Fifty years ago, the Krewe of Bacchus was given birth by two fathers: restaurateur Owen “Pip” Brennan Jr., the parade’s founding captain, and Blaine Kern, the float-building visionary.

The Brennan and Kern families still shape Bacchus. Clark Brennan, who succeeded his father as captain, now builds the parade with Blaine’s son Barry, who runs Kern Studios.

Thus, three days before Bacchus Sunday, Clark Brennan and Barry Kern were wedged behind the imposing figure of King Kong aboard the parade’s new Baccha-Kong superfloat, parked inside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. They huddled with the float’s lieutenant, Jay Timon, assuring him that Kong’s menacing roar wouldn’t overwhelm his riders.

The fierce new animatronic Kong is part of an effort to ensure that this parade which reinvigorated Mardi Gras five decades ago doesn’t itself stagnate.

“It was time to get a facelift,” said Clark Brennan, 53. “The Kongs, as they were, were complete works of art in the '70s when they came about. They served a great purpose. But there was a demand for upgrading them.”

For Sunday’s 50th anniversary parade, Bacchus upgraded more than Kong. From floats to throws to marching bands, Bacchus will have a golden anniversary swagger worthy of the god of wine.

The organization invested a total of $1.2 million in Baccha-Kong and a new, even larger multiple-unit superfloat, a pirate ship dubbed the Bacchaneer. It boasts such eye-popping features as a large LED video screen for a sail.

For all its newfangled flash, the Bacchaneer also speaks to the intimate family history that was and is at the heart of Bacchus.

Growing up, Clark Brennan recalled, many Bacchus discussions — about parade themes, costumes, celebrity monarchs, etc. — took place around the family dinner table on Coliseum Street. Now those conversations take place at his house in Pass Christian, Mississippi, where his father, now an 83-year-old widower, also lives.

“He’s still sharp as a tack,” Clark said. “He’s a great shoulder to lean on.”

But in the run-up to Sunday’s parade, Clark kept one secret from his father: that the Bacchaneer would bear the name Miss Barbara, in honor of Pip’s wife and Clark’s mother, Barbara, who died in 2016.

As art director, she was intimately involved in the parade. Her family likely always will be.

Promoting tourism

In a sense, Bacchus grew out of a desire to sell more bananas Foster.

Pip Brennan wanted more customers for his French Quarter restaurant, Brennan’s, where the popular dessert originated. He believed Mardi Gras could become a boom time for tourism.

In the 1960s, it wasn’t. Not even half of the city’s 6,000 hotel rooms at the time were typically filled for Mardi Gras week.

“People today have no clue what it was like 40 or 50 years ago,” Clark Brennan said. “Fifty years ago, Mardi Gras wasn’t huge. Bacchus changed that. My dad was in the tourism business. You need asses in (restaurant) chairs and heads in (hotel) beds. Their main focus when they started Bacchus was to improve tourism.”

The tourists who did come to town back then couldn’t ride in parades or go to balls. The old-line krewes were closed to those who weren’t born into them.

Pip Brennan envisioned a flashier, more inclusive parade that threw lots of stuff and was ruled by a celebrity monarch, not a scion of society.

His original name for this parade? The Merry Men of Sherwood.

Fortunately, costume designer Larry Youngblood directed Brennan to Blaine Kern. Kern suggested another name: Bacchus.

In the late 1940s, Blaine’s father Roy Kern and Pip’s father, Brennan’s restaurant founder Owen Brennan Sr., staged re-creations of the Krewe of Alla’s ball for tourists. They called the ball Bacchus.

Pip liked “Bacchus” better than “Merry Men of Sherwood.”

The Bacchus organization was formed in 1968; its first parade rolled in 1969, with entertainer Danny Kaye as the celebrity king.

