The late float builder Blaine Kern Sr. was officially Mr. Mardi Gras, but Arthur Hardy also has a legitimate claim to the title.

Forty-eight years ago, he launched Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide, a colorful compendium of Carnival history, trivia, parade routes and schedules.

Along the way he wrote hundreds of articles and thousands of words on Mardi Gras traditions, people and history, and has long been regarded as an expert in the city's signature celebration.

Last year, Hardy sold the Mardi Gras Guide to Georges Media, owner of The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com. As part of the deal, the 77-year-old Hardy will continue to oversee the content at least through the guide’s 50th anniversary in 2026.

The following interview with Hardy, edited for length and clarity, is from an upcoming episode of “Let’s Talk with Keith Spera” on WLAE-TV.

What’s up with the dancing heads at the Rex/Comus ball?

I don’t get to go to the Comus side, because I’m always at the Rex side. It’s a throwback to traditions from a long time ago. Just fun. A different way to celebrate. Mardi Gras is the same and different every year.

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Mardi Gras Guide founder Arthur Hardy and other judges select Greg Kata as the winner of the 52nd annual Greasing of the Poles at the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. (Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Are the Rex and Comus folks aware of what a social media sensation it is to watch and comment on their ball?

They track the traffic, very definitely. There’s a worldwide audience for WYES’s telecast.

It’s one of the special things about Mardi Gras. It’s the same, and yet they innovate; each year is a little different. We’re doing the same thing now they did in the 1870s. To me, there’s a charm to that. It’s part of our culture. It’s what we do.

At the time you started the guide, you were the band director at Brother Martin High School. What prompted you to take on a huge project like the Mardi Gras Guide?

My wife and I were both Catholic high school teachers. We were looking for a way to augment our income.

My first brilliant idea was to do something I knew a lot about — a guide to the barrooms of New Orleans. It had never been done.

We did a lot of research, taking pictures, interviewing people, maps, but how are we going to finance this thing? The archdiocese credit union had loans available, but I didn’t know if they’d finance an alcohol-driven publications. So what else is there a need for?

I used to work at WSMB radio when I was in college in 1965. Each year during Mardi Gras, people would call, “What can you tell me about tonight’s parades?”

If you wanted to know what was happening tonight, you got the morning newspaper. If you wanted to know what’s happening next week, you waited until next week.

TV Guide laid out a week’s worth of viewing. Why not a Mardi Gras guide? That was the concept — everything you need to know in one place in advance of the season.

Simple concept, not simple to execute or sell. It was pretty much a disaster financially. But we were more stubborn than smart and stuck with it. It was not an overnight success.

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Arthur Hardy, left, and Peggy Scott Laborde get ready to roll with the Phunny Phorty Phellows before their annual streetcar ride to usher in Carnival on 12th Night at the Willow Street streetcar barn in New Orleans, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. The Phellows are a historic Mardi Gras organization that first took to the streets in 1878 and ceased parading in 1898. The group was revived in 1981. They were known for their satirical parades and today's krewe members costumes often reflect topical themes. One Carnival historian has referred to the PPP as the "Dessert of Carnival." (Staff Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)

How many years until you broke even?

I think five. We did 5,000 copies the first year. Sold 1,500 and burned the rest. In 1978, we printed 5,000 and sold them all, so I’m a genius. The next year, I printed 10,000 copies … and the police strike (shut down Mardi Gras).

By the 10th year, we went to a magazine format instead of the digest size, and started taking ads. It took some time. Publishing is not a business for the faint of heart.

Were you always a student of Mardi Gras?

Not really. I loved it as a kid. As a student musician, I’d marched in parades since 1958, then as a high school band director. So I knew more than the average guy, but probably did not know nearly enough to publish a magazine. Thankfully nobody asked me the hard questions until I did learn the answers.

Do you regret burning those unsold copies of the very first Mardi Gras Guide?

Do I ever! I’ve seen them go for more than $100 to people trying to complete their collections.

Rex originated doubloons in 1960. For a while, they weren’t generating as much excitement. Maybe now there’s a resurgence?

Yes, there is thanks to these cut-out doubloons. Which in my mind are not doubloons, but the doubloon collectors swear that they are. They can be (shaped like) a fleur de lis, a shrimp boot, sunglasses, anything you want it to be. They are interesting. If collectors want to say they’re doubloons, that’s fine.

The hot items now are anything with the krewe’s name on it. People become jaded — they don’t want plain beads. And the signature throws. People go up to floats, “I want one of those and one of those.” They think they’re at Walmart.

