Even by New Orleans standards, the jazz funeral for Lloyd Washington was a singular event. First, there was the date: Oct. 24, 2004, or four months after Washington, a singer and member of the final Ink Spots lineup, succumbed to cancer at 83. (Unable to provide a proper burial for her husband, Hazel Washington had kept his ashes safe in a small urn enshrined at the Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge on Claiborne Avenue.)
Second, there was the setting: the Musicians' Tomb at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, a space in the Barbarin family mausoleum specially designated for local artists and their spouses. In a colorful procession that included two comrades' vehicles, Antoinette K-Doe's pink limousine and Geannie Thomas' red pickup truck, one of the last survivors of the legendary R&B group became the first musician laid to rest in the historic tomb.
But a third thing stood out about Lloyd Washington's final ride. Behind the pink limo and the red pickup was an unusually outfitted second line: all women (including K-Doe, Thomas, Tee-Eva Perry, Ms. Lollipop and Miriam Batiste Reed), clad in various permutations of fancy, frilly, black-and-white infant's wear.
The Mardi Gras Baby Dolls, dormant for decades and a season early for Carnival, had turned out on a sweltering fall Saturday to pay tribute to their fallen friend.
"The Baby Dolls was the pallbearers," says K-Doe, recounting the service from behind her Treme bar, which now serves as an informal headquarters for the reborn parading krewe. "But we can't carry that heavy casket, because we're women. So we took Mr. Lloyd's little urn out of the casket and gave it to Ms. Miriam Batiste. She went in (to St. Augustine Catholic Church) first because she was our oldest Baby Doll, and we went in two by two. All the Baby Dolls had something to say over Washington, out of respect."
Fittingly, it was Reed, now 83 herself and the self-described "original Baby Doll," whose costume went the furthest — bonnet, bloomers, lacy socks and all. ("It wasn't traditional Baby Dolls," recalls an amused Rob Florence, founder of Friends of New Orleans Cemeteries, "but it wasn't traditional mourning attire, either.")
"Now, we had to walk from the church to St. Louis No. 1," K-Doe's story continues. "We had the red truck, the pink limousine and all the Baby Dolls walking behind. Well, we got tired. So we made Geannie stop, and we got on the back of the truck and rolled with the truck to the cemetery." She smiles, pausing for impact before her punch line. "Father (Jerome) LeDoux said to us, 'I've seen everything, but I've never seen Baby Dolls be pallbearers!'"
If figuring out exactly why and when the Baby Doll tradition ended is difficult, then discerning how and where it began is futile.
"Nobody knows that, nobody living," says Royce Osborn, a filmmaker and Seventh Ward native, whose 2003 documentary All On a Mardi Gras Day delves into the myriad mysteries of black Carnival, from Mardi Gras Indians and the North Side Skull and Bones Gang to the Baby Dolls. "Nobody was really documenting this stuff while it was happening. What I get is the origin was during the Storyville era (1897-1917). Storyville was divided into two restricted districts, a white Storyville and a black Storyville. The black Storyville, Uptown, is supposedly where [it] began — across Canal Street, where they decided to dress as Baby Dolls to show up the downtown Storyville girls."
But Reed, sister to "Uncle" Lionel Batiste of the Treme Brass Band, has little doubt as to the true originator: Alma Trepagnier Batiste. "My mother started out with her club," she says. "They were the original Baby Dolls downtown, the first Baby Dolls that came out."
The burgeoning Batiste clan was at the center of Carnival activities every year, Reed says, and open houses, impromptu concerts and festive parades were the norm. At 6 a.m. on Mardi Gras, the women would hit the streets in their bloomers and bonnets alongside the Dirty Dozen Kazoo Band, which consisted of the seven Batiste boys, family and friends. It wasn't abnormal, she remembers, for the gender divide to disappear:
"Mardi Gras day, most people called it 'Fools' Day.' You know, you dress like you want. My uncle and them would come out in red Union drawers. ... And if you see them you would be surprised, because you think it would be a lady and it's a man dressed in ladies' clothes. I remember when I was small, my brothers and them started out, and we'd have to hide our clothes, me and my sisters, because [he] would come with his friends: 'Oh Miriam, let me use one of your dresses. Oh Miriam, let me use your shoes.'"
