Get your fix of eyeball kicks
Parades are streamed live by NOLA.com’s Parade Cam and WWL-TV. Also, in any given year, local TV stations (WWL, WDSU and WVUE) might provide live coverage of events like the Endymion Samedi Gras Festival, the Zulu Lundi Gras Festival and the arrivals of Rex and Zulu along the Mississippi River on Lundi Gras (Fat Monday). Action on Bourbon Street is streamed continuously from a camera at The Cat’s Meow, at the corner of St. Peter Street. New Orleans PBS affiliate WYES can always be counted on to present (on air and online) an abundance of Mardi Gras programming (details below). If you can’t tune in live, generous helpings of on-demand Carnival fare are accessible on the stations’ websites and YouTube pages. WWL, WDSU and WVUE begin wall-to-wall live coverage of Fat Tuesday festivities before sunrise. The Guardians of the Groove, WWOZ, offers a feast of music and cultural programming (on air at 90.7 FM and streaming live), as well as via its website and YouTube page. In addition, “OZ” offers community event listings, podcasts, cultural news and a calendar of live music performances, while also occasionally presenting live event broadcasts and video streams. Stream Mardi Gras episodes, with interview segments and extensive playlists, from the archive of the American Routes radio program. And dive into the many permutations of the constantly evolving celebration with the Mardi Gras Beyond the Beads podcast, co-hosted by New Orleans Magazine editor in chief Errol Laborde and Rich Collins. Also noteworthy:
Blaine Kern: They Call him Mr. Mardi Gras
This highly anticipated documentary, written, produced and narrated by former WWL-TV anchor Dennis Woltering, tells the colorful story of the Walt Disney of New Orleans — Blaine Kern, a seminal figure in the history of Mardi Gras. It premieres on WYES on Monday, February 7 at 8 pm and repeats Sunday, February 13 at 10 am; Monday, February 14 at 9 pm; Saturday, February 19 at 7pm; Saturday, February 26 at 10 pm; and Sunday, February 27 at 3:30 pm
From humble beginnings, Kern founded, in 1947, what would become the country’s largest float-building business. Blaine Kern Artists, Inc. transformed Mardi Gras — essentially, a seasonal ritual for locals back in the day — into an internationally recognized, mass-entertainment spectacle that has witnessed tremendous growth in the number or parades, media coverage, tourist interest and economic impact. Kern died in 2020, at age 93.
Broadening avenues of participation in Mardi Gras parades, once mostly exclusive affairs presided over by an entrenched elite, is one of his most enduring legacies. He developed a fleet of rental floats that made possible the formation of upstart krewes catering to people of relatively modest means and who didn’t necessarily have social credentials.
Adept at straddling tradition and innovation, Kern maintained high artistic standards for the prestigious, old-line Rex krewe while continuously creating bigger and more elaborate floats, with fiber-optic lighting and other razzle-dazzle — and capable of carrying massive quantities of throws — for non-traditional “superkrewes” such as Endymion, Bacchus, Orpheus and Muses. Infusing the festivities with a showbiz flair, he wooed celebrities to participate in parades and set the stage for post-parade “extravaganzas” featuring big-name entertainment.
His influence extended well beyond New Orleans, as his family business successfully exported the “Kern style” of thematic décor and parade and special-event production into a variety of contexts — theme parks, casinos, hotels and retail environments. Much to his delight, in New Orleans and beyond, Kern became known as Mr. Mardi Gras, a moniker few would deny he earned.
Rex Sesquicentennial on NOLA.com
Following on the heels of its multi-part Mardi Gras for All Y’all presentation (see below), the online hub affiliated with The Times-Picayune and The Advocate continues its foray into long-form programming showcasing the best of New Orleans and Mardi Gras. Beginning on Monday, February 14 and running through Friday the 18th, NOLA.com presents a five-part documentary series celebrating the Rex Organization’s 150th anniversary.