A fertile time

The late 1960s were a fertile time for Carnival. Endymion, now the largest men's parade with more than 3,000 members, debuted in 1967. Both the potty humor-loving Krewe of Tucks, launched by Loyola University students and named for the Uptown bar Friar Tucks, and the gay Krewe of Armeinius mark their 50th anniversaries this year.

But it was Bacchus that breathed fresh life into Mardi Gras. To Arthur Hardy, publisher of the definitive Mardi Gras Guide, Bacchus “is clearly the most innovative and most imitated Mardi Gras krewe founded in the 20th century.”

Bacchus and Endymion began to engage in an arms race, encouraged by Blaine Kern, to produce more expensive and elaborate floats. For Bacchus, that meant such signature floats as the Bacchawhoppa whale, the Bacchasaurus dinosaur and the Bacchagator alligator.

“They are iconic,” Clark Brennan said. “When children see a whale or an alligator or a dinosaur coming down the street, it blows their mind.”


The chariot atop the Krewe of Bacchus' Chariot float was  previously used by Saints quarterback Drew Brees when he reigned as the Bacchus king in 2010. The float has been remodeled for the 50th anniversary Bacchus parade, but still uses the Brees chariot, which dates to the early years of the krewe. The float was photographed at the New Orleans Convention Center in New Orleans, La. Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018.

Along the way, the Brennan and Kern families grew close. “As long as I’ve got a memory, I remember Uncle Blaine being around,” Clark said. “Hunting and fishing together, taking trips together. He was always full of energy, bigger than life.

“Barry and I, we all grew up together as kids, running around at parties and all over the floats. That was our playground.”

Blaine Kern pushed the post-parade Bacchus Rendezvous to be the antithesis of the formal Carnival ball. Bacchus floats rolled right into the Rivergate, the now-demolished downtown convention hall, just as they will roll into the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on Sunday night for this year’s Rendezvous.

Endymion founder Ed Muniz attended an early Bacchus Rendezvous at the Rivergate. He came away inspired to create the Endymion Extravaganza in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, with such headliners as Kiss, Luke Bryan and this year’s Rod Stewart.

“People always compare Bacchus to Endymion,” Clark Brennan said. “Endymion does what they do, and they do a phenomenal job. They put on a concert that a parade goes through. But that’s not what we do. We do about 9,000 people in the Convention Center, and we have a great party.”

'Golden' concepts

This year’s theme is “Bacchus Celebrates Its Golden Anniversary.” Floats will illustrate “golden” concepts: Golden Gloves, the James Bond film “Goldfinger,” goldfish, the Golden Calf, the California gold rush, etc.

Bacchus riders have a well-earned reputation for generosity. They spent $2 million on throws this year, said George Schiaffino, the Bacchus board member in charge of merchandise.

Most floats carry customized throws, many of which were conceived by the riders themselves. The Golden Gloves float will hand out regulation boxing gloves. The Baccha-Kong carries foam footballs shaped like Kong’s face. The hospitality industry heavyweights aboard the Bacchatality float, including Emeril Lagasse, will toss spatulas, ice tongs and hot pot holders.

The special 50th anniversary throws include plush pillows reproducing doubloon designs from the past 50 years. A new doubloon is shaped like a miniature gold bar. Fidget spinners spell out “Hail Bacchus” in red light when spun. There are throwback purple beads with green cornucopias, which were considered super-fancy when Bacchus threw them in the '80s.

White plastic buckets brimming with 250,000 golden doubloons for the pages crowd the deck of the king’s float like pirate treasure. This year’s king, J.K. Simmons, will have 70,000 red doubloons bearing his likeness.


Page doubloons for 50th anniversary Krewe of Bacchus parade are seen in bucket's aboard the king's float at the New Orleans Convention Center in New Orleans, La. Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018.

A colorful lineage

Simmons is the latest in a colorful and diverse lineage of Bacchus monarchs.

In the 1970s, Bob Hope, Jim Nabors, Jackie Gleason, Glen Campbell, Ron Howard, Henry Winkler and Ed McMahon reigned.

