Float builder Blaine Kern is walking through the den of the Krewe of Alla, showing off some of the floats the club will parade on the streets of Algiers and Gretna this year. He sounds like a father talking about his children.
CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH
“That one’s ‘Cinderella.’ They still have flowers and gold leaf to put on these. That’s ‘Marco Polo,’ and that one’s ‘King Kong,’ and this one’s ‘Beauty And The Beast,’ and this is ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” Kern says.
This year’s theme is “Alla’s Silver Jubilee,” commemorating the krewe’s 75th anniversary. It also marks another milestone: this parade will mark the end of Kern’s 50-year reign as the captain of Alla, and he says this year’s floats represent his favorite Alla parade themes over the years.
This Algiers native has made a fortune building Mardi Gras floats and exporting his art and Carnival to other parts of the country and world. Alla is the krewe that gave him his start in the business.
“This is my baby. And I wanted to build it up,” he says.
In 1933, Kern says his father, Roy Kern, a well-known Algiers artist and sign painter, decorated Alla’s very first float, which the krewe rented from one of the old-line Carnival clubs.
Kern says he was 19 when he really got involved with Alla – he had painted a mural in a hospital to help pay his mother’s medical bills. That mural caught the eye of Alla’s captain, Dr. Henry LaRocca, who asked Kern to design and paint Alla’s next parade. With the help of his father and sister, Kern put together Alla’s parade in 1947. It was so successful that Kern got offers to work on other parades.
Alla, circa 1937, paraded on water as well as on land.
His next big career break came when he was in his 20s. The then-captain of the Krewe of Rex, Darwin Fenner, took an interest in Kern’s work, and asked him to paint the Rex parade. But Fenner wanted a more colorful, creative parade than he had seen, so he paid for Kern to go to Europe and learn from some of the masters in Italy, France, Spain, Germany and Austria.
In Italy, Kern says, “They built floats five or six stories tall – all animated.” Throughout Europe, he adds, “I saw these incredible artisans and I learned how they made molds. They used beautiful, brilliant colors, and they used different glues and different finishes. I came back and I started training and I started doing animation. Then everyone wanted my services.”
The man who would become known as “Mr. Mardi Gras” says, “That was the making of Blaine Kern.”
Blaine Kern and his predecessor, Dr. Henry LaRocca.
Dr. LaRocca continued to be a huge influence on Kern. “I idolized him. I loved him like a daddy. And boy, was he a character. He was a big, old Italian guy and he smoked triangular cigars.”
Kern took over as Alla’s captain in 1957 when LaRocca died. Kern says he wanted to be like LaRocca, that he was always so impressed with the way LaRocca would march out with such majesty at Alla’s Mardi Gras balls when the captain was announced.
“I remember him as Jean Lafitte. He’d march out with a sword like a pirate, and I wanted to imitate him,” Kern says. “So I used to come out dancing and all kinds of crazy stuff. I’ve been doing that for 50 years now.”
Kern’s high energy, wild arm waving, high stepping dance across the ballroom at Alla’s balls – sometimes in 50 pounds of flamboyant costume and headgear with feathers – has become a trademark of his style.
It’s not the prettiest dance you’ll ever see, but it does cause people to wonder aloud “how can anyone in his late 70s have so much stamina and energy – especially after heart bypass surgery a little over eight years ago?”
His doctors say Kern’s lucky to be alive after suffering from a heart attack on his way into open-heart surgery.
“His heart stopped,” says Kern’s cardiologist, Dr. David Hutchinson. “A tube was put down into his airway, and a machine was connected to breathe for him, and his blood was being circulated by this cardio-pulmonary bypass machine.”
“Oh my goodness, it was horrible!” says Pixie Naquin, the woman Kern credits for helping him grow and run his float-building firm.