Rex is the oldest krewe still parading and has quite a story to tell. When it debuted in 1872, only nighttime float parades — the Twelfth Night Revelers and the Mistick Krewe of Comus — were on the street. The business and civic leaders who conceived of Rex (“king” in Latin) wanted to bring order and organization to daytime Mardi Gras festivities and boost tourism to New Orleans, which was struggling to regain its mojo in the wake of the Civil War. The organization incorporated as the School of Design, reflecting a focus on education and art, and chose as its motto Pro Bono Publico (for the public good).
The Rex krewe quickly became the unifying centerpiece of the celebration, with its monarch (also known as Rex) chosen for having distinguished himself professionally and through civic leadership and philanthropy. Krewe leaders chose his debutante consort based in part on her father’s prominence and her family’s connections to past Carnival royalty. They came to be recognized King and Queen of Carnival, reigning over the grand celebration.
Today, no other krewe is so closely associated with notable symbols and traditions of New Orleans Carnival. Rex’s official proclamation gives him nominal control over the city for a day and invites his subjects to partake in the revelry. The crown is emblematic of Rex, and his royal colors of purple, green and gold are to this day the colors of Mardi Gras. A song played at the first Rex parade, “If Ever I Cease to Love,” remains a Carnival anthem. Rex on his throne float topped by a large gold crown, along with other permanent floats such as the Boeuf Gras (“fattened ox”) and King’s Jesters, as well as the Rex lieutenants — horsemen costumed in capes and masked headpieces topped with distinctive plumes, all in the traditional Marid Gras colors — are among most iconic sights in Carnival.
Rex epitomizes a “traditional” Mardi Gras parade, comprised mostly of small-scale floats built anew every year atop wagon-wheel chassis, liberally decorated with three-dimensional papier mâché flowers embellished with gold leaf and depicting themes rich in references to mythology, history, geography and the arts. Floats in the 2022 parade, entitled “School of Design Sesquicentennial,” will depict glories from past Rex parades pay homage to esteemed designers such as Charles Briton, Bror Wikstrom and Ceneilla Bower Alexander. In honor of its Sesquicentennial, the krewe will introduce a new permanent float, Symbolism of Colors 1892, recalling the Wikstrom-designed parade that assigned meaning to purple (justice), green (faith) and gold (power).
Carnival Close-Up with Peggy Scott Laborde
WYES’ Peggy Scott Laborde presents weekly online vignettes on the station’s YouTube andFacebook pages highlighting treasures from her collection of Mardi Gras memorabilia. Items such as postcards, krewe favors and some trinkets hidden inside king cake, besides being highly collectable, offer insights into the history and traditions of Carnival as well as the historical roots and iconographies of individual krewes.
The custom of bestowing favors as gifts to ball or reception guests began in the early 1880s, typically in exchange for a dance – a custom known as a call-out. Intricately crafted, limited-edition favors such as pins, pendants and badges, many emblazoned with the krewe’s initials, were originally made in Germany. Laborde’s collection also includes more practical items such as a pin cushion from 1906, a tiny jewelry box from 1907 and a letter opener from 1910, all of which were given out by the Rex Organization.
Postcards depicting Mardi Gras on Canal Street offer clues into changing the dress and costuming habits of parade-goers. A rare postcard shared by Laborde shows King Zulu on his float after having arrived on a tugboat at the now filled-in New Basin Canal.
The plastic babies found in today’s king cakes, Laborde explains, recall an ancient custom. In France, the fava bean, or fève, came to represent the Christ child and connected the king cake tradition with Feast of the Epiphany, marking the revelation of Christ’s divinity to the three gift-bearing Magi on Twelfth Night. The beans eventually gave way to using porcelain figurines, a practice adopted by some New Orleans bakeries — much to the delight of die-hard Carnivalistas such as Laborde.
