Float builder Blaine Kern’s death last week, at 93, brought to mind the story of a former Rex Captain, Darwin Fanner, who in 1956 hired the 29-year-old Kern to build the Rex parade. Kern had been building the ALLA parade in Algiers. Getting the Rex gig was like suddenly being recruited to perform on Broadway. Fenner (who is remembered as a seminal figure in the evolution of the Rex organization) also arranged for Kern to go to Europe to study float design. One of the most prominent festivals was in the Tuscan town known for its Carnevale Di Viareggio. The big moving heads on floats, some with blinking eyes, such as Rex’s jester, reflect the Villareggio influence.
One Sunday afternoon, having arrived on a train from Florence, I got to experience the town that Kern had talked about so often.
Viareggio was not what I had imagined it to be. I had envisioned a quaint Italian village, sort of like the place where Geppetto constructed Pinocchio; instead it is a busy seaside resort. By the time we got there it was late afternoon, so the station platforms were filled with beach-goers, mostly kids, heading home.
We, on the other hand, headed toward the beach. The walk was about ten blocks through the old part of town that architecturally looked at lot like the French Quarter with a similar mix of cafes and gift shops. I wasn’t prepared for the waterfront, which I had envisioned to be like a small Italian beach with grainy sand and a few ice cream vendors along the road. Instead, it was more like Miami’s South Beach. Hundreds of people were strolling along the main boulevard. Others were in lounge chairs on the sand as the sun began its descent into the Mediterranean. There was the expected bustle of restaurants and shops plus one peculiar statue, that of a clown wearing checkered pants his arms outspread as though grasping for the world. He is known as Burlamacco and he is the symbol of the Viareggio carnival. From his beachfront perch Burlamacco can see the parades as they roll along the boulevard.
Viareggio’s carnival began in 1873. That is the year after Rex was founded in New Orleans. Several other urban carnivals were founded such as in Memphis, or enhanced, such as in Mobile, around that same time, so clearly carnivals were an 1870s tool for economic development. Was Viareggio influenced by New Orleans? I suspect so, here’s why. There is a common denominator between New Orleans, Viareggio and other American and European cities that developed carnivals in the 1870s. That influence came down the track. The 1860s was a period on growth in passenger railroads. (The Italian railroad connecting the Alps to Sicily, was created in 1861; in America, Abraham Lincoln signed the bill allowing the first transcontinental railroad in 1862.) As railroads expanded passengers needed more reasons to get on board. Carnivals became a thing to see, a reason to travel. It would have been very likely for planners in Viareggio to hear about the new Rex parade that had started in New Orleans so as to make attract more visitors.
So, in the end New Orleans and Viareggio influenced each other. For Blaine Ken, a young man from Algiers, it was in the expressiveness of the floats that impressed him. Both towns may have learned from each other and are richer for it.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.