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A Long Road to Recovery

Mardi Gras? A Head-Scratcher

Blaine Kern's factory of float-making is back in business with a third of its staff. He says New Orleans' party will go on, but some doubt it.

October 12, 2005|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Blaine Kern Sr. is "Mr. Mardi Gras." The artist-turned-multimillionaire businessman, noted for about half a century of float building for the city's signature event, has even copyrighted the celebratory name. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that threatens to downscale, if not cancel, the parade, it's not clear how much the nickname will mean this year.

For years, Kern has charged camera-toting tourists up to $15 to enter his 75,000-square-foot riverside haven and warehouse where artisans design, build and paint about three-quarters of the Mardi Gras floats. The sprawling complex is like Kern's giant toy chest, stuffed with hundreds of carnival floats past and present -- including a life-size Col. Sanders and a 140-foot-long sea monster called Leviathan.

"Three hundred seventy-five thousand folks a year would pay me just to watch my people work," said Kern, 79, founder of Mardi Gras World Inc. in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. "And my God, look at their work. It's beautiful!

"Oh, I'm losing millions. Millions," said Kern, chairman of the company that his children now run.

His parking lot, once teeming with busloads of the curious, has been occupied by the National Guard for more than a month. Relief agencies are still using it as a staging area and as a place to distribute thousands of meals daily to hurricane victims.

But inside Kern's walls of corrugated metal, where a third of his 100 employees have returned to work, people are asking the same questions that abound outside about the world-famous Mardi Gras: Will the city hold the event? And if so, will it be a tepid imitation or the full-blown affair it always is?

The extravagant two weeks of parades and parties is scheduled to begin Feb. 17. Organizers and city officials have said the bead-throwing show will go on, though in a scaled-down form. But at this point, nobody really seems to know for certain.

"There's not going to be a Mardi Gras," said Buddy Dice, a master electrician who has worked for Kern for 37 years. "Everyone is trying to push it. [But] look what they did to the Sugar Bowl."

Dice was referring to the announcement last week that for the first time in its 72-history, the season-ending college football matchup will not be played in New Orleans. The Jan. 2 game has been shifted to Atlanta, mostly to ensure there will be enough hotel rooms for fans.

The 2006 Mardi Gras was supposed to be memorable as the 150th anniversary of the city's first formal parades, not as a bellwether for its resurrection. The raucous event, which culminates on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 28, has rarely been canceled, and then only in times of civil unrest or war. It last went dark during the Korean War.

The carnival normally draws more than a million people and generates more than $1 billion in business for the city. But this year, for Kern's employees, a Mardi Gras would simply mean money to repair their battered homes.

"I'm just glad to get back to work," said Tina McCrosky, an artist who had just put the finishing touches on a trio of genie bottles, each about the size of a blue post office mailbox. "It'd be a nice slice of home to see the world's greatest free parade again this year."

Kern, who has been a Mardi Gras float builder for about half a century, laughs off such uncertainties and pessimism. He's been dealing with it since he attended church the first Sunday after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

"I was besieged. 'Blaine, is there going to be a Mardi Gras? Blaine, is there going to be a Mardi Gras?' " recalled Kern. "It's going to be our coming-out party."

His main complex of warehouses escaped with relatively little damage compared with flooding that befell much of New Orleans. A 20-foot-high metal warehouse door was ripped from its hinges by the punishing winds and tore into a 45-foot witch float. Other floats, mostly made from plastic foam or papier-mache, sustained nicks and cuts as well. But all can be fixed, Kern said.

Some 40 floats in another warehouse in New Orleans were severely damaged when floodwaters rushed in, leaving most with a 6-foot-high water mark. But Kern said those too could be repaired.

"Heck, we might leave the water mark around one of them just for the publicity," he said.

And like the city, he had looters. They stole a hand truck and a welding machine, and tried to break into a soda machine. Eventually, one of his longtime workers who rode out the storm in the warehouse scared them off with a gun.

"They call us vigilantes," said Kern, a cartoonist for the military's Stars and Stripes newspaper during World War II. "I say, 'Forget it; if you come on my property,' " you're going to get shot.

Still, he acknowledges that with a reduced staff and a host of repair jobs ahead, he is running behind.

"Before the storm, we were three weeks ahead of schedule," said Kern, a seventh-generation resident of Algiers. "Now, I'm really not sure how far we are behind."

Since returning, his workers are averaging about eight floats a week, some the size of a picnic table, some as large as a small house. How many they ultimately need to complete before the big party may depend on how many of the usual 50 to 60 krewes -- the social organizations that pay for the floats -- will be able to participate. Some krewes have as many as 10 floats each in the parades.

So far, just over a dozen have committed to it. Kern asserts again the parade will go on, but admits it won't be up to the standards of previous years.

But Charles Bendzans, a prop painter for the last 15 years with Kern, isn't worried about the big party.

"If Blaine has to go out there and push the floats himself, there will be a Mardi Gras," Bendzans said as he painted a 10-foot-long Greek ship. "It's New Orleans; it's what we do."

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