A belated happy Mardi Gras (or whatever you call it a week or two later in french) to one and all, even as we all try to act normal after receiving the terrible news that the Empress of the Universe, Mrs Manaugahide, and one of the last Real Baby Dolls, of course I could only be talking about the one and only Antoinette K-Doe, is dead, way too soon, the youngest sixty-six year old I ever met. As some kind of symbolic gesture that we’re all still struggling with, she accepted her new assignment on Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras Day itself, the last day of revelry, a brief but massive heart attack having prompted her decision early in the morning. No one would’ve thought she’d have had it that way.
You have to assume she would’ve put it off until Ash Wednesday if she could have, because the widow of the legendary performer and personality Ernie K-Doe (the original hit singer of “Mother-in Law”, “Certain Girl” “Ta Ta Ta Ta Ta Ta Te Ta Ta”, who was, coincidentally. the Emperor of the Universe, not to mention Mr. Maunaugahide) loved Mardi Gras, and Mardi Gras loved her back. Together, they embodied all the earthy wonder of N’awlins in ways so simultaneously elegant, primitive, charming, and hilarious that the world could only marvel. They were also both very much the glorious figments of their own imaginations.
So great were their powers and their concentration that when Ernie died, in 2001, he only missed a handful of jobs before going back to fulltime, as Antoinette quickly acquired an Ernie K-Doe mannequin, which she outfitted with a little speaker in its chest and Ernie’s clothes, jewelry, and wig. Darned if in no time Ernie the II wasn’t working just as many dates as the real Ernie ever did, and spending just as much time in their bar, the Mother-in-Law Lounge. holding court while relaxing between engagements. (The last time I saw him there, he had no hands -they were out being manicured. At the time, I didn’t even ask, but later on, I wondered about that a little.
Now, I once bowled with Ernie K-Doe. In fact, I even shared the stage with him at Tipitina’s one time, and he was a delight (And, by the way, if it weren’t for Ernie’s having had one, the Chandler Travis Philharmonic would’ve never had their valet, as Fred Boak learned everything at the feet of Ernie’s man, during a flood -but that’s another story.) Anyway, the new Ernie is ok, -you can definitely tell the difference, but it’s better than no Ernie at all.
Years later I saw a play, again in New Orleans (of course), this time in the downstairs room of the Mid-City Rock and Bowl, that was at least in part a biography of both Ernies (man and mannequin), in which Antoinette starred as her own mother, Ernie’s “Mother-in-law” of legend. About midway through the play, the mother-in-law, well portrayed by Antoinette until this point, morphed somehow into an older woman, who obviously had never been in a play before and didn’t know any of the lines; still, she gamely soldiered on, supplying a few muted words of some kind whenever one of the other actors seemed to be asking her a question. After the scene had gone on for four or five minutes, she wandered off, and the next time we saw the character, it was again played by Antoinette. Later on that night, during the part of the night when the audience and performers dance to some records, and consumed by curiosity, I asked Antoinette why her character had changed in mid-stream. She replied matter-of-factly that she had received a call on her cell phone, and one of her friends had filled in for her while she was taking the call.
My head is swimming with Antoinette stories, and I didn’t know her well at all. One thing I can tell you is that she was soooo cute! Also that she leaves a huge hole in a city with too many already (luckily, despite murder, flood, and devastation, it’s still a magic city.)
And so energetic! When she first chose Ernie from the crowd of available suitors (not all that long ago, either, as they became a couple around 1990), he was a washed-up, occasionally unruly alcoholic, but she somehow got him back up and running with a vengeance. And the merchandising! I have plates, pillows, and even a toilet paper holder bearing his (and, sometimes, Antoinette’s) likeness(es.) And not only did Ernie keep working after his death -he even ran for mayor, and, I’m told, did quite well.
My sister, Nurse Ticky Travis, was (you guessed it) a nurse at Charity Hospital in New Orleans for many years, and attended Ernie when he was dying, and there got to know Antoinette, who she remembers as staying by Ernie’s side for days on end in a rumpled pink poodle skirt, bobby sox, and ponytail, trying to coax him back to life with the threat that “the nurse is coming to fool with Charlie.” She was sure she could rouse him with this strategy, as Charlie was their nickname for (as Alex Haley might put it) his maleness, but even that didn’t do it. For his part, Ernie, largely unconscious, still wore his maximum impact jewelry and Louis XV wig on his death bed.
The city (and his young wife) threw him a hell of a wake, with Baby Dolls, Skeletons, and every conceivable local music luminary you can think of (including Allen Toussaint, Jean Knight, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, (the usually reclusive) Barbara George, Davell Crawford, and Monque-d, not to mention the backup band of your dreams) -and this was just for the wake! And don’t worry: Antoinette sold out her funeral, too.
Ernie’s funeral was also a party and a half. My sister’s hospital was very relieved that they had been able to recover Ernie’s body in time (it had turned up missing for a time during it’s stay in the morgue as Antoinette secured a burial site, eventually settling on St. Louis Cemetary #2, noted in the “Haunted New Orleans” Tour website with the following: “You don’t even want to think about visiting St. Louis Cemetary #2 -it’s in a very rough neighborhood. Pass it by.” Hey, I can take a hint…
So much more: Antoinette appreciated Ticky’s care at Charity so much (which made sense: Ernie had always said that he was “the greatest boy-child ever conceived at Charity Hospital”, and always considered himself a Charity baby) that she held up Ernie’s huge funeral a day to wait until my sister could make it; Antoinette at the Mother-in Law during Katrina, ready and willing to fight off invaders; Antoinette in infant gear at Jesse Hills’ funeral, reviving the “Baby Doll” tradition; but maybe most of all, Antoinette at the Mother-in-Law Lounge, dispensing free drinks, red beans and rice, gumbo, even tiny little glasses of free champagne when Obama got elected, with the cutest, friendliest smile….
She was a dynamo, and a generous person. She’ll be missed big-time.