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City spotlight: Mother-in-Law Lounge

The brightly painted exterior of the Mother-In-Law-Lounge (Photo by: Bethany Rogers)

When the Mother-In-Law Lounge opened at the corners of North Claiborne and Columbus Street in 1994, the scruffy, R & B juke joint--complete with a back sitting area where a lucky visitor might find Ernie’s mother-in-law lounging on the couch--proved the perfect setting to ground and revive the flamboyant Ernie K Doe’s performing career and showcase the legendary, salty-sweet charisma of Ernie’s wife and the bar manager, Ms. Antoinette.

Ernie passed in 2001, and Ms. Antoinette dedicated herself to keeping Ernie’s spirit a tangible part of the Mother-In-Law experience, complete with a life-size Ernie mannequin in the main barroom. Just as importantly, she further dedicated her own quirky flair, passion, and get-things-done attitude to the service of her neighbors and the city’s music community. Ms Antoinette’s lounge grew into a local food bank and soup kitchen, always serving her prized red beans and rice to a hungry visitor. The bar was also a meeting place for any local group who needed a spot to gather, a resource center for musicians, and, due to her personal commitment to the crusade, the headquarters for the revival of the Baby Doll parading tradition.

Antoinette stayed put when Katrina roared through, keeping watch over the bar from her upstairs apartment, but after being airlifted out and coming back to the flooding destruction of her bar, Ms. Antoinette was at a loss. But as close friend and fellow community organizer Michelle Longino recalls, that was a passing moment and the giving Ms. Antoinette learned how to receive the help of many--particularly her close friend Geannie Thomas, the volunteer group Hands On, and the R & B star Usher--to completely restore and update her barroom. With the encouragement of Antoinette, customer and artist Daniel Fuselier developed and painted the colorful murals on the bar’s exterior that now brightly document the characters and social life of the lounge.

Antoinette created a garden of purple and gold clawfoot tubs and bathroom sink planters that have transformed her side yard along busy Claiborne Avenue into a serene gathering space where neighbors often picnic and customers often visit. The Mother-In-Law, like the garden, had returned to full bloom with Ms. Antoinette’s passing on Mardi Gras day 2009. Just as Antoinette committed herself to perpetuating Ernie’s legacy, Antoinette’s daughter, Betty Fox, has teamed up with Geannie to keep the lounge open in tribute to their charismatic and generous mother and friend.

One of the many painted murals (Photos by: Bethany Rogers)

Betty Fox, Antoinette’s daughter and Owner of the Mother-In-Law Lounge, said, “It’s an important place, beside the fact that my mom started it, because she wanted to make it a place where musicians can go and practice their music, get some gigs. I think that was her main goal to help musicians that weren’t getting anywhere, weren’t getting paid to where they could get some income from it and it just turned into a community center. Everybody came in. She always had something cooked for everybody to eat whether you bought a drink or you didn’t buy a drink," Fox says. "It didn’t matter to her. Free beans. It wasn’t any sweat off her back. It didn’t kill her to make ‘em. My mama always said, ‘If you feed one person a day, it makes your soul feel better.’ And that was always her main purpose.

“Our point for keeping the place open is, one, it brings the community together. And it’s so beautiful what’s she’s created and people just admire her so much, that I personally couldn’t let it go. This was my mom’s dream. She always wanted to own her own business. She loved music and she loved entertainment. I can’t let that go,” says Fox.

Geannie Thomas, Antoinette’s close friend and Manager of the Mother-In-Law Lounge, said, “[Customers] can get away and come here and kick their shoes off and get on the couch and take a snooze if they want to. At what other lounge can you go to and do that? Or go out in the side yard and walk around barefoot and eat red beans and rice and not have to pay for it. There’s no other place you can go do that. If you want to ride in a hearse before you’re dead, you can even ride in a hearse. I’m serious, get the feel of it. That’s what we always thought. We didn’t worry about what was in the back. The only thing Antoinette and I were worried about was what was in the front and that it was going okay.”

Kelley Crawford is a professor, writer, mentor, dancer, and constant questioner. If you would like to contact Kelley Crawford, you can email her at kelley@nolavie.com.