They say in New Orleans it’s Mardi Gras all year round, and that’s definitely true in Mardi Gras World. This is where they make the giant sculptures that go on the floats in the Mardi Gras parades, and it’s a full-time job.
Mardi Gras World is hidden away behind the New Orleans Convention Center, and approaching from the Center you walk past industrial buildings and across a railroad track towards a huge, anonymous-looking, windowless building.
Step inside, though, and it’s like entering a fantasy world, a hallucinogenic universe where there are ducks the size of elephants, giant Elvis Presleys, huge ants standing next to elves, malevolent-looking jesters rubbing shoulders with a beaming Louis Armstrong.
You can get a glimpse of the fantasy world just by going into the Mardi Gras World gift shop, but it’s here you can also buy tickets for a behind-the-scenes tour which takes you through the workshops to see the artists at work on their phantasmagorical creations.
The tour begins with a chance for kids – and big kids – to dress up in Mardi Gras costumes and have their photo taken. Four people side by side looked disconcertingly like the Beatles in their Sergeant Pepper costumes. You then watch a lengthy and informative film about the history of Mardi Gras, its parades and costumes, and of the company behind Mardi Gras World.
Blaine Kern Studios has been making props and floats for Mardi Gras and other parades around the world since 1947, and after the film is over a guide takes you through the doors and into the workshops where all their fabulous creations are produced. And like many such places, what goes on behind the scenes manages to be both magical and mundane.
Every model, from pirates to panthers, begins as an artist’s sketch, which is then handed over to the technicians who have to turn the fantasy into reality. They use the most ordinary materials – Styrofoam and papier mâché. First a computer-generated scale model is produced, so the artist can see what the end result is meant to be like. Then from this the full-size model is built up from Styrofoam, either as one large piece or from parts glued together. Then the model is coated in papier mâché for ease of painting. Add a few licks of paint, and there you have it: a zebra, a mermaid, King Tutankhamun or a parrot.
Although the tour is guided, you can linger as long as you like, watching or talking to the artists at work, then wandering through the vast warehouse where the creations are stored. As we walk out past a bull, a dragon, a giraffe, some Roman chariots and a larger-than-life model of the band Kiss, going back out through the doors confirms that the real world is mundane by comparison, even New Orleans.
Visit the website of Mardi Gras World
All photos (c) Donna Dailey