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Black Entertainers
Tuesday, November 23, 2004
Mantan Moreland
Topic: Black Comedians

He is probably best remembered for his role as Birmingham Brown, the chauffeur, in the Charlie Chan movies, but he appeared in many other films also. He was born in Monroe, Louisiana on September 3, 1902 and ran away from home at the age of 14 and joined a circus. He later hooked onto a vaudeville act and his performing career began. Burlesque and, in the mid-30s, an appearance on Broadway in the revue "Blackbirds" followed. Boxer Joe Louis helped land him his first billed movie role in "Spirit of Youth" (1938), featuring Louis himself, thus beginning a long and successful film career. His stocky build, wide-eyed look and stuttery, silky voice were his trademarks and Black groups criticized some of his roles as stereotypical. Besides appearing in the Charlie Chan film series he also appeared in the "Frankie Darrow" and "Michael Shane" films. He died on September 28, 1973 in Hollywood, California of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 71.

His film credits include: "The Green Pastures" (1936) in an uncredited bit part as Angel Removing Hat, his film debut; "Spirit of Youth" (1938) as Creighton 'Crickie' Fitzgibbons; "Riders of the Frontier" (1939) as Cookie; "Maryland" (1940); "Drums of the Desert" (1940) as Sgt. Williams; "King of the Zombies" (1941) as Jefferson Jackson; "The Palm Beach Story" (1942) as a Diner Waiter; "Tarzan's New York Adventure" (1942) as Sam; "Andy Hardy's Double Life" (1942) as Prentiss; "A Haunting We Will Go" (1942) with Laurel & Hardy; "Cabin in the Sky" (1943) as First Idea Man; "Bowery to Broadway" (1944) as Alabam; "Captain Tugboat Annie" (1945) as Pinto; "The Sky Dragon" (1949) as Birmingham Brown; "The Patsy" (1964) with Jerry Lewis, as Barbershop Porter; "Enter Laughing" (1967) as Subway Rider; "Watermelon Man" (1970) as Cashier; "The Biscuit Eater" (1972) as Waiter and "The Young Nurses" (1973) his last film. On TV he guest starred on many series including: "Love American Style"; "The Bill Cosby Show" and "Adam 12." He also appeared in the TV movie "Marriage: Year One" (1971) as a Mechanic.

Posted by crazy3/nyashia at 8:05 PM EST
Updated: Friday, August 25, 2006 5:09 PM EDT
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Dusty Fletcher
Topic: Black Comedians

(Clinton Fletcher) 1897 - March 15, 1954

For twenty years, Iowa-born Dusty Fletcher knocked around vaudeville with a drunk act. He'd come out on stage muttering and complaining about trying to find his way home. He'd even haul out a ladder and try desperately to set it up so he could get in through a window. The worst part was that he knew somebody was home. So every now and then he'd holler out his frustrated catch-phrase: "Open the Door, Richard!" In 1947 he recorded his monologue with jazz backing and it became a hit for him and for the many musicians who covered it. Fletcher's version, loaded with lively ethnic humor, was best known in the black community. Though some blacks objected to Fletcher's down-home depiction of the neighborhood neer-do-well, he went on to record a follow-up tune called "I'm Goin' Back In There." Fletcher continued to shout "Open the Door, Richard!" for many more years and so did others, notably Pigmeat Markham, who recorded an entire routine by that title. Fletcher was still performing at New York's Apollo Theater just three weeks before his death.

Posted by crazy3/nyashia at 7:38 PM EST
Updated: Tuesday, November 23, 2004 7:44 PM EST
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Dick Gregory
Topic: Black Comedians


Richard Claxton Gregory was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Reared in poverty; he began working at an early age to help support his family. He was involved in sports and social causes in high school, and he entered Southern Illinois University on an athletic scholarship in 1951, standing out as a middle-distance runner. He was named the university's outstanding student athlete in 1953, the same year he left college to join the U. S. Army, where he hosted and performed comedy routines in military shows. Gregory began his professional career in 1958 as a master of ceremonies at several Chicago nightclubs. He achieved national recognition following his debut at the Playboy Club in Chicago in 1961. The one-nighter turned into a six-week stint that earned him a profile in Time magazine and a television appearance on the Tonight Show of the time, The Jack Paar Show. In his numerous succeeding television, nightclub, and concert routines, he targeted poverty, segregation, and racial discrimination. He gained fame as a comedian for his satirical views on American racial attitudes. In addition, Gregory wrote several books of racial humor, the first being From the Back of the Bus (1962).

