New Orleans – One family has been building floats for New Orleans’ annual Mardi Gras parade for four generations. Kern Studios is the oldest and largest creator of Mardi Gras floats in the city.
President and CEO Barry Kern said the celebration is in his blood.
“I don’t think there’s a production line in terms of floats and parades anywhere like what we do here. And I’m talking about anywhere on Earth,” Kern told CBS News contributor Jamie Wax.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is billed as the world’s biggest free party. And it comes each year with some spectacular party favors, the costumes, the beads. Most impressive of all are the floats.
The Kern family holds a key role in innovating and preserving Mardi Gras parade traditions. All of their elaborate creations are on public display at Mardi Gras World, a museum in New Orleans.
“New designs are already being made for next year’s carnival right now,” Kern said. “We’ve actually already started props for next year.”
For Kern, the business is all about family. His grandfather Roy started the business as a way to use his artistic talent to survive the Great Depression.
“You couldn’t make money during the depression being an artist,” Kern said. “So literally he became a sign writer, and he would paint signs on ships and freighters and tugboats and barges in the river. So he built a float on the back of a garbage wagon … in 1932.”
“And my dad Blaine Kern, who they now call Mr. Mardi Gras here in town, was a little boy and remembered always helping his dad to build out the parade.”
Mardi Gras is two months long and consists of over 50 parades. The celebration attracts hundreds of thousands of people to New Orleans every year.
The floats are paid for by members of “krewes,” organizations that are like fraternities or clubs, said Kern. There are about 60,000 members of these carnival organizations, said Kern.
For 44 years, Mardi Gras historian Arthur Hardy has published the definitive annual guide to carnival in New Orleans. He told Wax — over cafe brulot, or devil’s coffee, at the legendary Antoine’s Restaurant — that it’s all about the people.
“It’s the feeling. Everybody’s equal at Mardi Gras,” he said. “Doesn’t matter color, age. We all come together to have a good time. That’s what we do.”
According to Hardy, the floats came into the picture in 1857 — the first official Mardi Gras.
“We started out with one parade and two floats. Now we have over 60 parades and over 1,100 floats,” he said.
In the spirit of the celebration thrown for the people by the people, there’s one thing you’ll never see on a Mardi Gras float: an advertisement.
“It’s actually a law in New Orleans that you can’t have commercial signs or Pepsi on the side of a float. Can’t do it,” Hardy said.
To Kern — and everyone who was in the city at the time — there was one year in particular when the celebration was especially meaningful.
“When you literally have thousands of people die. Tens of thousands of people pulled out of their homes. No one was thinking about Mardi Gras,” he said. “So we knew that it was very very important to have those parades, for many reasons. I think that when we did it and it happened I think everybody understood why it needed to happen.”
As New Orleans continues to rebuild, and grow, one thing that weathers all storms is the spirit of the people that call it home.
“I think genetically encoded in our DNA,” Hardy said. “This is how we celebrate. It’s joyful. And, if other people don’t get it, that’s their problem. But we’re going to do it forever.”