At one point the family was unable to pay rent, and Blaine, along with his mother and three sisters, moved in with neighbors who were retired schoolteachers. Mr. Kern credited his time in their book-filled house, where he read H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and other authors, with awakening his imagination.
In the 1950s Mr. Kern, not long out of the Army, began building floats for Rex, the most prominent and well-funded Mardi Gras organization. Its captain, Darwin Fenner, paid for Mr. Kern to travel to Europe to study artistic techniques in Valencia, Spain; Viareggio, Italy; and other places known for parades and festivals. Upon his return, Mr. Kern incorporated the bright colors, large props and animatronics that forever changed the look of Mardi Gras.
By 1981, Mr. Kern’s company was turning out between 350 and 400 floats a year and had contracts to produce 30 of the 51 parades that rolled during the Mardi Gras season that year. Competitors soon emerged, but Mr. Kern retained market share. Ultimately, his son said, in the ’90s when the superkrewes accelerated their float rivalry, the cost of some Kern floats exceeded a million dollars.
He later expanded to theme parks, parades in other parts of the world and even Chick-fil-A billboards (his firm made the papier-mâché cows that adorned them).
In addition to his son Barry, Mr. Kern is survived by his wife, Holly Kern; two other sons, Blaine Jr. and Brian; two daughters, Thais Barr and Blainey Kern; 10 grandchildren; and one great-grandson.
Early in his career, the story goes, Mr. Kern was recruited by Walt Disney himself to work in California. He passed up the opportunity and chose to stay in his home city, where he instead became the “Walt Disney of Mardi Gras,” as The New York Times once proclaimed him. By his own account, it worked out pretty well.
“Life’s been good,” Mr. Kern told U.S. News and World Report in 1986. “I have met three or four Presidents, dozens of governors. I’ve been everywhere.”
“And,” he added, “I’m a float builder.”