Gregory shocked the country by titling his second book, an autobiography, NIGGER! (1964). He described his humble beginnings, and the racism he experienced at Southern Illinois University in the 1950s. During his presidential campaign, he also wrote Write Me In (1968). There was also No More Lies: The Myth and the Reality of American History (1971). Active in the Civil Rights Movement, Gregory was arrested for Civil Disorder during a 1963 civil rights demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama. He was also an outspoken critic of American involvement in the Vietnam War. In 1968, he believed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation played a role in the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Gregory's personal study into the matter resulted in his book Code Name Zorro (1978). A congressional investigation disagreed with his theory. In the early 1970s Gregory abandoned comedy to focus on his political interests, this widened from race relations to include such issues as violence, world hunger, capital punishment, drug abuse, and poor health care. He generated particular attention for his more than a hundred hunger fasts.

At this time he became a vegetarian, a marathon runner, and an expert on nutrition. In the 1980's, he began a soon successful business venture with his nutritional product, the "Bahamian Diet," around which he built Dick Gregory Health Enterprises, Inc. Through his company, he targeted the lower life expectancy of Black Americans, which he attributed to poor nutrition and drug and alcohol abuse. Dick Gregory seems to never be finished he won?t quit ? he just won't go home. His wife, Lil, has been putting up with it for 41 years now. Just like their 10 children. Now, Gregory is fighting cancer. And he still won't go home. Dick Gregory may finally be at the cusp of mainstream nods. Southern Illinois University inducted him into its Athletic Hall of Fame in September. Then there was a tribute to Gregory in the nation's capital on October 9th, at the Kennedy Center, hosted by the National Council of Negro Women. The smile on his face is beatific. Damn the cancer. Joy cometh in the morning.

Posted by crazy3/nyashia at 7:29 PM EST
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Butterbeans and Susie
Topic: Black Comedians
The married couple Jodie (1895-1967) and Susie Edwards (1896-1963), performing as Butterbeans and Susie, were among the most popular African American musical comedy acts of the mid-twentieth century. From 1917 until Susie's death in 1963, they toured regularly. Their act featured double entendre songs, ludicrous costuming, domestic comedy sketches, and Butterbeans' famous "Heebie Jeebie" dance. Racial segregation shaped their career in important ways their recordings were marketed as "Race" records, and at their peak they played primarily in segregated venues. Their broad humor exploited racial stereotypes in a manner reminiscent of minstrel shows. Yet within the world of African American show business such strategies were common, and clearly Butterbeans and Susie's antics delighted African American audiences. Butterbeans and Susie achieved success by working with dominant racial images within the discriminatory racial structures of America.

Posted by crazy3/nyashia at 7:15 PM EST
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Bill Cosby
Topic: Black Comedians

Born in Philadelphia on July 12, 1937, the young Bill Cosby began developing his knack for comedy at an early age. He based his first routines on his school pals, including "Fat Albert," "Weird Harold," and "Dumb Donald," and tested them on his most appreciative audience: his mother. In the tenth grade, Cosby dropped out of high school to join the Navy, finishing his studies by correspondence course while still in the service. After his discharge, he entered Philadelphia's Temple University, planning to become a physical education teacher. He supported himself as a bartender and quickly gained a reputation as a talented comic among club patrons. Encouraged by his success, Cosby left school and headed to New York to perform in Greenwich Village nightclubs. By 1963, he won a guest spot on THE TONIGHT SHOW and shot to almost overnight success. His comedy was unique for its time; although it was the height of the civil rights movement, Cosby preferred to lampoon childhood and everyday situations, rather than focus on racial issues.

