Topic: Black Comedians
Jackie "Moms" Mabley was from Brevard, North Carolina. She rose to national recognition as a standup comedian in the early 1960s. Born Loretta Mary Aiken, Mabley grew up in a large family in the south. Her father ran several businesses while her mother presided over a large household that included boarders.When Loretta was 11 her father died when his fire truck overturned and exploded.That same year, Loretta was raped by a much older black man, and raped again at thirteen by Brevard's white sheriff. Both rapes resulted in pregnancies, and also served as the sources of the two comedic devices her later personal of "Moms" was best known for, deriding old men and skewering white racists and pro-segregationists.Only after her death was the painful truth discovered. Both children resulting from the rapes were given up for adoption.
When Loretta was fourteen, her mother was struck and killed by a truck while walking home from church on Christmas Day. Now orphaned, with few prospects and living in an area filled with intense racism, Loretta followed her grandmother's advice and left Brevard to seek her fortune, initially moving in with a minister's family in Cleveland, Ohio. Already aware of her talent for song, dance, and humor, Loretta auditioned for and was signed by the Theatre Owners Booking Association, touring in minstrel shows throughout the South and developing into an accomplished comedian. Here, at nineteen, she met her first boyfriend, Jack Mabley. The relationship was not an harmonious one, and when the couple broke up in 1920, Loretta changed her name to Jackie Mabley, reasoning that after "he took a lot off me ... the least I could do was take his name."
The following year, Jackie Mabley met the song and dance team of Butterbeans and Susie in Dallas, who convinced her that she was meant for bigger pay and better material, and put her in touch with their agent. Jackie was signed to perform in what was known as "the Chittlin' Circuit," performing both solo and with Butterbeans and Susie in black movie theaters and playhouses across the country and earning substantially more in vaudeville than she had as a minstrel performer. In 1923, Jackie Mabley arrived in New York, where she met many of the great talents behind the Harlem Renaissance and performed at Connie's Inn and the Cotton Club with many of the greatest names in music and comedy. She also appeared in numerous musical comedies such Miss Bandana (1927), and Fast and Furious (1931), which she co-wrote with Zora Neale Hurston. During this time, the character that Jackie had been developing since her days with the minstrel circuit began to make her first appearances as a fully formed persona, the character of Moms.
Inspired by her wise and loving grandmother, and deriving her name from one conferred on Jackie for her loving care and support of her fellow performers, Moms dispensed her rye wisdom, ribald jokes, social satire, and cutting remarks about old men while wearing a frumpy housedress and oversized clodhopper shoes. It was probably at this time that Jackie also became aware of her sexual identity, considering that many of her female friends and colleagues in Harlem, including Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, were known lesbians and bisexuals. But Jackie was never publicly out about her own lesbianism, and Moms often remarked on her liking for young men at the same time that she voiced her disdain for old men.
Moms Mabley became the first female comic performer to appear at the Apollo Theater in 1939, and soon became a regular, as well as writing much of the material for the Theater's other regular acts. Her popularity by now was so high that she began appearing in movies catering to black audiences, such as The Emperor Jones (1933) and Boarding House Blues (1948). During the 1950s she performed in black clubs across the country, but it was not until the 1960s that she began to find an audience with whites, who first discovered Moms through the 20 comedy albums she recording for Chess Records in 1960. By now the Moms character had evolved to include floppy hats, a big purse, and a toothless smile, an effect which Ms. Mabley achieved by simply removing her dentures before walking on stage. In 1967 Moms Mabley made her first television appearance on A Time For Laughter, a special hosted by Harry Belafonte. These were quickly followed by appearances on Ed Sullivan, The Smothers Brothers, the original Bill Cosby Show,The Dean Martin Show,and The Flip Wilson Show. Moms' popularity exploded, and her engagements at the Apollo Theater were soon netting her $10,000 a week. Her humorous commentary on the civil rights movement and race relations in the South struck a cord with the awakening social conscience that was spreading across America.
Moms' television and stage appearances continued into the 1970s, during which she was offered her first major film role, the title character in Amazing Grace. During filming in 1974, Moms suffered a massive heart attack and had to be fitted with a pacemaker. She was able to finish the film, which later played to mixed reviews, but her health declined sharply. She finally died of natural causes on 23 May of the following year. Dick Gregory, who delivered the eulogy, was among many entertainment figures, black and white, who came to pay their respects at her funeral. All agreed that the tragedy was not in her death, but in the fact that it had taken so long for her to know true success.