Jonah Bascle was a New Orleans comedian, mayoral candidate and disability activist who once halted traffic on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line during a protest over its failure to accommodate people in wheelchairs.
He died Tuesday morning of heart failure at Ochsner Medical Center. He was 28.
Bascle, who had muscular dystrophy, was described by friends as an eclectic activist and performer whose ceaseless creativity galvanized those who were close to him.
“I can tell you that at least two people I know have quit their jobs to pursue their dreams because of Jonah,” said Kevin Prockup, a film composer who has been involved with a planned documentary about Bascle.
Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at the age of 12, Bascle turned to comedy and activism as outlets for self-expression.
He frequented the open mic night at La Nuit Theater on Freret Street, where he last performed two months ago.
It was his campaign for mayor of New Orleans in 2010 that garnered him local media attention and thrust him into the role of spokesman for New Orleanians with disabilities.
Bascle, who said he had grown frustrated with not being able to get around the city in his wheelchair, focused on making the historic St. Charles streetcar line wheelchair-accessible.
During his campaign, he and a group of about 50 protesters blocked the streetcar tracks for hours one day. “Let him ride,” they chanted.
Because of its historical status, the line is not subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the cars remain inaccessible to wheelchairs.
Bascle also promoted accessibility issues at local bars and restaurants, often delivering wheelchair ramps to businesses for free.
While his political ventures were unsuccessful, he had a loyal group of followers who warmed to his dry wit and self-effacing style of comedy.
“I ran for mayor and lost by 68,702 votes,” he once quipped during a stand-up performance. “It was close.”
Bascle often used the stage to poke fun at himself, telling wheelchair jokes. But in a recent interview, he said he had grown tired of making jokes about his disability.
At the time of his death, he was immersed in a biographical documentary project with filmmaker Hannah Engelson, who had been filming him for more than a year.
Bascle suffered from cardiomyopathy, and Engelson said he developed a severe cough weeks before his death.
Doctors told him his heart was failing and the only option would be a transplant. Weeks later, Bascle was on life support, Engelson said.
While he was in the hospital, City Councilwoman Susan Guidry presented him with a commendation for his work on behalf of those with disabilities.
Engelson said she plans to finish the film, to be titled “Jonah Stands Up.”
“I can’t express enough how humbled and honored I am to have been a part of his life as a filmmaker and friend,” she wrote on the film’s website.
According to Engelson, Bascle had initially desired to be cryogenically frozen after his death, but when that proved too expensive he opted for something more interstellar.
While funeral arrangements are still uncertain, Bascle’s friends said they are dedicated to fulfilling his last wish: launching his remains into the cosmos.
“I think the plan is to try to shoot his ashes into space,” Engelson said.
Survivors include his mother, Sue Ford; his father, Barry Bascle; his stepfather, Jimmy Ford; and two brothers, Frankie Ford and Jesse Bascle.