes to the next generation of floats his company makes, Kern sees endless possibilities. He said he never stops coming up with ideas.

"I'm envisioning holograms. I'm envisioning floats that open up like giant cartwheels, with the new materials. Man I had paper maches, and that was it. Look, there's no telling with the new equipment Barry's got now working here at Kern Studios. There's no telling where it's going to go.  We're the best in the world, and we're going to stay the best in the world," Kern said.

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