King Kong’s 1960 debut in the Municipal Auditorium
Everything seemed fine when Naquin, the executive vice president of Kern Studios, left him at West Jefferson Medical Center that day. Then, she says, “I got a call on the way back to the office saying he died, basically, and I rushed back. He wasn’t breathing on his own for half an hour. They worked on him and they got him back.”
Did doctors actually bring Kern back to life after he died?
“What’s your definition of death?” Dr. Hutchinson asks. “His heart stopped and he was resuscitated on the cardio-pulmonary machine, and grafts were made as planned previous to that.”
The surgeons wound up making seven grafts to bypass the arteries that were blocked or in danger of being blocked.
That wasn’t the end of the ordeal – especially for those close to Kern.
“They told us he might not be ‘normal,’” Naquin says.
“They [the surgeons] were trying to prepare everyone for the worst,” Dr. Hutchinson says. Because they didn’t know how much, if any, brain or heart damage Kern suffered.
“We went back to him in the ICU and he still had his hair piece on,” Naquin says. “And he was just talking like normal, asking ‘How’re you doing?’ He was Blaine!”
“He suffered just a small amount of damage to his heart,” Dr. Hutchinson says.
Kern says the episode impaired his memory, “But I could call every woman I met ‘darlin’’ and I call every guy I meet ‘son.’”
Naquin laughs and says his memory is not any worse at all, “His memory was always terrible!” she says.
“You know, it was the prayers at work,” Kern says. “So many people prayed for me. It made me feel small in a way – all the attention – I didn’t feel worthy. But I felt wonderful about it,” he adds. “It was a very humbling experience.”
Numerous highlights punctuate Kern’s 50 years as Captain of Alla. The biggest came in 1959, when he fell in love with that year’s queen of Alla, Geraldine Fitzgerald. “She was beautiful. She was about 19 years old at the time. I was just 29 or 30,” Kern says. “I remember when I went out with her, the very first date she gave me a gold toothpick.”
Geraldine Fitzgerald became Kern’s second wife. “She was blonde, [had] blue eyes, very fair skin, [was] slightly built.” He says she was “very quiet, completely the opposite of myself.” Kern says they were married for 16 years and had two sons and a daughter: Barry, Brian and Blainey. Kern already had a son and a daughter, Blaine Jr. and Thais, from his first marriage.
STEPS forward before stepping back
In 1960, Alla brought a 19-foot-tall animated King Kong figure to one of its balls at the Municipal Auditorium. It took five people inside the framework to operate a series of controls that caused its eyes, arms, head and eyebrows to move. The huge figure lurched around the auditorium opening its mouth and belching clouds of smoke.
Walt Disney was impressed. Disney put the King Kong figure in his “Wonderful World of Color” TV show on NBC. Disney offered Kern a job in California, but Kern says he decided to stay in his hometown and build his future here.
Alla was among the first to have animation on its floats.
“Since I was the captain, I experimented,” Kern says. His experimenting caused Alla to have a number of firsts among Carnival clubs. According to Kern, Alla was the first to have double-decker floats, the first to throw cups, the first to have steps built into the back of each float so members wouldn’t have to use ladders to climb on board and the first to have portable toilets.
Alla stands for Algiers, La. Since the name sounds like it comes from a different part of the world, Kern and his krewe decided in 1978 that instead of a King and a Queen, they should have a Maharajah and a Maharanee. It was partly an effort to bring fresh ideas and new members into the club.
Over its history, Alla has flourished. What began 75 years ago as a parade with 40 guys walking behind one float, has evolved into one of the largest daytime parades in Carnival with 30 floats, dozens of marching groups and more than 500 members.
Kern has seen three and four generations of some families parade with Alla: “I’ve seen the little girls that were my queens grow up. Their granddaughters are my queens now.” He says some krewe members sign up their daughters to be in the court when they’re born – he has Maharanees lined up through the year 2020.