Along with the Skeletons, Indians and Zulu, the Baby Dolls and Dirty Dozen grew to be a Mardi Gras fixture in the first half of the 20th century, playing music in the street, stopping at different houses for a cold drink or quick bite of red beans and rice.
"We didn't have no nice instruments," Reed says. "We had the washboard, the kazoo, the guitar, and a big No. 3 tub for the bass drum. Every year I did the sewing, and we would sing all our old songs together. ... When I started out, taking it back, we had 18 Baby Dolls. Our colors were solid colors, and we had satin material. We used to come out in crepe paper. I must've had about 25, 30 dresses. The satin, you know, and the Baby Doll panties with the ruffle on the back. Every year we would have a new one."
Yet even the original Baby Doll gets hazy when asked about the group's demise: "It's like everything just went ka-boom." Reed alludes instead to a series of mid-century changes, from Zulu's move Uptown in the '50s to the replacement of Claiborne's live oaks with I-10 cement columns in the late '60s, that would forever alter Carnival traditions on the avenue. By contrast, she recalls those rituals in vivid detail:
"Each stop where the Zulu would be at a different barroom: the old Caledonia that was down on St. Philip (Street) and St. Claude (Avenue); and they would leave there and go down St. Claude to Sidney Brown's lounge, on St. Claude and St. Bernard (Avenue). And then it was other spots, you know, all around London Avenue and all that.
"The floats was made out of the papier-mache," Reed adds, pronouncing the words popper-mooshay. "But then they dropped all that and came out with the old fancy floats and everything. After they took that away from Claiborne, the kids start with jeans and plaid shirts. And nobody wanted to take up the old, old faction of Mardi Gras."
Ensconced as it is on Claiborne Avenue, the Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge seems like it's always been there. But Antoinette K-Doe's first Carnival in the iconic building wasn't until 1994. Soon after, she says, she began to notice the things that were missing — things she recalled from watching parades under the Claiborne oaks as a little girl.
"I remember Mr. Tootie Montana, because he was the prettiest Indian in my mind," says K-Doe, whose father, a Mardi Gras Indian himself, moved the family from Gert Town to the Ninth Ward when she was a child. "I've always been a person that got into my history. And after I put my lounge in, after I got all settled with it, I decided to go into the culture that I remembered, the Mardi Gras.
"The Skeletons, the Baby Dolls, they wouldn't come here. I knew they was at the Backstreet Museum; they was up on Orleans (Avenue). But I remember them in this area. All the bars and businesses wasn't there no more."
"I don't remember ever seeing Baby Dolls when I was a kid, but I do remember Skeletons and Indians," says Royce Osborn, who grew up near Claiborne, on Laharpe Street, in the '60s and early '70s. "We would always come down to [the avenue] and be in the neutral ground, to see the stuff going on there."
In 2002, Osborn's research for All On a Mardi Gras Day brought him to the doorsteps of both Reed and K-Doe. He listened as the former lamented her family's lost Baby Doll tradition, and he heard the latter mourn the memories of the Claiborne of her youth. And then, Osborn says, he and K-Doe hatched a plan.
"I went to Antoinette's, and we talked about doing something at her place on Mardi Gras day (in 2004)," he says. "We wanted a central location on Claiborne where it could all start from. She said, 'Well, I want to be a Baby Doll.' I said, 'Great.' And she said, 'I got a bunch of people that want to be Baby Dolls.' I said, 'That's even better.'"
Osborn relayed K-Doe's request to Reed, who agreed to conduct a Baby Doll seminar of sorts at the Mother-in-Law Lounge in the weeks before Mardi Gras. The gathering went over better than anyone imagined.
"She brought all her dresses, her bonnets," K-Doe says. "She remembered how to cut out a newspaper pattern for the bonnets. She taught us how to do the dresses."
"She had made all these costumes," Osborne recalls. "And she just laid it out to them about what it's like to be a Baby Doll, and made them really want to do it. She showed them how to walk: 'You got to have a walk to you. You got to shake it a little bit. You got your baby bottle — you can put anything in your baby bottle you want. I like to put Scotch and milk in it.'"
Reed was in for a surprise herself. "I was amazed to see how many wanted to be Baby Dolls," she says, counting the women by the dozen — young, old, black and white. "I didn't know it was going to be that many. But I let them know it starts early in the morning, and we don't do all that bad dancing and things like that. Them Gold Diggers, they wasn't hitting on nothing."