The '80s brought Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, William Shatner, Billy Crystal and John Ritter to town. The '90s featured Dick Clark, Tom Arnold, Drew Carey and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

In the 2000s it was Larry King, Nicolas Cage, Michael Keaton and Hulk Hogan. Will Ferrell ruled in 2012. Harry Connick Jr. took a turn before he formed his own parade, Orpheus.

Back in the day, Pip Brennan would recruit celebrities who dined at Brennan’s.

“Things were a lot easier back then,” Clark Brennan said. “There wasn’t the paparazzi, there wasn’t the huge entourage, there wasn’t all these levels of people to get to the celebrity.”

The krewe covers the king’s expenses but doesn’t pay him a fee. Krewe officials often work back channel connections to contact celebrities directly.

They also tap into the network of past kings. Character actor G.W. Bailey, who reigned in 2013, helped recruit his pal J.K. Simmons.

Bailey and at least three other past kings — Jim Caviezel, Anthony Mackie and Andy Garcia — will ride again this year in honor of Bacchus’ 50th anniversary. Mackie’s son is also a page.

“It’s a great testament to Bacchus, that they would want to come back on their own dime,” Brennan said. “As captain, that makes me feel good. That means they had a great time.”

Some have had a greater time than others.

The late “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini tried to wrest his throne from its moorings. The king float’s P.A. system was secretly turned off after Elijah Wood’s banter got a little too colorful. Dennis Quaid’s white tights were stained red after he bloodied his knees in a tumble.

Simmons, in an interview before his Friday arrival in New Orleans, predicted he wouldn’t be as rowdy as some of his predecessors: “I think I'm going to be very disappointing. My rowdy days are pretty much behind me.”

'What comes next?'

Bacchus is old enough to have a sense of history. Simmons will ascend the same staircase and sit on the same throne that every previous monarch except Drew Brees used.

For the Saints quarterback’s 2010 ride, the krewe refurbished a mothballed chariot dating to the very first Bacchus parade and mounted it atop a float large enough to accommodate the entire Saints offensive line. The treads of the chariot’s wheels were decorated with the logos of every NFL team the Saints beat during that Super Bowl season.

That chariot, still bearing the vanquished teams’ logos, tops the lavishly renovated Chariot float, newly spruced up with leopards and animatronic gladiators.

(Technically, Brees did ride atop the traditional Bacchus king’s float, but not in Bacchus: The krewe lent it to the Saints for the team’s Super Bowl victory party.)


This portion of Chariot float of the 50th anniversary Krewe of Bacchus parade was used by Drew Brees when he reigned as Bacchus. It was photographed at the New Orleans Convention Center in New Orleans, La. Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018.

The BacchaAmore float is once again populated by a group of riders from Atlanta. Ken Smith, a Bacchus charter member, has ridden with Baby Kong ever since that float started hosting human riders several years ago. Smith and his now-expanded crew will staff the Baby Kong section of the Baccha-Kong superfloat.

History and tradition aside, Brennan is not averse to innovation. He wants Bacchus to remain as vibrant as the krewes that have sprung up in its wake.

“What comes next? What is out there that will keep Bacchus fresh, new and attractive to the guests in the streets? We have to push that envelope, technology-wise. Whatever it might be, we’ll start adding that to our floats as well.”

The addition of Baccha-Kong and Bacchaneer has allowed Bacchus to accommodate another 100 riders from its wait list, bringing total membership up to 1,500.

“We are not looking to expand any more,” Brennan said. “I do not expect to go any higher.”

Instead, his focus is on improving the experience for current members, putting on a great show for spectators, and living up to his father’s legacy.

“To fill the shoes of a great man and a great organization, there’s a lot of pressure on me personally to maintain the quality and the high expectations of the Krewe of Bacchus,” he said.

“We’re trying to put on a great show. That really hasn’t changed. My dad has taught me well.”

Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.

Keith Spera writes about music, culture and his kids.