There are a few rare souls who, by their very essence, define this city. Those who – in their exaggeration, aggrandizement, ostentation and unequivocal embrace of a life in full – are physical manifestations of this pinwheel of a city that proudly defies convention, refutes the mundane, talks too much, laughs too loud, lives too large, etc.
People so over the top that, in other places, they might even be institutionalized for their nonsensical lifestyles, irrational visions and inconceivable fantasies.
Al Copeland comes to mind. He of neon race cars, super speedboats, yacht parties, wild weddings and a Christmas light display so bright that the Federal Aviation Administration once had to intervene because pilots flying into New Orleans were confused about what was the airport and what was his roof.
Not making this up.
Copeland founded Popeyes Fried Chicken, spread the gospel of Louisiana spice around the world and – in a city besotted by notions of royalty – will be forever remembered as the Chicken King.
How cool is that?
There’s only one other guy that matched – even outmatched – Copeland’s extremes, enthusiasms and influence on our culture. That would be Blaine Kern.
Whereas Copeland died at the unfair age of 64 in 2008, Kern passed last Thursday, at the over-ripe age of 93. And whereas Copeland changed the way we eat, Kern changed the way we actually exist. At least, as far as New Orleans goes: Our identity, energy and atmosphere. And not to be overlooked – our economy.
He put the annual New Orleans’ Carnival celebration on the world map. On the international bucket list. He made a difference. Because of his artistry and marketing savvy, his expansive vision of pageantry and inclusiveness, he was known around the world as Mr. Mardi Gras.
How much cooler is that?
Like Copeland, Kern was born poor but proud. A self-proclaimed “9th generation Algerine,” he followed his father’s footsteps into the world of commercial art. The dad was a sign painter. The son painted the city.
As a kid, Kern was disinterested in school but a voracious reader. He consumed H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and other fantasists. “I dream in Technicolor,” he once said. “I went to the moon before Sputnik.”
Indeed. He drew crazy pictures of wild tableaux. He traveled across Europe, learning from illustrators, float masters and paper maiche artists in Italy, France, Germany and Spain. He opened Kern Studios in 1947. And everything changed. Mardi Gras was off to the races, with Blaine Kern riding in the saddle.
He created the signature floats for Rex, Bacchus, Endymion, Zulu, Muses, Orpheus and on and on. The Bacchasaurus and King Kong: Blaine Kern. The Muses shoe: Blaine Kern. The Orpheus Leviathan, Zulu’s Mr. Big Shot, Endymion’s fiber optics, on and on: Blaine Kern. He designed the Wonder Wall for the 1984 Louisiana Exposition, aka, the World’s Fair.
He had spectacular visions and dreams, some of them fantastically failed. He engineered the gondola over the Mississippi River in 1984, a fantastical piece of transport machinery the likes of which have never been seen before or since. Well, maybe Jules Verne before.
He designed much of the Six Flags Jazzland park in New Orleans East. He once partnered with Donald Trump for a development on the West Bank – where he was from and where his business was based.
Needless to say, it flopped.
Restlessly creative, once he had left his indelible stamp on Mardi Gras, he created the Krewe of Boo, New Orleans annual Halloween parade and downtown celebration. He created installations for Disney properties around the country and theme parks around the world.
“Let’s face it honey, the only way I know how to make money is to throw a party,” he once told a colleague of mine at the Times-Picayune.
He often claimed, “I bring happiness to millions of people every year,” and it would be hard to dispute. Said Errol Laborde, the publisher of this blog and New Orleans Magazine – and a noted Carnival historian in his own right: “He’s a combination of Michelangelo and P.T. Barnum.”
Where else would somebody like that come from?
After his passing last week, Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued a statement that said Kern was “an iconic part of what makes New Orleans magical. What Mardi Gras is today, what our city is today, owes much to him and his imagination, his larger-than-life personality, and his relentless creativity.”
WDSU called him the “Monarch of Modern Merriment.”
Like Copeland, Kern married four times. As most crazy creatives tend to do. Too exotic not to be drawn to, too exotic to stay with. The life of mad geniuses.
Dude was crazy. Crazy cool, crazy fun. The Technicolor, nonagenarian Peter Pan who transformed and writ large his kaleidoscopic dreams into your favorite parades, the memories of your youth, the spirit of Carnival, the identity of this city.
Said his obituary in the Times-Picayune: “What Popeyes kingpin Al Copeland was to chicken, Kern was to Carnival: a brash, shameless character who came from nothing, launched an unconventional Big Easy empire, and lived unapologetically large and loud as a result.”
No one ever mistook his house for an airport, but Blaine Kern’s lights will forever burn bright in this city’s character, legacy, life and history.