The Gold Diggers, Reed explains, were one of several rival groups throughout the years who stuck to the Baby Dolls' Storyville script, fancying bawdy outfits and ribald moves. K-Doe's group, which she dubbed the K-Dolls, would consist only of "career ladies" who would faithfully celebrate the Batistes' musical history.
"[Reed] said she didn't want to be into the Gold Digger Baby Dolls," K-Doe says. "I said, 'What if I give the Baby Dolls K-Doe's name?' That means the Gold Diggers cannot come in, because they don't have the right to use K-Doe's name. I have the last say so on who uses K-Doe's name."
And so it was, on the morning of Mardi Gras 2004, that the K-Dolls made their Carnival debut, led by a 78-year-old Creole in bonnet and bloomers, clutching a bottle of Scotch and milk and skipping down Claiborne Avenue. Reed remembers one child who approached her outside of the Mother-in-Law:
"He said, 'Aunt Miriam?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'My momma told me to go out to Antoinette's because the Baby Dolls are going to be there. Make sure you see Miriam Batiste, because that's the Baby Doll.' He found me, and he's taking pictures. A lot of the older people were so amazed that I brought the Baby Dolls back into Mardi Gras."
"Miriam was just in her element," Osborn says. "I don't think she'd had any women to mask with her for a long time. In the documentary, she says, 'All of my Baby Dolls are old, or they've passed on. But I still try.'"
Like any healthy infants, the K-Dolls grew considerably in the year after their birth. The casual krewe paid tribute to Lloyd Washington in October 2004 and appeared at Sheriff Marlin Gusman's Thanksgiving dinner for seniors that same year, bringing smiles to the faces of many who thought the Baby Dolls were long gone. In 2005, the group numbered near 50, K-Doe says, before the levee failures put a "damper" on the revival.
In actuality, of course, Hurricane Katrina's effects were much more calamitous to all involved. The flood shuttered the Mother-in-Law Lounge for a year, effectively postponing Carnival activity at 1500 Claiborne Ave. "Four of us went out on Orleans (Avenue)," K-Doe says. "We only had one Skeleton because everyone wasn't back."
Katrina wasn't the only obstacle she had to overcome. Getting ready on Mardi Gras morning in 2008, K-Doe felt a pain in her chest. "That's when I told Geannie — she was dressed as a Baby Doll — I said, 'Geannie, I believe I've taken a heart attack.' She said, 'No, girl, you're not.' I said, 'Don't tell me. Keep my bar open and call me an ambulance.'
"Now I'm in the hospital with my Baby Doll clothes on," she continues. "I tell the doctor, 'I have to go home and get ready with the Indians and the Skeletons, because I need to go out with my Baby Dolls!' He said, 'Young lady, you're not going out. You're going to surgery.'"
Focusing on recovery has meant less energy spent organizing the Baby Dolls, but K-Doe says that hasn't stopped the inquiries. "They all still relying on me. 'Didn't I tell you I'm a heart patient? Back off of me.' ... But I have talked to (North Side Second Chief) Sunpie (Barnes), and he said, 'Antoinette, do not leave home till I get there.'"
Osborn, who became a Skeleton after befriending Chief Al Morris in 2001, says he's still amazed by what happened in 2004: "We made this little parade up Claiborne to Orleans, and for one brief, shining moment, there was this collection of Indians, Skeletons, Baby Dolls and Zulu passing all at the same time. It was like, 'Yes! Oh, finally.' I was able to bring this harmonic convergence of Carnival again. I don't think it's happened again. But that one time ..."
The filmmaker pauses. "We didn't even bring a movie camera."
But for Miriam Batiste Reed, the event meant even more. Her Ninth Ward home on Caffin Avenue was wrecked the next year by Katrina's floodwaters. Displaced in Los Angeles since after the storm, she lost her husband in February 2008. Asked about a return to Carnival this year, she answers softly, "I don't think so. I don't know as yet."
Her spirits are raised, however, when discussion returns to her friend, with whom she has entrusted a large part of her family's legacy. "Whenever I get to New Orleans, I always go see Antoinette," Reed says. "She's going to continue with the Baby Dolls."