Born on the Bayou New Orleans native 'goes out' in style
He was born on the bayou and grew up in Bucktown, a little fishing village on Lake Pontchartrain. His family made a living catching crabs, boiling them and selling them at a seafood stand on the west end of New Orleans. When he was 13, he could walk into a bar in the French Quarter, sit down and have a drink. As an adult, he belonged to 10 different Mardi Gras krewes and walked with Pete Fountain's "Half Fast" club along the parade route.
On Dec. 21, Dan Ellis will be put to rest New Orleans-style in a jazz "fauxneral" -- faux because he'll live to tell about it -- but if you ask him what it means to miss New Orleans, he'll tell you he doesn't.
"I have nostalgia for the way it was," he said, "but I don't miss the way it is."
The way it was when he was growing up in the '40s: He could walk through the French Quarter without any concern that someone would knock him down or put a blade through him, Ellis said. Instead of strip clubs and coeds in wet T-shirts, it was the age of exotic dancers. New Orleans was fun, friendly and most of all safe, he said, the way things still are in Eureka Springs.
"Downtown is exactly like the way the French Quarter was when I was younger," Ellis said of Eureka Springs. "That's my French Quarter now."
So after moving here in 2005 from Pass Christian, Ellis set about re-creating the good old days of his youth. Six years ago, he and Al Hooks started 'Eureka Gras,' a Mardi Gras celebration that has expanded to more than a dozen events, including four balls, two parades, an art show called Artigras and a jazz brunch. Starting a New Orleans-style jazz band in town is on Ellis' to-do list, one he's hoping the jazz funeral will jump-start. Hooks, who was Ellis' co-chair of the Pass Christian Jazz Festival, is the reason Ellis moved to Eureka Springs in the first place.
"He moved up here after Katrina and was urging me to come and visit," Ellis said. "He said, 'It's a bohemian city that reminds you of New Orleans.'"
Along with jazz, Ellis also misses Cajun cooking, but not being a chef, has to settle for trips back home to visit family. There, he eats well three meals a day, in contrast to his early years, when the family lived on red beans and rice morning, noon and night, with the occasional piece of meat. Other childhood memories: swimming in the canal and going with the older boys to shanghai watermelons being brought to market on barges through Lake Pontchartrain.
"As kids we'd jump on the barges and the older boys would throw the watermelon down and the younger ones would push them to shore," Ellis said. "They'd shoot at us with pellet guns."
Two of his five brothers and his two sisters are coming for the fauxneral, with a brother providing the blessing for the wake. His eulogy will be delivered by Hooks. What might be covered: Ellis graduated from Rugby Military Academy at age 15, and by 19, had graduated from college, married and joined the Army. Returning from Korea, he taught in New Orleans-area schools, and was president of the Young Democrats of Louisiana, attending two nominating conventions and providing support for Jack Kennedy, who invited him to the White House.
Getting involved in computers, Ellis moved to Pass Christian, where he owned computer schools in three states and started the St. Patrick's Day parade. His participation in the New Orleans Mardi Gras Kids Parade dates back to his kindergarten days, he said, recalling that when he was 7, he and his classmates portrayed a nursery rhyme character.
"We dressed in pajamas and carried candlesticks, and stopped and jumped over them," Ellis said. "We did that for 8 miles."
Also in Ellis' eulogy: He's the author of 25 books, including one about his mother, Lili Rodriguez, whose family came to New Orleans from Costa Rica by way of Cuba. Ellis' father came down the river from Indiana on a boat and stayed, because, his father said, "there were no roads out of town." Ellis found one and hasn't looked back -- even while planning his own funeral.
"I've lived the best part of my life," he said. "I have no remorse. I'd do it all over again the same way."
The Dan Ellis New Orleans Jazz Funeral starts at 4 p.m. Dec. 21 with the wake at the Rowdy Beaver Restaurant, 417 W. Van Buren. It proceeds by trolley to the Pied Piper Pub for a ceremony and wailing contest, followed by a procession, led by a jazz band, down Main Street to the New Delhi, where Ellis' effigy will be burned and the ashes sent off in a Viking funeral. The funeral ends with a return to the Rowdy Beaver Restaurant for the reception. There is no charge to attend any of the funeral events. For more information, go to www.EndTimes.DanEllis.Net.