For the current Gambit cover story, "Rally of the Dolls," I had the pleasure of speaking at length with Mrs. Miriam Batiste Reed, sister to "Uncle" Lionel Batiste of the Treme Brass Band, and the self-proclaimed original Mardi Gras Baby Doll. The transcript of our conversation, which I will post here in segments throughout the week, amounts to nothing less than an oral history of the revived Baby Doll tradition and other latter-day Claiborne Avenue rituals as well as a vivid reanimation of one woman's most vital memories.
When I started out, taking it back, we had 18 Baby Dolls. Our colors were solid colors, and we had satin material. We would make the Baby Doll dresses. We used to come out in crepe paper. I was over at the Jazz Fest and I showed them how to make the paper dresses.
If you wanted to be a Baby Doll with the original Baby Dolls, you had to dress like the Baby Dolls, in the years that I had it, you know. We would parade in the street and stop at different houses. And everybody would be out there: Oh, the Baby Dolls is coming, the Baby Dolls is coming. Well, I love to sing, too. And Im an old Creole, OK, so when we sing what we dont know the words to something, we go La la la la la la. [Laughs] So the house that we would stop by, they would have cold drinks for you, and red beans and rice, you know. And you could have something to eat, and then wed just go along, you know.
We Baby Dolls would come out about 6 oclock in the morning. We had the Devil and the Dirty Dozen. You know who originated the Dirty Dozen? The Batiste family. Thats right. The Dirty Dozen consists of men (who) want to dress in ladies clothes. On 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. My brothers and my uncle and them would play the guitar. My daddy was the guitar player. And my mother was a singer. Alma Batiste. Her name was Alma Trepagnier. You know I had seven brothers. We all masked in Baby Dolls. We would have practice. When I said, Oh, Im going to mask in the Baby Dolls. Im going to take up what Momma used to do, everybody just clinged to Miriam. Im Aunt Miriam to all of them.
My father, he made a devils suit when they were coming out. This man that wore the devils suit was called Frank-o, Frank Johnson. He had his suit on and he lived around the corner of St. Claude my mother and them, we lived on St. Philip. And he said, Oh, I forgot my wallet. Im going to go back home and get it. Momma and all of them, they would dress. And we had a lot of practice for the Baby Dolls, you know, singing old songs and things. He left and went out the house and went around the corner to get his wallet. So Momma and all of them, they were waiting, dressed and ready to come out the house. And they said, Oh, wheres Frank? Wheres Frank? And Frank was in jail. They didnt see Frank till the next morning. Because when he went around the corner, they had the little white kids some of them used to live around there. When the little girl turned around, she said, Oh, Momma, the devil, the devil! The mother got hold of Mr. Frank and held him down and called the policemen. When they came, they take him to jail. We didnt know where was Frank at until the next morning.