I’m happy to see that environmentally friendly throws have become more popular. It took a little while to kick off, but now people are saying, “We don’t need all that plastic in our homes or in our drains.”

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Haydel's Bakery made a collectable porcelain king cake baby of Mardi Gras Guide founder Arthur Hardy for its king cakes in 2024. (Staff photo by Ian McNulty, NOLA.com |  The Times-Picayune)

One of this year’s coveted keepsakes is undoubtedly the hand-painted, porcelain Arthur Hardy king cake baby inside some Haydel’s king cakes.

They have two throws this year. One is Gallier Hall reviewing stands, the other is me. I’m flattered. A friend of mine called and said, “Don’t let your head get too big. Two years ago they did a porta-potty.”

Both you and porta-potties are essential to Mardi Gras.

I hope so. It’s all in fun.

You have judged the annual Greasing of the Poles contest at the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street. What qualities do you look for in pole greasers? Creativity? Dedication to the task?

Enthusiasm. We had some very enthusiastic participants. People take this seriously.

It’s such a special thing we do here. We hear so much about diversity and inclusion and equity. Is there a celebration anywhere in the world that has those attributes better than Mardi Gras?

You ride in the Rex parade on Fat Tuesday.

I think this will be my fifth year. I’m on the jester float. I had never ridden in a Mardi Gras parade before. People used to criticize me: “How can you be an expert on something you’ve never done?” I’d say that (former coroner) Frank Minyard did 3,000 autopsies and had never been dead.”

A few years ago, Rex stopped doing background checks and invited me to ride. I will continue to do so until they do that background check (laughs).

Back in the day, you had to be born into old-line krewes.

Rex is the most open of the old-line krewes. It’s a very diverse membership, I might add, which they don’t make a big deal out of. Because at this point, it’s not a big deal any more — things have opened up so much.

I’m proud of the philanthropic efforts that organization has done. Rex has given more than $14 million to public charter schools since Katrina. We parade, but we also do fun and important stuff beyond throwing beads and doubloons.

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Arthur Hardy receives king cake during the Mayor?s Mardi Gras King Cake Party at Mardi Gras World in New Orleans, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024. (Photo by Sophia Germer, The Times-Picayune)

In the last few years we’ve lost two giants of Mardi Gras, Blaine Kern Sr. and Ed Muniz, the founder of Endymion. Both were visionaries who helped usher in the super-krewe era. There may not be another towering figure like those guys, but Mardi Gras seems self-sustaining at this point.

It’s almost on cruise control.

Or “krewes-control”?

I’m going to use that! There are no replacements for Ed and Blaine. Endymion is in good hands with Dan Kelly, who was Ed’s assistant and took over as captain. There are some special things in that parade this year, which rolls on Ed’s birthday.

There’s a lot of leadership, particularly in the female krewes, which have really blossomed. It’s about 8,800 members total in the four largest female krewes – Iris, Cleopatra, Femme Fatale and Muses.

What are the biggest threats to Carnival?

An unspoken concern each year is terrorism. Mardi Gras is a soft target. It’s impossible to secure a five-mile parade route. Homeland Security and other departments have a good handle on security. There have been some threats, but we’ve handled it well.

It’s always frustrating when the national media depicts Mardi Gras as just Bourbon Street.

Even Bourbon Street has toned down quite a bit in recent years. Mardi Gras is a remarkably safe and wholesome event. But things happen.

Years ago after a shooting on the Muses route, people said, “Nobody is going to go there tomorrow night.” Well, more people went to that corner the next night. It was, “You’re not gonna win, buddy. This is my Mardi Gras.”

It shows the resilience of people in New Orleans: “Don’t take my Mardi Gras away!”

It was the same for the first Mardi Gras after Katrina. Going to a parade was almost an act of defiance.

The national media thought we were crazy, but it was probably the most special Mardi Gras ever.

Do you go to parades for fun?

I’m pretty much working. With Fox 8, we cover several parades. I try to make a couple. But the legs are a little older than they once were and parking has gotten harder.

But the ones I do go to, I enjoy. I thought at some point I’d get tired of it, but it makes a child out of all of us again. You hear that bass drum … “It’s a parade!”

"Let's Talk with Keith Spera," a partnership between WLAE-TV and The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, airs on WLAE-TV on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 9:30 p.m. WWNO 89.9 FM broadcasts "Let's Talk" on Mondays at 12:30 p.m. Episodes are also available on WLAE's YouTube page.

Email Keith Spera at kspera@theadvocate.com.

Email Keith Spera at kspera@theadvocate.com.