One thing that makes Kern feel proud is that Alla was among the first to bring blacks into the krewe. “He worked hard at that,” Appeals court judge Edwin Lombard says of Kern. Lombard, who is black, says he paraded first with Endymion and then with Alla in the late 1970s, years before city councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor pushed to integrate Mardi Gras in the early ‘90s. “He was committed to trying to make Carnival for everybody,” Lombard says.
Over the years, Kern has reached out to famous entertainers to parade with Alla. Helen Reddy, Irma Thomas, Fats Domino, Doug Kershaw, Mickey Gilley, Ray Price, Mac Davis and Frogman Henry are among the notables who have taken part.
Kern gets a bit more reflective as he thinks back over his career and his work with Alla. “I thought I was prostituting my art when I was young,” Kern says. “I won every art contest I was ever in.” At times he thought he should have devoted himself to his artwork, maybe tried to emulate some of the great artists. Now, he says he realizes his creativity makes a lot of people happy.
“Every time I ride out in front of the parades everybody’s grinning and laughing. And they’re yelling, ‘Hey Blaine! Mr. Mardi Gras! We love you Blaine!’ Hey man, if I can bring happiness to millions of people every year … maybe my work will never be in a museum, but gee whiz, that’s not shabby. That’s important. I love that.”
Nevertheless, how is he going to feel now stepping down as Alla’s Captain?
RUNNING ON IDLE
“I don’t know how I’m going to handle it being the Captain emeritus. But I’m going to be on the board [of directors,]” Kern says.
“Everybody in the Mardi Gras community thinks he’s joshing with this thing,” says incoming captain John Beninate. Beninate says Kern’s “influence has been everything. He’s the world master when it comes to float design and float building. And it has benefited Alla quite a bit.”
The business Kern began almost 60 years ago has become more than just a multi-million dollar empire – Kern Studios has become arguably the biggest and best float builder in the world.
The company builds the vast majority of floats that parade through the streets of New Orleans each year for Mardi Gras. It puts on parades and celebrations in Houma and Lafayette, in Orlando, Tampa and Key West, Fla., in Las Vegas, Nev., and other U.S. cities. The firm builds floats and decorative figures for such corporate clients as Coca-Cola, and Captain Morgan. It also puts on parades and celebrations in parts of Europe and Asia.
“We have parades running in theme parks every day in Japan,” says Kern’s son, Barry, the president and CEO of Kern Studios. “There’s a park called Everland owned by the Samsung family in Korea. We have floats there running every day.”
The younger Kern says the company also does parades in France, outfitted the last two presidential inaugural parades in Washington, D.C., and is now being asked to do interior design for hotels and other projects. “I think people have a sense we’re doing some things outside of New Orleans,” Barry Kern says. “But I don’t think they have any idea how much.”
At a time when some parts of the New Orleans economy are struggling to survive after Katrina, he says Kern Studios is making a strong comeback. “The whole world is turning to entertainment, so there are a lot of different opportunities. This business will continue to grow and get as big as we want it to be.”
But right now, Blaine Kern, the founder and chairman of his company, wants to focus on giving back, especially to the community that has given him so much: Algiers.
“I came up as a poor boy, and I became a wealthy man.”
He says his near-death experience changed him, made him more concerned about people around him and his community. “What I want to do is build this [Old Algiers area] into a model community with parks, beautiful homes and recreation.”
He’s already gotten city approval to build a development along the Mississippi River in Algiers, which Kern hopes will one day include hundreds of condos and apartments, a food and wine museum, a Mardi Gras ballroom with huge windows and a cruise ship terminal.
Barry Kern says his dad’s idea of retiring from Captain of Alla and the general public’s idea of retiring are two different things.
“Blaine’s energy level at idle is much higher than other people when they’re at full throttle.”
“I love being ‘Mr. Mardi Gras,’” Kern says. “But I want to be shown as the person who loved this community and wanted to give back. Because I’ve learned the money doesn’t mean doodly hell. It really doesn’t.”
Dennis Woltering is the Eyewitness News anchor and a reporter for WWL-TV, Channel 4.