Bonita Thornton, 76, stepped out on Saturday morning in a suit, cream hat and an elaborate green scarf that read Money Wasters. Later in the day her best friend of decades, Louis Nelson Andrews, will be placed in a similar scarf.
Andrews, a cultural icon who helped start social help and fun clubs, raised a family full of musicians and helped revive the New Orleans doll tradition, died November 10 after a battle with lung cancer.
Thornton had mixed feelings when she and her granddaughter headed to Andrews’ funeral at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts.
“How can I be so happy and so sad at the same time?” she wondered, looking at her friend lying in a bright green metallic coffin. Sadness passed by, but years of happy memories prevailed with her – detailed memories, as always, which is why Andrews called Thornton the elephant.
For several years on Sundays, Thornton would get her silver convertible, pick up Andrews and head off to one of the city’s weekly social assistance shows and entertainment clubs. The two also posed together for the Money Wasters Club, and Andrews helped create two clubs, Lady Money Wasters and Dumaine Gang.
“Everything Lewis touched turned to gold,” Thornton said. “She can dance for 7 1/2 hours on her knees and somehow her pants don’t get dirty. She was one of the kindest people in the world.” In recent years, Thornton’s granddaughter, Megan Carson, 33, has started a show with Deja Andrews, Andrews’ youngest daughter.
This is how often 6 Ward’s friendships are, said Merlin Kimball, whose family goes back five generations with the Andrews. Throughout the week leading up to the funeral, Kimble struggled to come to grips with Andrews’ loss. “I loved her as a sister,” she said, “and I will miss her forever.”
“It meant something to everyone,” said Barbara Lassen Keeler, director on Saturday, who co-founded Lady Money Stars with Andrews. “She had a soul that embraced everyone.”
Twenty years ago, with almost a baby doll tradition, Andrews and Kimball donned satin dresses and rebooted Gold Digger Baby Dolls, single-handedly ushering in a citywide renaissance of the century-old custom, which is now still alive with more than 20 collections.
Ed Buckner, who heads the Original Big 7 Entertainment and Social Aid Club, said reviving the baby doll is only a small part of what Andrews has done. “She may have been small physically,” he said, “but she was a true giant of culture.”
Buckner said that in the early 1980s Andrews organized her children and a few other children and launched the All-Star Brass Band in her apartment at a public housing development in St. Bernard. She also performed the role of a military marshal, which is a rarity for women. She had just enough of a natural balance to dance over the coffin as it hung in the air.
“We may never see anyone dance on the casket again,” Buchner said. “And if we do that, it’s because of Lewis.”
Civil rights campaigner Jerome Smith recalled how Andrews encouraged her young sons — trombone James “12” Andrews III, drummer Terry “Buster Andrews, trombone trombone “shorty” Andrews and Marshal Bruce Nelson — to walk up and down Domaine Street near of the Tremé Community Center, which Smith runs.For the past week, he has been proud to see her children host almost every night in the second grades to honor their mother. “They’ve been rolling,” he said.
On Saturday, her children made her a farewell offer that would be written down in New Orleans history books.
The Tremé Sidewalk Steppers raised their coffin into the air a dozen times, and on one occasion laid it on the lawn in Tuba Fats Square on North Robertson Street, where her children Troy and Deja danced on top of it. A sprawling brass band—hundreds of musicians—followed a horse-drawn carriage in its coffin through the streets of Tremé and down North Claiborne Street to Hunter’s Field, where the sarcophagus was lifted back into the air and swirled around while a robotic instrument waited to pick it up for a ride to the Mount of Olives cemetery.
At that point, Wayne Kendrick, 62, made his way through the crowd to put his hand on the coffin and say goodbye to his last friend of 50 years, one of the most authentic people he’s ever met. “She was never fake in her life,” he said, choking back tears. “If it wasn’t real, you wouldn’t tell him.”
At the cemetery, Andrews’ sons, grandchildren, nephews, and friends played for her over and over again, until cemetery workers advanced to open the vault and slipped into the green chest. James Andrews directed his horn toward the sky and Troy Andrews did the same with his trombone, playing “A Closer Walk With Thee.” When the song ended, James thanked the audience.
“Give her a hand,” said he, “Mom, Lewis, all of you.” Then his voice softened, as he looked again into the cellar and said goodbye to him. He said, “We love you, my dear.”
Lois Nelson Andrews, a cultural icon who led countless processions as a grandmaster—usually in a tuxedo—and helped revive the …
revision: The image caption accompanying earlier versions of this story misidentified Dorothy Hale.