Blaine Kern Sr. is "Mr. Mardi Gras." The artist turned multimillionaire businessman, noted for his 50 years of building floats for the city's signature event, has even copyrighted the celebratory name. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the parade is in jeopardy, and it's not clear how much the nickname will mean this year.
For years, Kern has charged camera-toting tourists as much as $15 to enter his 75,000-square-foot riverside haven and warehouse, where artisans design, build and paint about three-quarters of the Mardi Gras floats. The sprawling complex is like Kern's giant toy chest, stuffed with hundreds of carnival floats past and present -- including a life-size Col. Sanders and a 140-foot-long sea monster called Leviathan.
"Three hundred seventy-five thousand folks a year would pay me just to watch my people work," said Kern, 79, founder of Mardi Gras World Inc. in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. "And my God, look at their work. It's beautiful!
"Oh, I'm losing millions. Millions," said Kern, chairman of the company that his children now run.
His parking lot, once teeming with busloads of the curious, has been occupied by the National Guard for more than a month. Relief agencies are still using it as a staging area and as a place to distribute thousands of meals daily to hurricane victims.
But people inside Kern's walls of corrugated metal, where a third of his 100 employees have returned to work, are asking the same questions as those outside about the world-famous Mardi Gras: Will the city hold the event? And if so, will it be a tepid imitation or the full-blown affair of years past?
The extravagant festival, two weeks of parades and parties, is scheduled to begin Feb. 17. Organizers and city officials have said the bead-throwing show will go on, though in a scaled-down form. But at this point, nobody really seems to know for certain.
"There's not going to be a Mardi Gras," said Buddy Dice, a master electrician who has worked for Kern for 37 years. "Everyone is trying to push it. [But] look what they did to the Sugar Bowl."
Dice was referring to the announcement last week that for the first time in its 72-year history, the season-ending college football matchup will not be played in New Orleans. The Jan. 2 game has been shifted to Atlanta, mostly to ensure that there will be enough hotel rooms for fans.
The 2006 Mardi Gras was supposed to be memorable as the 150th anniversary of the city's first formal parades, not as a bellwether for its resurrection. The raucous event, which culminates on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 28, has rarely been canceled, and then only in times of civil unrest or war. It was last shut down during the Korean War.
The carnival normally draws more than a million people and generates more than $1 billion in business for the city. But this year, for Kern's employees, a Mardi Gras would simply mean money to repair their battered homes.
"I'm just glad to get back to work," said Tina McCrosky, an artist who had just put the finishing touches on a trio of genie bottles, each about the size of a blue post office mailbox. "It'd be a nice slice of home to see the world's greatest free parade again this year."
Kern acknowledges that with a reduced staff and a host of repair jobs ahead, he is running behind.
Since returning, his workers are averaging about eight floats a week, some the size of a picnic table, some as large as a small house. How many they ultimately need to complete before the big party may depend on how many of the usual 50 to 60 krewes -- the social organizations that pay for the floats -- will be able to participate. Some krewes have as many as 10 floats in the parades.
So far, about a dozen have committed to it. Kern asserts again that the parade will go on, although he concedes it won't be up to the standards of previous years.
But Charles Bendzans, a prop painter with Kern for the last 15 years, isn't worried about the big party.
"If Blaine has to go out there and push the floats himself, there will be a Mardi Gras," Bendzans said as he painted a 10-foot-long Greek ship. "It's New Orleans; it's what we do."
Mardi Gras World took a hit from Katrina, but about a third of the 100 employees have been able to return to work.
Blaine Kern has been making Mardi Gras floats for about 50 years. He insists the 2006 parade will go on, although he concedes it might be small.