By 1965, Cosby made the jump from stand-up comedy to television when he snagged one of the leading roles in I SPY opposite Robert Culp. His portrayal of the unflappable Alexander Scott gained him national attention and won him three Emmy Awards. After I SPY, Cosby's place in entertainment history was firmly assured. He recorded several comedy albums, including the best-selling "Why Is There Air?", "Revenge," and "Wonderfulness." He appeared in a variety of feature films. And his television career spiraled in 1969 with THE BILL COSBY SHOW, the first of many series bearing his name. Along the way, Cosby managed to complete his undergraduate studies at Temple and earn a master's degree from the University of Massachusetts.

Cosby was highly active in television throughout the 1970s, with a stint on THE ELECTRIC COMPANY, the animated FAT ALBERT AND THE COSBY KIDS, THE NEW BILL COSBY SHOW, and COS. In 1977, he earned his doctorate in education. His 1982 comedy performance movie and album, BILL COSBY: HIMSELF was a phenomenal success, garnering numerous awards and breaking a host of sales records. But it was 1984's THE COSBY SHOW which would remain his most successful and beloved achievement. In its eight years on the air, THE COSBY SHOW was a critical and ratings giant. The show single-handedly revived the flagging sitcom genre and propelled NBC from last place to first in the network ratings. Cosby also developed and composed the theme music for the successful COSBY SHOW spin-off A DIFFERENT WORLD, which ran from 1987 to 1993.

After THE COSBY SHOW, Cosby showed no signs of slowing down. He hosted the short-lived revival of TV's YOU BET YOUR LIFE, played gumshoe Guy Hanks in THE COSBY MYSTERIES (the character's name was a tribute to his wife, the former Camille Hanks), and launched yet another self-titled sitcom, COSBY, in 1996. COSBY ran four seasons, to widespread critical and popular acclaim. In 1998, Cosby was an honoree at the Kennedy Center Awards. The following year, he was presented with a People's Choice Award for Favorite All-Time Television Star. In 1999, Cosby developed LITTLE BILL for Nickelodeon. The animated series, focusing on an inquisitive pre-schooler and his family, proved immensely popular among children and adults alike. LITTLE BILL received a 2001 Image Award, in addition to being nominated for a Daytime Emmy

Posted by crazy3/nyashia at 7:12 PM EST
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Matthew 'Stymie' Beard
Topic: Black Comedians

(January 1, 1925 - January 8, 1981)

Matthew Beard, Jr. was an African-American child actor, most famous for portraying the character of Stymie in the Our Gang short films from 1930 to 1935. In contrast to the character he replaced, Farina, Stymie was a slick-tongued con-artist who was always self-assured, nonchalant, and ready with a sly comment. The character's trademark was a bald head crowned by an oversize derby hat, a gift to Matthew Beard from fellow Hal Roach comedian Stan Laurel.

The name "Stymie" was provided by Our Gang director Robert McGowan, who was always frustrated ("stymied") by little Matthew's curious wanderings around the studio; the character was originally to be named "Hercules". Stymie remained in the series during the transition from the silent/early talkie era Our Gang to the more familiar group of Spanky, Alfalfa, and Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas, who would replace him in 1935.

Stymie's paycheck was used to help support his East Los Angeles family, including his 13 brothers and sisters. After Stymie renamed his younger brother Bobbie "Cotton" (which was also used as Bobbie's Our Gang character name), his parents allowed him to name all of the rest of his siblings as they were born. He named one "Dickie" after his best friend, child actor and Our Ganger Dickie Moore. Four other members of the Beard family would appear in the Our Gang comedies::

his younger sister Betty Jane Beard preceded Stymie in the gang, playing Farina's little brother Hector in "Moan & Groan, Inc." (1929) and "When the Wind Blows" (1930) (even though she was a girl).

his younger sister Carlena appeared as Stymie's younger sister in "Shiver My Timbers" (1931) and "For Pete's Sake!" (1934). In "For Pete's Sake!", her character was called "Buckwheat", a role which would eventually be converted to a male character and given to Billie Thomas.

his younger brother Bobbie appeared in six Our Gang shorts from 1932 to 1934 as Stymie's younger brother, "Cotton."

his mother, Johnnie Mae Beard, has a cameo as Stymie's mother in "Free Wheeling" (1932). She was the only other Beard family member besides Stymie to have a speaking part in the Our Gang series.

