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The Pelicans' King Cake Baby: Huge, Creepy And Born Of Storied Carnival Traditions

Jason Saul

There are a lot of amazing things that happen on the court at a New Orleans Pelicans game.

Like pretty much anything All-Star power forward Anthony Davis does. Halfway through the season Davis is a clear candidate for NBA MVP, a man who seems more suited to a video game than a real-life basketball team.

But over the past couple of years the Pelicans may be better known for their new mascots (and their remembered ones) than for the ballgame being played between the TV timeouts.

Enter King Cake Baby. A Carnival tradition at Hornets, and now Pelicans, games, KCB emerges from his lair to perform scooter races with the Jester and the King. The crowd loves it. Sportswriters have been known to place bets on the races. Twitter explodes with hilarity and revulsion every time he makes an appearance.

Horrifying in aspect and cumbersome in motion, King Cake Baby has become more than a Carnival tradition at basketball games. He's a de facto mini-celebrity, popping up at smoothie shops and television stations, another smart Pelicans marketing effort.

This crazy giant baby-monster is the brainchild of Jonathan Bertuccelli and his Studio3 creative shop.

Bertuccelli is a master designer and sculptor whose family has been creating Mardi Gras floats and props for generations in his hometown of Viareggio, Italy, and for decades here in New Orleans. He tells us how King Cake Baby came to be, and why unique designs, especially those that are a little “off,” have been central to Carnival celebrations around the world.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Tell me about creating the King Cake Baby. Was the creepiness intentional?

It was a little bit intentional. When I made it, of course I showed my client photos of it being built and being made. And they gave me a lot of freedom. They said we want a king cake baby, a king and a jester — but they didn’t give me any ideas or any designs. They left it up to me. So I built it, and as I was building it I would send them the progress report and show them photos, and then I showed up with it and they were all happy.

They wanted it to be a little… they didn’t say creepy-creepy, but to have something about him. They didn’t want it to be cuddly and cute; they wanted it to be a little wacky-looking. You know, Mardi Gras — I’m a float builder, I build floats for a living, and if you look at Mardi Gras there is a lot of goofy, creepy, kind of mystical-looking stuff at Mardi Gras. And I’m an immigrant, I came here as a little kid from Italy, and my family builds Mardi Gras in Italy. So it also has a little bit of their Old World, medieval, marionette kind of look from Italy, from France.

Credit Jonathan Bertuccelli
Jonathan Bertuccelli and his Baby.

Building Mardi Gras floats and sculptures and props is your family business?

Yeah, my father Raul came here back in the early 1970s from Viareggio, Italy. In Viareggio you have a huge Carnival and they make amazing — when I tell you they make amazing floats, they make amazing floats. He worked for Blaine Kern for a while, and then we went independent back in the early 80s. We got our own warehouse, our own shop, and we’ve been there ever since.

My dad, he’s the guy who built the Mr. Bingle that used to hang on Canal Street.

Oh wow, he built Mr. Bingle?

Yeah, my dad built that. And I was a teenager, and I helped him build it. We’ve always been around that kind of business. For instance, if you look at the Krewe of Rex, they introduced a new float three years ago called the Butterfly King. I built the actual Butterfly King. Not the whole float, but the prop. The king, with the wings and everything, I built it and I did all the animation for it.

Credit Jonathan Bertuccelli
A postcard depicting a Carnival float in Viareggio, Italy. The top face bears a striking resemblance to a classic Rex jester float.

Oh, that’s amazing.

So that’s what I do, and that’s what my family did many years ago in Italy. They built floats. So that’s why this king cake baby is a little creepy — not a little creepy, lots of creepy. I made him a little extra creepy because he’s also got a little bit of that influence from that medieval European Carnival mask kind of thing. They infuse a little creepy into a lot of that stuff. Creepy is a hard word, but you know… but it depends on how you look at it. Like clowns. A lot of people think clowns are creepy, you know? But there’s a little bit of fusion of all that in there.

Well, Carnival is comedy and tragedy, right? So there’s got to be a little bit of everything.

Comedy and tragedy, right! Right. And there’s a little mystery to it, and then I hammed it up. I took liberties to make it a little creepy, because I just kind of think it’s funny and I laugh at it, personally.

You see, all the creepiness is in the eyes. If you paint the eyes differently, if you make him a little different, the creepiness goes away pretty quickly. So when I painted the eyes I made the actual pupil kind of small — the [then-Hornets organization] didn’t even blink at it. They just said “Oh, we love it. We like it.” So I left it like that.

Credit Jonathan Bertuccelli
Jonathan and an early version of "Babycakes," his joking name for what would become King Cake Baby.

So, does the King Cake Baby have a name, or is he just King Cake Baby?

He’s just King Cake Baby. When I delivered him, I had an idea that they should have called him like Babycakes or something like that. Johnnycakes. You know, I was just playing around. But yeah, King Cake Baby, it just stuck. That will stick forever.

People just love the King Cake Baby, and it’s huge.

It kind of blew up last year at this time, you know? It kind of went viral. And I had friends calling me up and telling me they were talking about it on the Late Show, jokes, tweets. I think Flea tweeted on it. You know, fun stuff.

Did you ever expect that would happen?

Oh no, no, of course not. I think it’s a combination of things: It’s a coincidence in that the first Pelican [mascot] was kind of creepy so they had to go and change it.

