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Mardi Gras Magic

Forty days and forty nights of fasting and good behavior sounds pretty good after a few days of dressing in wild costumes and gorging on boiled crawfish, jambalaya and cocktails; at least that is the original intent behind Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana. A peek behind the masks and outrageous get-ups of the revelers shows regular folks who are just “working out their ya-yas.”

The introduction of imported plywood into prop construction expanded the possibilites of float and prop design. Lauan is great because it is flexible, lightweight and has a nice smooth surface for painters to use.

A peek behind the parade of floats and props enjoyed by those revelers uncovers one incredible visionary, Blaine Kern, and one unbelievably versatile material, imported plywood. Few people would expect anything made from plywood (lauan) to be so magical, so beautiful, yet it is the most prized product of artistic carpentry.

“We use a tremendous amount of imported plywood every day,” says prop artist Mark Perelli, Blaine Kern Studios. “Lauan is great for us because it is flexible, lightweight and has a nice smooth surface for our painters to use.” Blaine Kern Studios uses lauan (Shorea spp.), European pine (Pinus sylvestris), European spruce (Picea spp.) and okoume (Aucoumea klaineana) plywood for the foundations, cut outs and framework of their imaginative creations.

People around the world admire wonders that begin with Blaine Kern’s inspired vision. When Mr. Kern began building floats 64-years ago, Mardi Gras in New Orleans was a $200,000 a year industry. By the year 2000 that figure had grown to over a billion dollars annually. Kern’s floats, props and sculptures enhance themed environments in Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Japan’s Toho Park, Las Vegas, NV and many other entertainment centers.

March Madness

New Orleans’ special association with Mardi Gras reaches back to the settlement of the area. The way Mr. Kern tells it, French explorer Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville and his brother sailed into the Gulf of Mexico and set up camp on the west bank of the Mississippi river. The day was Mardi Gras, March 3, 1699, and the explorers celebrated with food and wine. The next day they traveled north and founded the site that became New Orleans. “So the celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans has been going on for over 300 years, and it is one day older then the city itself,” says Kern. The first formal parade was held in 1857.

When Kern returned from WWII in 1947, he converted six old trash wagons into covered wagons with teepees and horses for Mardi Gras. He made eleven floats that year and was paid $3000 for his efforts. He was hooked.

After a few years of building floats, Kern was approached by the Captain of the Krewe of Rex, a man by the name of Darwin Fenner, who would prove to be a very pivotal figure in Kern’s life. Fenner sent Kern to live in Europe, where he traveled to Spain, Italy, France and Austria, to learn the crafts of making diadems, tiaras, crowns, scepters, molds, colors and masks. Upon his return to the bayou Kern built a 16-foot tall gorilla that walked through the streets carrying a girl and snarling. This caught the attention of Walt Disney, who was visiting the area. Disney offered Kern a job and invited him to visit the Disney Studios in Hollywood. “Mr. Disney was a courtly Irishman,” recalls Kern. “He knew the first names of all the people who worked for him, he was a wonderful guy.”

Kern returned to Louisiana full of excitement about moving out to Hollywood, and then Fenner offered the second bit of guidance that would shape Kern’s career: “If you move to Hollywood you will be a little fish in a big pond, but if you stay in New Orleans you could be a big fish in a little pond.” Kern says, “So I built my dens in Algiers on the banks of the Mississippi, directly across from New Orleans. And 60 years later we are still doing work for Disney all over the world.”

The Party 

Perhaps the best way to begin to grasp the scope of the work done by Blaine Kern Studios is to look at their production facilities or “dens.” Each one is several thousand square feet, big enough to house 50 standard floats. There are 20 such dens around Algiers where 50 full-time prop builders and artists work year-round (the number of workers triples around Mardi Gras).

Exotic plywood is used for box construction, desking and armatures of the floats and props created at Blaine Kern Studios

A standard parade float is 30 feet long and 17 feet tall and can carry 50 people. Floats are typically built on 16-ton truck chassis and pulled by a tractor. “We use a lot of imported plywood just for the parades,” says Perelli. “It makes up the basic structure of the float box sides, plus we use a thicker ply for the decking. In the prop-shop we also use plywood to build the armatures for the big 3-D props and cutouts.” Each year Blaine Kern Studios does work for around 50 Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans and surrounding areas. Each parade has between 15 and 35 floats. Some are custom made each year for specific Krewes, (parade organizers); some are more general rental floats. In all, the studios produce around 500 parade floats a year and services most of the famous Krewes including, Bacchus, Endymion, Zulu and Harry Connick Jr.’s Krewe, Orpheus.

Perelli is the son of a prop artist and he has worked in the dens his entire life. The introduction of imported plywood into prop construction expanded the possibilities of float and prop design. Large three-dimensional props are carved out of Styrofoam and then framed with bendable plywood. “It used to be that you had to build a wooden armature and then basket-weave cardboard around the frame. It was very time consuming and heavy. Now we can build props that are twice the size and half the weight,” says Perelli. The props are spray painted to achieve the desired base color and the details are painted on by hand.

Although commissioned to do parades for the next four years, Blaine Kern Studios’ work goes far beyond floats. In addition to Disney, Kerns Studios does work for Universal Studios; including developing themes, props and parades for amusement parks that Universal is opening in Dubai, Shanghai and Singapore. They also do billboards and corporate projects, such as a 40- foot tall cow that sits atop the Atlanta stadium and does the “chop.” Just take a peek inside the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Or drive down the Las Vegas Strip and look at the giant M&M’s at M&M World and the colossal motorcycle mounted on top of the Harley-Davidson Cafe, and you’ll see some of that ol’ Kern magic.

The Hangover

Mark Oliver manages all the materials for the dens. He estimates that they go through about 100 sheets of plywood every two weeks. Considering the volume of work done by Blaine Kern Studios, this does not seem like enough material. That is because almost all the plywood used in construction is directly recycled into new projects. “Durability is something we look for in materials,” says Perelli. “We have some pieces that have been parading for 40 and 50 years.”

Traditionally, the festivities and indulgences of Mardi Gras are followed by forty days of fasting. The practice is supposed to cleanse followers in preparation for new beginnings. Mardi Gras floats undergo a similar process. When the partying and parades are over, floats are stripped of their decoration and repaired as necessary. The materials are painted white for a fresh start and then they are used to create something new. 

Copyright© 2009 by the International Wood Products Association. Published by Bedford Falls Communications, Inc. and circulated to an audience of 20,000 architects, designers, distributors, manufacturers, and users of imported wood products in North America.

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