Stymie's younger brother Renee Beard would appear in Hal Roach's Our Gang remakes of the 1940s: Curley and Who Killed Doc Robbin.

After Stymie left the series in 1935 at the age of ten, he went on to score some minor roles in feature films like,Jezebel with Bette Davis and Stormy Weather with Lena Horne. By the time he was in high school, he had retired from acting. Falling into drug use and street life, Stymie became addicted to heroin, and spent most of his early adult life in and out of jail because of it. In the 1960s, he checked himself into Synanon, a drug rehabilitation facility in Los Angeles, and got himself cleaned up. After leaving Synanon, he made a small comeback, appearing in small roles in feature films like,Truck Turner,and The Buddy Holly Story and episodes of television shows such as Sanford & Son and Good Times. He also traveled around the country, giving lectures on drug abuse awareness.

He died of pneumonia on January 8, 1981 in Los Angeles, California.

Posted by crazy3/nyashia at 7:05 PM EST
Updated: Thursday, January 20, 2005 10:16 PM EST
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Amos 'N' Andy
Topic: Black Comedians

Like many of its early television counterparts, the Amos 'n' Andy television program was a direct descendent of the radio show that originated on WMAQ in Chicago on 19 March 1928, and eventually became the longest-running radio program in broadcast history. Amos 'n' Andy was conceived by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two white actors who portrayed the characters Amos Jones and Andy Brown by mimicking so-called Negro dialect. The significance of Amos 'n Andy, with its almost thirty year history as a highly successful radio show, its brief, contentious years on network television, its banishment from prime-time and subsequent years in syndication, and its reappearance in video cassette format is difficult to summarize in a few paragraphs. The position of the Amos 'n Andy show in television history is still debated by media scholars in recent books on the cultural history of American television.

Amos 'n Andy, was first broadcast on CBS television in June 1951, and lasted some two years before the program was canceled in the midst of growing protest by the black community in 1953. It was the first television series with an all-black cast (the only one of its kind to appear on prime-time, network television for nearly another twenty years).
The adventures of Amos 'n Andy presented the antics of Amos Jones, an Uncle Tom-like, conservative; Andy Brown, his zany business associate; Kingfish Stevens, a scheming smoothie; Lawyer Calhoun, an underhanded crook that no one trusted; Lightnin,' a slow-moving janitor; Sapphire Stevens, a nosey, loud-mouth; Mama, a domineering mother-in-law, and the infamous Madame Queen. The basis for these characters was derived largely from the stereotypic caricatures of African-Americans that had been communicated through several decades of popular American culture, most notably, motion pictures.

The program's portrayal of black life and culture was deemed by the black community of the period as an insulting return to the days of blackface and minstrelsy. Eventually, the controversy surrounding the television version of Amos 'n Andy would almost equal that of the popularity of the radio version. Contemporary television viewers might find it difficult to understand what all the clamor was about. Why did the Amos 'n Andy show go on to become one of the most protested of television programs? Media historian Donald Bogel notes "Neither CBS nor the programs' creators were prepared for the change in national temperament after the Second World War ... Within black America, a new political consciousness and a new awareness of the importance of image had emerged." Though hardly void of the cruel insults and disparaging imagery of the past, Hollywood of the post World War II period ushered in an era of better roles and improved images for African-American performers in Hollywood. American motion pictures presented its first glimpses of black soldiers fighting alongside their white comrades; black entertainers appeared in sequined gowns and tuxedos instead of bandannas and calico dresses. black characters could be lawyers, teachers and contributing members of society.