More Mardi Gras on WYES
As the pre-Lenten season of frivolity kicks into gear, Steppin’ Out, WYES’ weekly program on New Orleans arts and entertainment stokes the Mardi Gras spirit with commentary, interviews and previews about what’s noteworthy and new. Its annual “It’s Carnival Time” edition, hosted by Peggy Scott Laborde along with Carnival historians Arthur Hardy and Errol Laborde, airs on Thursday, February 10 at 7:30 pm and repeats on Saturday, February 19th at 11:30 pm. On-demand episodes of Steppin’ Out are available via WYES’ YouTube page.
WYES is also the go-to outlet for an impressive parade of in-house and independently produced documentaries illuminating Mardi Gras in all its permutations. Its one-hour program New Orleans Parades of the Past, hosted by Peggy Scott Laborde and produced by Dominic Massa, includes rare home movies and archival footage and is available on-demand on YouTube.
On Saturday, February 19, WYES presents a Mardi Gras Marathon beginning at 3 pm. The lineup includes Big Chiefs of Carnival, All on a Mardi Gras Day and Mardi Gras Floats from the Ground Up. Check out the complete schedule here.
WYES presents the 2022 Rex Ball and the Meeting of the Courts of Rex and the Mistick Krewe of Comus on Mardi Gras, March 1, at 7 pm, with a repeat showing at 11:30 pm. The program also streams live on the WYES’ YouTube and Facebook pages.
Executive Producer and host Peggy Scott Laborde will interview current and past royalty and provide commentary, along with Carnival historian Errol Laborde and Rex historian Will French. This will be the 25th year that WYES has presented the proceedings, which return after a one-year hiatus due to the pandemic. Expect all the fanfare surrounding the Rex Organization celebrating its 150th anniversary to be front and center.
The Meeting of the Courts began in 1882 when the court of Rex paid a visit to the court of Comus at the French Opera House. The ornate proceedings culminate in a blaze of glittering scepters and other finery, as Rex and Comus escort each other’s queens in a grand march around the ballroom.
This ambitious online presentation, intended for a global audience, showcases the rich multicultural gumbo of Louisiana, New Orleans and Mardi Gras. Although venturing at times into straight-on tourism promotion, it effectively dispels the canard about Mardi Gras essentially being an expression of bacchanalian exhibitionism and excess. Instead it reveals an inclusive, multifaceted gala that is not only (with a few exceptions) family friendly but also fosters civic engagement among diverse communities, in a collective enterprise encompassing virtually every art form.
Barry Kern, president and CEO of Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World and Kern Studios, and John Georges, proprietor of NOLA.com, joined forces to create the online spectacular after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused the cancellation of parades in 2021. Last year’s marathon production, comprising three episodes, featured 90 individual segments, including 51 features and 20 performances. Choice historical and contemporary photographs, combined with video footage of parades and phenomena such as Mardi Gras Indians, also known as Black Masking Indians, captured the sensory magic of Mardi Gras in stunning fashion.
Groups featured in the 2022 edition include Zulu, the Northside Skull and Bone Gang, Mystic Krewe of Barkus, Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indians and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band All-Stars. A segment on the Rex Organization and its 150th anniversary highlights the krewe’s artistic and public-service legacy. The 2021 Mardi Gras house-float eruption, in which New Orleanians costumed their homes as an antidote to losing parades to the pandemic, also gets its due. Additional feature subjects include Mardi Gras in Jefferson Parish, Tremé’s Petit Jazz Museum and the National World War II Museum, as well as eateries such as Tableau, Café du Monde, Sucré and Sno-la, known for its sno-ball treats featuring Mardi Gras and New Orleans flavors such as King Cake and Bananas Foster. As lagniappe, Chef Devan Giddix, chef de cuisine at Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House, demonstrates how to make Bourbon Barbecue Shrimp and Grits with andouille sausage.
The episode concludes with a tribute to the late Blaine Kern, the larger-than-life impresario celebrated for adding pizzazz to, and democratizing participation in, parades, as well as for transforming Mardi Gras into an economic juggernaut and cultural export.
Mardi Gras for All Y’all 2021