If you set out to write a motion picture script about a man who uplifted himself and his community over a lifetime of achievement and adventure, you couldn’t find a better subject than Blaine Kern Sr.
Kern, who died Thursday at 93, modernized and democratized Carnival, and by doing so, he helped build New Orleans into a must-see destination for tourists.
They called him “Mr. Mardi Gras.”
"It would not be an exaggeration to declare Blaine Kern as one of the most significant individuals in the entire history of the celebration of Mardi Gras,” said Arthur Hardy, publisher of the definitive “Mardi Gras Guide.”
“You can’t mention ‘New Orleans’ without saying ‘Blaine Kern,’” said Clarence Becknell Sr., historian emeritus of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club.
Kern grew up poor in Algiers, the son of a sign painter.
He got his first break when Dr. Henry LaRocca, the captain of the Krewe of Alla, hired the 19-year old to decorate his krewe’s floats.
He founded Blaine Kern Artists Inc. in 1947 and within four years, he added the Rex organization to his list of clients.
Rex captain Darwin S. Fenner, recognizing his talent and seeking a way to grow Carnival, sent Kern to Italy, Spain, Germany and France to study art and learn float-building.
Carnival was never the same.
Kern helped launch the superkrewe era, with bold designs, celebrity monarchs and extravagant parties, rather than balls.
He came up with the name for Bacchus.
But he also made Carnival more inclusive.
"When I started out, if you were Jewish, Black, Irish, Italian, you couldn’t get in these clubs,” he said in 2018. “You had to be a WASP. It was crazy. It was a different world.”
And he built Carnival into a national event that brought the world to New Orleans. Before the superkrewe era, Carnival typically filled only half of the city’s hotel rooms. Today, there are a lot more hotels, and Carnival fills them all.
Kern leaves behind a well-regarded family business that is spreading New Orleans’ brand of Mardi Gras around the world.
Under the leadership of his son, Barry, Kern Studios expanded globally, building elaborate props and parades for such clients as Disney, Six Flags and Universal Studios.
Kern deserves a sendoff as big and bold and boisterous as he was. That may not be practical right now, but Mardi Gras 2021 is less than eight months away.