Saturday, February 19, 2011

Mr. Mardi Gras' Work

The building before us certainly seemed large enough to house what was billed as the largest float designing and building facility in the world. ; Since we were going to be leaving New Orleans before the Mardi Gras parades began, this tour of Mardi Gras World would have to provide us with a glimpse of the festivities.

After a quick look around the gift shop, our tour began with an opportunity for young and old to don some parade costumes and pose for photos.

After visualizing ourselves throwing beads and doubloons to cheering crowds imploring us to "Throw me something," we returned the outfits and returned to our roles as tourists. In those roles, we enjoyed a piece of king cake (a traditional Mardi Gras dessert) and some coffee.

Our tour began with examples of two methods of building the figures and objects seen on the floats. The artists either mold and cast figures or they take a Styrofoam-sculpted piece and spray hardcoat on it. The polyurea or fiberglass fabricated props (above) are less expensive to make than cast props (left), which can run $12,000 to $15,000 each.

The unique aspect of the tour was that it took us through the workshop of the staff, so that we saw all stages of the production of the components of the floats.

The work on a "Bad Year" tire (in the background on the left) will produce a flat tire when it is completed.

Observing work along the tour route provides an opportunity to appreciate the little details that combine to produce some pretty spectacular results.

On slight disadvantage, however, is that the power tools sometimes drown out the voice of the tour leader. That effect, plus the fact that we dawdle and fall behind the group, means that we miss a good bit of information.

Props that aren’t made with a mold begin with a steel armature to which sculpted foam is added and then cut to the basic shape of the desired figure.

Often designers will project a prop-size sketch on to a wall (or a railing as shown in the photo; a finished French horn picture is shown here) to guide them as they cut the foam into a 3-D figure. A layer of papier-mâché is added to the foam, followed by the polyurea or fiberglass.

A walk through the massive warehouses that comprise the 75,000-square-foot Blaine Kern Studios took us past all stages of the production of floats. Here was a row of floats that seemed near completion or already completed.

When the tour ended, we were able to retrace our steps and wander through the displays to take photos.

From the intricate

to the fascinating

to the grotesque, the world of prop-making was well-represented in the inventory.

A row of oversized, disem-bodied heads, among them Presidents Kennedy, Washing-ton, and Nixon; Salvador Dali; and Laurel and Hardy, peered down on visitors from a shelf that lined an entire wall.

Mardi Gras World and, indeed, Mardi Gras itself can trace much of its history in New Orleans to the Kern family. Roy Kern became involved in the float-making business in the 1930s and Roy’s son, Blaine, officially opened the studio in 1947, earning the local title of “Mr. Mardi Gras.”

Today, Blaine's son, Barry, is president of Kern Studios, which handles production, and Barry’s brother Brian runs Mardi Gras World.

We found it interesting that the great majority of the figures and objects shown in these photos belong to the Studios.

These are leased to krewes in New Orleans and other towns in Louisiana for Mardi Gras celebrations.

The Studio's work can also be seen at the Mardi Gras parade at Universal Studios Florida, Japan’s Toho Park, Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and in parades in several international cities.

We will conclude our tour tomorrow.

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