Heart of the Quarter - Heartbeat of Mardi Gras

January 30, 2013
As most of you know, "Heart of the Quarter" is all about the faces that make this neighborhood the experience of a lifetime for locals and tourists alike. So when choosing my "Heart of the Quarter" this issue, I decided to step outside of my slice of heaven and find a face that represents the city as a whole. After all, we are moving into a season where our entire city comes together for what some call the greatest free party on Earth. And what better face to highlight than that of Mardi Gras itself: Barry Kern.

The grandson of a sign painter, Barry Kern represents what hard work and dedication to a craft can result in. Traveling to Europe after graduation from Tulane University, Kern studied new and creative artistic techniques and concepts with the intent of bringing that valued education home to New Orleans. While abroad, his work contributed to the opening of Disneyland Paris. Returning home to run the family business, Barry, took the helm of the family company and watched it blossom into one of the largest float building companies in the world, producing and building floats for Universal Studios in Orlando, Philadelphia and Miami Beach's Thanksgiving Day parades, and Carnival celebrations in France, Japan, and Korea. The year 2009 marked a banner year for Kern as he collaborated with Joe Jaeger to open Mardi Gras World East on the New Orleans riverfront. The facility holds not only large dens for building and creating the floats that line the streets during Mardi Gras, but also venues with ballrooms, riverfront plazas, and the Grand Oaks Mansion encompassing 4,000 square feet of premier entertainment space. Mardi Gras World has transformed into the most family friendly attraction in New Orleans offering free shuttle transportation to the facility and the Mardi Gras Cafe, a place to grab a bite to eat with an amazing view of the river. Walk among the floats and the props that make Mardi Gras the event of a life time, and get a back stage pass to what it takes to be a part of the a celebration that defines a city and a culture.

Kern Studio's Barry Kern is without a doubt, one of the busiest men in the Big Easy these days, so I was more than flattered when he agreed to sit down and answer a few questions about Mardi Gras, the Super Bowl, and the man behind the biggest free party on the planet.

R.T.: You are in charge of one of the most brand recognizable companies in New Orleans. What's it like to be the man behind the label that represents Mardi Gras to New Orleans, and the world?

B.K.: Blaine Kern Artists and Mardi Gras World represent a number of people and decades of artistic tradition dating back to my grandfather.

I grew up in this business and have fond memories of helping out in the prop shop where the floats and props that bring Mardi Gras to life are made. When we were children, my brother and I would hook the pulleys to our belt loops, hoist each other in the air, and fly around just like Peter Pan - this has always been a magical place to me, and I want it to stay that way. Now anyone who visits New Orleans can take a tour and experience that magic firsthand. They can watch our artists at work and learn about our rich Mardi Gras traditions.

I take my role as president and CEO of Blaine Kern Artists and Mardi Gras World very seriously. As they say, "Mardi Gras is the greatest free show on earth," and the eyes of the world look to us each year during Carnival. My team and I work tirelessly to make sure we don't disappoint. Making Mardi Gras is a huge endeavor, one that keeps us busy year-round. In fact, we're already planning for 2014. Literally, the day after Mardi Gras, we're back to work and the process gets started almost immediately.

In addition to New Orleans' Mardi Gras, we've grown the company to become the world's leading maker of floats and props. And we do it all right here in New Orleans!

We have also expanded Mardi Gras World to become one of the city's premier venues. We host everything from corporate events and concerts with tens of thousands of people, to intimate weddings and fundraisers. Our location on the East Bank just behind the Morial Convention Center is quite unique. We offer spectacular views of the River, the magic of Mardi Gras, a Grand Mansion, and a ballroom with state-of-the-art technology.

R.T.: With this year being the Year of Super Gras ... what new floats can we expect to see? New designs? And what makes this Mardi Gras SUPER?

B.K.: This year's Mardi Gras has been dubbed "Super Gras," because the NFL Super Bowl is being held in New Orleans amidst the Carnival season. The festivities are expected to break attendance records, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the globe.

I'm honored to have been named a co-chair of the Super Bowl Host Committee's Events and Hospitality Committee. Mardi Gras World is set to host a number of spectacular events, including the NFL's Friday night party and the Super Bowl media party. In addition, Mardi Gras World and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center are hosting DIRECTV's Seventh Annual Celebrity Beach Bowl where A-list celebrities and star athletes will play football over a million pounds of freshly poured sand! The DIRECTV Celebrity Beach Bowl, which is free and open to the public, has become the must-attend event of Super Bowl weekend attracting thousands of spectators to see.

As for Mardi Gras, this is sure to be one of the greatest ever. We're thrilled to unveil the largest, most extravagant float in Mardi Gras history. The float, titled "Pontchartrain Beach, Then and Now" measures over 365 feet in length and can hold more than 230 riders. It will make its debut in this year's Krewe of Endymion parade on the Saturday prior to Fat Tuesday, February 9, 2013.

The float was designed and constructed by Blaine Kern Studios, and more planning went into it than any ever before. This is the most technologically advanced float. Using fiber optics, and lights, it changes from the way Pontchartrain Beach looked in the old days to the way it would look if it was around today.

R.T.: Discuss Mardi Gras world as a venue. What can we expect from hosting a party or event at your facility?
B.K.: Mardi Gras World is a festive maze of music, light, color, and magic. Our various spaces give guests the latitude to celebrate events of all kinds in places where every event is one-of-a-kind.

With its state-of-the-magic LED lighting and high-definition, surround sound system, the 33,000 square-foot River City Ballroom is New Orleans' premier setting, whether you're hosting a formal, black tie evening, or a rock-and-roll throw down.

One of my favorite spaces is the Grand Oaks Mansion, New Orleans' only indoor antebellum mansion replica. Scarlett O'Hara would feel right at home with the brick walkways, moss-draped oaks, starry night sky, and winding waterway.

We also offer the River City Plaza, the Float Den, and several other venues for rentals.

R.T.: How does Mardi Gras fit into the booming tourist economy of New Orleans?

B.K.: As has been demonstrated by the many phenomenal awards and rankings New Orleans has received lately, it's clear that we are a premier tourist destination. We offer visitors unparalleled experiences, and that's why people keep coming back for more. Mardi Gras is a big part of that.

The city is already in celebration mode as the official kick-off of Carnival was January 6, the Day of the Epiphany. New Orleans area hotels typically report sold-out numbers, and crowds are estimated to reach approximately one million as revelers line the streets for the two weeks of parades leading up to Mardi Gras day. A recent study conducted by Tulane University estimated the direct economic impact of Mardi Gras at roughly $144 million. Some studies estimate the economic impact at more than $500 million. I bet we're going to see a banner year during 2013's Super Gras!

R.T.: I couldn't have said it better myself. Except for maybe, Happy Mardi Gras New Orleans!!!!