Like many innovations in Carnival, the Mardi Gras Fountain on the New Orleans lakefront was the brainchild of Blaine Kern, who claims that the inspiration for the landmark came from his trip to Europe in the 1950s. The trip was sponsored by Darwin Fenner, the visionary Rex captain who hoped seeing Carnival abroad would inspire his young float builder.
“Everywhere I went in Europe during that trip, there was a fountain, with great sculptures and really beautiful works of art,” Kern recalls.
When he returned home full of ideas, Kern took his dream to another influential friend and patron, Orleans Levee Board President Gerald Gallinghouse, who convinced his fellow board members of the value of Kern’s vision.
With a budget of $42,000, Kern and the architects at Harry Grimball’s firm set to work designing the fountain, which included nearly 70 ceramic tile plaques, each about 2 feet tall, displaying the crests of the city’s Carnival krewes.
The fountain was dedicated on Sept. 16, 1962. Duplicates of some of the plaques also were installed at the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street, bringing a touch of Carnival to the hotel all year long.
The most important facet of any fountain is the water, and during its heyday, the Mardi Gras Fountain made a show of it, with dancing geysers shooting 30 feet high into the air, illuminated in shades of purple, green and gold. At night, the fountain was quite an attraction, and in the 1960s and ’70s, crowds flocked to the lakefront to enjoy the show.
Tour buses included the landmark on their trips around New Orleans. The 1970 movie “WUSA,” featuring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Anthony Perkins, filmed a scene in front of the Mardi Gras Fountain.
A few mischievous visitors occasionally tried to express their own creativity by tossing in boxes of detergent, which no doubt contributed to some of the mechanical problems that plagued the fountain in its later years. By the late 1990s, it was common to see the fountain’s water sitting stagnant.
In May 2005, however, the Orleans Levee Board cut the ribbon on $2.5 million in repairs to the fountain and the area surrounding it, unveiling new sidewalks and landscaping as well as an enhanced electrical and mechanical system for the fountain. The renovation also gave Kern and his artists a chance to replace some of the plaques that had been damaged and add plaques for krewes that weren’t around in 1962.
Hurricane Katrina damaged the fountain in August 2005 and altered the landscape. In September 2013, thanks to $1.3 million from FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers, the Orleans Levee District again refurbished all of the krewe plaques, added new ones, updated the fountain’s lighting system and upgraded its mechanical systems.
The Levee District also required that the fountain’s utility systems be placed over the levees, and not through them, as had been the case since 1962. The fountain now features an enhanced security system, presumably to keep out pranksters and their boxes of soap.