King Cake Baby is really a part of three characters that I made for them (this is like five, six years ago when I first made them). There was the King Cake Baby, the King and the Jester. And they come out together, but the baby is the one who gets all of the attention. But they were made together to be part of this little Mardi Gras season thing, you know?

But what happened is, so like, they changed the Pelican because he was too creepy, but then out comes the King Cake Baby and he’s super creepy, so everybody jumps on it and they start cracking jokes, like New Orleans can’t get it right. And that’s the funny part, and that’s the coincidence. I think it’s one of those things. You know, somebody with a little bit of a name, somebody with a little bit of exposure, they start cracking jokes on it and it goes viral. And it’s fun.

Credit Screenshot from studio3inc.com
When in need, you can rent a giant head from Studio3.

So tell me more about Studio3. It’s your shop and you build Mardi Gras props. What else do you do?

Well, we build Mardi Gras props, but we also build statues, and we do a lot of three-dimensional commercial artwork, like sculptures for bookstores. I’ve done some stuff for Vegas and I’ve built a lot of stuff for television, film and commercials — sets, props, faux finishes. I’ve had work in Harrah’s Casino, sculptural pieces. I have some sculptural work right now at the MGM Grand in Vegas.

I’m not a gallery artist. I do my commissions when people come to me and they say: “We want a giant —.” Like, this past summer, I had a client come to me and say “I want a giant book, like a 10-foot-tall book, that’s being held by a hand.” And it was for a bookstore in a mall in Jackson, Mississippi. So I built it. And that’s it. Pretty simple.

I get all of these crazy requests all of the time. But we also specialize in building walking heads, the big walking heads that walk in parades. My father brought that back to New Orleans as a tradition in the early ’80s, because that tradition had gone away. We had built a huge inventory of them, but we lost over half of it with Katrina because our warehouse is in Mid-City and it flooded pretty bad. Now I have about 20 of them left, but I had up to almost a hundred. But we still have all of these walking heads — crazy, wearable costumes that we have… and that’s also where I get the experience to build things like the King Cake Baby.

Mardi Gras is a week from now. How do you celebrate the holiday? You’re so intimately tied to how other people experience it.

It depends on how much work I’ve got. I’m slammed right now, as you can imagine.

Here’s the thing with me. The work they do in my hometown in Italy, the floats that they build there, they are amazing. They are mind-blowing. They make the New Orleans parades look like [bad].

Credit Jonathan Bertuccelli
Some "walking heads" built by Studio3. Bertuccelli says the tradition of masking in this way had faded in New Orleans by the 1980s.

So, I’m a bit of a float snob, you know? I’ve seen all of these beautiful parades all over the world — and don’t get me wrong, there is some beautiful work being done in New Orleans. But it could be a lot better. The priority in New Orleans is beads. The priority in New Orleans is alcohol. The priority in New Orleans is how many people can you put on a float so that they can throw beads and drink and have a toilet. While in the rest of the world the priority is how beautiful can you make the floats. Period. It’s kind of a different thing.

So I am a float snob, but the spirit of what I like about Carnival, the spirit of what Carnival really is, the essence of Carnival all over the world, is that everybody goes out, they put on a mask. It’s a masquerade. Carnival is about celebrating, but it’s basically a giant masquerade; you get to cut loose and get crazy before you have to behave, right? It’s a religious holiday. The masking is a very important thing. You mask because when you have a mask on everybody is the same. You don’t know who is rich, who is poor. When you are at a masquerade party there is no difference anymore, we are all in the masks, behind the masks. So the identity is gone and you can act like a fool. So that’s the beauty of it.

That brings me to my point: I like things in Mardi Gras that remind me of that. Things that are very much of that spirit. I love, for instance, Krewe du Vieux. I love the Krewe of Chewbacchus. I love the Krewe of St. Ann. I love that homemade stuff that is more of the gut spirit of Mardi Gras and being homemade and making your own float and making your own costume and having a lot of fun with it. And not being censored.

"I'm a bit of a float snob, you know? I've seen all of these beautiful parades all over the world."

The superkrewes, like Endymion and all that, they do some amazing stuff, don’t get me wrong, but, at the same time, but when you put the, as I like to say, pound-for-pound, dollar for dollar into it, people put more heart into those little homemade krewes, the do-it-yourselfers. All these little sort of pop-up krewes that people put together themselves in their garage. That to me is more fun and spirited. I would rather go to the Krewe du Vieux ball. Or walk with the Krewe of St. Ann on Mardi Gras morning. And everybody joins, and people make their own costumes, and you’re like “Wow, look at this!” It’s amazing.

Those things are just closer to my heart than a super-super long super-super float in Endymion that throws tons of beads — I like what the people do more than what the big money does at Mardi Gras. I like what people come up with in their own smaller means. The things that come from the heart. The things that come from the passion of Mardi Gras. I have friends that spend so much time on their costumes. Like the Mardi Gras Indians. Most of those guys are poor, man. You know those guys aren’t rolling in money. And they sit there for months and months and make their own costumes. And those are the things, again, that to me come from the heart. That it’s about pride in what you do. It’s about even if you don’t have a lot, you give all of what you’ve got for it.

A special message from King Cake Baby to former WWL-TV reporter Bradley Handwerger (and to you):

Jason Saul served as WWNO's Director of Digital Services. In 2017 he took a position at BirdNote, in Seattle.