They’re in their mid-40s now and have been icons in the Bacchus parade since the 1970s. A new look and new surroundings might be just the thing King and Mama Kong need.
This year, the Krewe of Bacchus is giving it to them – in a big way. It is Bacchus, after all, and doing it "big" has been their way for 50 years now.
When Bacchus presents its 50th anniversary parade on Feb. 11, krewe captain Clark Brennan and float builder Barry Kern promise a spectacular new float bearing huge figures of all three members of the Kong family: King Kong, who first appeared in the parade in 1972; Mama Kong, who joined him in 1973, and not-so-little Baby Kong, who was born in 1982.
The new Kong family, three-unit tandem float will feature high-tech lighting, animation, sound and special effects, with the three giant primates making their new home in a tropical setting, inspired by the recent movie “Kong: Skull Island.”
They’ll be joined in the parade by a new, state of the art signature float: the Bacchaneer, a huge, four-section pirate ship whose name is a typical Bacchus-style play on the word buccaneer. It will also feature state of the art technology, special effects, smoke, advanced lighting and artistic features that make it look more like something you’d see in the Gulf of Mexico rather than rolling down St. Charles Avenue.
Bacchus debuts new floats
“There’s going to be animation on a level that has never been on floats here in New Orleans for Mardi Gras,” said Barry Kern, CEO and President of Kern Studios. “We’ve had some animated floats through the years, but this is basically animatronics on some of these huge figures, which is very, very cool. That’s combined with lighting, smoke and special effects with sound that are going to make it a lot of fun.”
As Bacchus prepares for its 50th anniversary parade, its mission is the same as when its founding fathers chartered the krewe in 1968: put on a one-of-a-kind parade. That includes a celebrity monarch (actor J.K. Simmons is this year's) and supersized floats, many of which feature images and figures that have become Carnival icons, like the Bacchasaurus, the Bacchawhoppa, Bacchagator, the Kongs and even the King’s float.
Brennan, whose father Owen “Pip” Brennan Jr. was the club’s founding captain, said the krewe’s 50th anniversary this year prompted talk of some bold new ideas for a new signature float, to commemorate the birthday. “We’ve been talking about doing a Kong float for a couple of years, but we said for the 50th, let’s come out with a bang,” Brennan said. “The traditional Kongs that came out in the 1970s, they were great and innovative and exciting. We wanted to combine that feel into one float as well as the Bacchaneer. We always wanted to do a float like that, because pirates are so popular, everybody loves pirates. If you go to Walt Disney World, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is one of the most popular, so that sort of led us in that direction.”
With one month to go until the parade, the finishing touches are being put on both floats at the Bacchus float den, with work supervised by the artists of Kern Studios, who have built Bacchus since the beginning. “With the 50th anniversary this year, the captain said, ‘We’ve always wanted to be in the forefront of Carnival, what can we do?’ And so we’ve done some things that I think will be firsts in terms of what you’ve seen on floats,” Kern said.
A high-tech tool that is helping Kern’s artists turn out bigger and more elaborate floats each year is Pixie, a robot that can carve Styrofoam, wood, clay, stone or even metal for floats within one millimeter of accuracy. Though her work is seen on Kern figures and floats used around the world by corporate clients including Disney and Universal Studios, this is only the second Carnival season where New Orleans paradegoers will see Pixie’s work on the streets. “It’s an amazing tool because what it’s allowing us to do is to put more production through our shops, get better detail and frankly we’re doing things that we would otherwise not be able to do if Pixie weren’t available to us,” Kern said. The robot is named for Jerelyn “Pixie” Hall Naquin, a beloved, longtime employee of Kern Studios.
In addition to working on the Bacchaneer and Kong floats, Pixie and the Kern artists have also renovated a chariot float for Bacchus’ parade, which was originally built for use by Drew Brees when he reigned as Bacchus in 2010, just one week after the Saints’ historic first Super Bowl win. “When Drew Brees rode as Bacchus, we created this float for him,” Barry Kern said. “This year that float has been totally revamped as a Roman chariot with gladiators and it’s got these great leopards that are pulling this huge chariot with two huge gladiators with animated heads.”
As for the Kongs, Kern said his father, legendary artist and float builder Blaine Kern, first created a King Kong float for the Krewe of Alla in the 1950s. He brought it to Bacchus soon after it was founded. The figure even drew the attention of Walt Disney, who featured it on his television program and famously tried to hire Kern away to work for his studios. It was the Rex captain at the time, Darwin Fenner, who advised Kern against leaving, saying he could be a big fish in a smaller pond here in New Orleans, just as Carnival was about to undergo changes that would make it into an even bigger and better-known celebration. Kern went on to create a multi-million dollar float building empire here in his hometown.
Kern’s vivid imagination didn’t just mean there was a King Kong figure in the Bacchus parade for a few of those early years. He also had a young blonde (the sister of Pixie Naquin) impersonate “King Kong” movie actress and scream queen Fay Wray by riding in Kong’s hand during the parade. “But the animated arm went up and down and poor Sandy got seasick in his hand going through the crowds,” Barry Kern laughed.
Since making their debut more than 40 years ago, the figures of King and Mama Kong have rolled through the parade without any riders. It has been a tradition among many parade-goers (frowned upon by some) to throw beads at the towering figures. This year, Kern says that should change, first for the safety of the float riders, and second because there’s so much to look at on the float itself. “This year I can tell you that float is a show in itself and there’s going to be a lot of beads being thrown off of those floats and there’s no reason for anybody to throw anything back.”
As for the familiar Kong figures who made their debut in the 1970s, they will now live at Mardi Gras World to greet visitors getting a behind the scenes glimpse of Carnival under construction. Brennan said that since the previous Kong figures on wheels didn’t hold any riders (except for Baby Kong), the new Kong family float has also allowed the club to admit a few new riders, bringing its membership closer to 1,500. But more than adding members, the new floats are about enhancing the show for the crowds.
“How can we change and push the limit and get some new technology, lighting, sound, movement, that sort of thing. We want the wow factor,” Brennan said.
WWL-TV will provide exclusive coverage of the Bacchus parade, from the post-parade Rendezvous ball held at the Morial Convention Center, at 10 p.m.on Sunday, Feb. 11.