Through a series of events in October " culminating in a grandiose costume exposé party at Mardi Gras World on Halloween night " Kern and his board of directors hope to raise money for the First Responders Fund housing initiative. All events are sponsored and hosted by the Krewe of Boo in conjunction with the French Quarter Business Association and the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Organization.
Kern founded the FRF earlier this year in response to the need for housing among first responders in the city's police department, fire department and emergency medical services. While throwing a fundraising party for a young Algiers policeman who was paralyzed after being shot in the line of duty last year, Kern realized that more than 60 percent of area police officers and firefighters were not yet back in the homes they lost to Katrina.
'I couldn't believe that," Kern says. 'We're losing the police because they don't want to stay on the force. We don't pay them enough, and now they don't even have homes. The chief of police is operating out of a trailer."
Realizing how dire the situation was inspired Kern to do something about it. 'The only way I know how to make money is to have parties and do sculptures and events," he says. 'So I said, "You know what, Halloween's a big time here in New Orleans and getting bigger. I'm going to form a Krewe of Boo, something I can throw a monster parade on like I do with Endymion or Bacchus and roll into the convention center or something.' So I got into it and I got some friends of mine together and formed the board of directors."
The first Krewe of Boo parade won't roll until 2008 because of a short planning schedule this year, but Kern says he already has ideas for the next Halloween season, including the creation of a monster more than two stories high. He is determined to garner national attention for the celebratory cause.
This year's fundraising events include what will become the annual Krewe of Boo Soiree, a black-tie ball for members and sponsors to kick off the Halloween season and publicly announce the king and queen for coronation; a Haunted Fun House at Mardi Gras World; a costume contest and live auction of exclusive Carl Mack costumes; a weeklong Toast to First Responders at participating French Quarter establishments; and the closing Halloween Costume Exposé party at Mardi Gras World.
'The Krewe of Boo is Blaine's brainchild," says Lindsay Brigham, director of the First Responders Fund. 'This is something that he could always do. He's been doing a Halloween parade for Universal Studios since the mid-'90s and he has wanted to bring something like this to New Orleans for a long time. He's combined it as a way for the city to engage in fundraising activities for first responders and as another event for the city to celebrate. It's a win-win. We're helping first responders and at the same time providing another economic [benefit] to the city."
The focus this year is to recruit members and get the krewe established, she says. Because the krewe's committee decided it needs a year to create the parade and make floats, this year's Halloween festivities will serve as a preview of the krewe's character, members and mission.
Approximately 35 percent of first responders are still living in temporary housing, so Brigham says the mission now is to help them find a home. 'We thought we could help out most efficiently in the housing arena because a few members of the board have a distinct development history or background and we knew that was a very problematic area within the department(s)," she says.
Kern, who has been part of putting on Mardi Gras for 62 years, feels strongly about helping first responders because he knows Carnival could not take place without police, firefighters and paramedics on site, Brigham says. The FRF's goal is to offer first responders benefits, such as providing housing at reduced rates, that are more competitive with other municipalities as incentives for officers to stay in the region. Brigham says that with the assistance of directors from NOPD, NOFD and NOEMS, the FRF will help with recruiting and retention problems within the New Orleans area. The fund's goal for 2008 is to issue 30 grants to personnel with three or more years of experience with one of the three agencies. The grants, which would range from $30,000 to $50,000, would be used to renovate an existing home or purchase a new home in Orleans parish. In exchange for the grant, officers would commit to stay on the force five more years.
To aid in the recruitment of new officers, the FRF is asking some of the largest apartment owners in the area to donate 1 percent of their total units for rental at a discounted rate to new NOPD, NOFD or NOEMS personnel. The fund is targeting Orleans parish because that's where the board of directors has identified the greatest need, Brigham says. In the future, it hopes to branch out to neighboring parishes that are still struggling as well.
The response to the krewe has been phenomenal so far and more than 250 people have joined already, Brigham says. The group's goal is to have 300 members by the end of the year. Membership is open to the public, there is no waiting list and there are various ways to join or volunteer, she says.
All events are designed specifically with fundraising in mind, with a large percentage of all proceeds going directly to the FRF. Blain Kern's Haunted Fun House, a family-friendly event running throughout October at Mardi Gras World, will donate $2 of every $12 ticket sold to the FRF, plus 100 percent of the registration fees for the costume contest will go to the housing initiative. The costume contest, which is open to the public, will take place in front of the Supreme Court steps in the 400 block of Royal Street Oct. 27 and will be held runway style with a red carpet, an MC and celebrity judges. In addition to the costume contest, a live auction will be held for four original Halloween costumes created by Broadway production and costuming designer Carl Mack. All proceeds will be donated to the FRF.
The Toast to First Responders, a Krewe of Boo in-the-French Quarter series running from Oct. 25 to Oct. 31, will promote a signature Krewe of Boo drink and Krewe of Boo menu in participating establishments. Each location will invent its own Krewe of Boo specials, with 20 percent of all drink and 10 percent of all food proceeds going to the FRF. Glazer's Companies, a local liquor distributor, has agreed to sell alcohol wholesale to participating locations at reduced rates to encourage restaurants and bars to take part in the event.
Tickets to the Halloween Exposé will be sold at a nominal rate of $65 per person so that first responders and their family and friends will be able to attend, Kern says. This year John Goodman, a longtime friend of Kern's, will be dressed as Lestat and will serve as king of the Krewe of Boo. Kern says he hopes to persuade Ellen DeGeneres to portray Marie Laveau and reign as queen.
'I told John (Goodman) to strong-arm her any way he could," Kern chuckles. In addition to Goodman, local entertainers and musicians including Allen Toussaint, Bag of Donuts, Russell Batiste of the Funky Meters, Deacon John and Zulu's South African dancers African Footprint will be part of the Halloween night fun.
'I'm going to throw a party like you don't believe," Kern says. 'I want the Krewe of Boo to be an institution in a way that we can make money for first responders. That's the bottom line, help these guys. Can you believe today, this day, two years and counting past Katrina, the superintendent of police is not back in his office yet? Something's wrong with this picture, so we're going to try to do something to help them."
For information on Krewe of Boo membership and events, visit www.kreweofboo.org