Post World War II African-Americans looked upon the new medium of television with hopeful excitement. To them, the medium could nullify the decades of offensive caricatures and ethnic stereotyping so prevalent throughout decades of motion picture history. The frequent appearance of black stars on early television variety shows was met with approval from black leadership. African-Americans were still exuberant over recent important gains in civil rights brought on by World War II. They were determined to realize improved images of themselves in popular culture. To some, the characters in Amos 'n Andy, including rude, aggressive women and weak black men were offensive. Neither The Kingfish nor Sapphire Stevens could engage in a conversation without peppering their speech with faulty grammar and mispronunciations. Especially abhorred was the portrayal of black professionals. The NAACP, bolstered by its 1951 summer convention, mandated an official protest of the program. The organization outlined a list of specific items it felt were objectionable, for example, how "every character is either a clown or a crook," "Negro doctors are shown as quacks," and "Negro lawyers are shown as crooks." As the series appeared in June 1951, the NAACP appeared in federal court seeking an injunction against its premiere. To network executives, the show was harmless, not much different from Life with Liugi, The Goldbergs, or any other ethnically oriented show of the times.

Moreover, the denunciation of Amos 'n Andy was not universal. With its good writing and talented cast, the show was good comedy, and soon became a commercial success. The reaction of the black community over this well produced and very funny program remained divided. Even the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the black community's most influential publications, which had earlier led in the protest against the motion picture Gone With the Wind, defended the show in an article appearing in June 1951. In 1953, CBS reluctantly removed the program from the air, but not solely because of the efforts of the NAACP. As mentioned, the period featured a swiftly changing climate for race relations in the United States. Consideration for the southern market was of great concern to major advertisers. In an era when African Americans were becoming increasingly vocal in the fight against racial discrimination, large advertisers were reluctant to have their products too closely associated with black people. Fear of White economic backlash was of special concern to advertisers and television producers. The idea of "organized consumer resistance" caused advertisers and television executives to avoid appearing pro-Negro rights. One advertising agency executive, referring to blacks on television, noted in Variety, "the word has gone out, 'No Negro performers allowed.'"Even with so much contention looming, the Amos 'n Andy show remained in syndication well into the 1960s. Currently, video tape cassettes of the episodes are widely available.

Posted by crazy3/nyashia at 6:44 PM EST
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Friday, October 1, 2004
LaWanda Page
Topic: Black Comedians

LaWanda Page was born on October 19,1920. She was an African-American comedic character actress.
Born in Cleveland and raised in St. Louis, Page began her career as a dancer and chorus girl billed as ?the Bronze Goddess of Fire? and later became a stand-up comic. Her greatest fame began in her 50s when comedian Redd Foxx, a childhood friend, asked her to join his Norman Lear sitcom adapted from the British series ?Steptoe and Son.? Page signed on as Fred Sanford's crusty sister-in-law, Esther Anderson, in 1973 and stayed with ?Sanford and Son? until the series ended in 1977.

She reprised the role in two short-lived spin-offs, ?The Sanford Arms? in 1977 and Foxx's own ?Sanford? in 1980. She also made guest appearances on Foxx's variety show, ?The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour? the same year. More recently, Page made television commercials, including a well-received package for Atlanta-based Church's Fried Chicken. LaWanda Page, 81, a comedic character actress best known for her role as the Bible-thumping Aunt Esther in the 1970s TV hit ?Sanford and Son,? died September 14, 2002 in Los Angeles of complications from diabetes.

Posted by crazy3/nyashia at 11:07 PM EDT
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Godfrey Cambridge
Topic: Black Comedians
February 26

On this date in 1933, Godfrey Cambridge was born. He was an African American actor and comedian, one of the most unique comics of the early 1970?s. Born to parents who emigrated from British Guiana, he attended pubic schools in Nova Scotia while living with his grandparents. Cambridge finished his education in New York at Flushing High School and Hofstra College, then he began to study acting.

He made his Broadway debut in Natures Way in 1956 and was seen in Purlie Victorious in 1961. He also appeared in a number of off-Broadway productions and won an Obie award for a 1961 role in the play The Blacks. Cambridge starred in a stock version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Forum in 1965. as a comedian he appeared on The Tonight Show and many other variety hours through television.

His material was very much his own style and was drawn off of the racial climate of the times. He played many dramatic characters, one of Cambridge?s most memorable roles was in the Hollywood film Watermelon Man 1970 in which he played a white man who turned black overnight. During the 1970?s he remained in semi-retirement, making few public appearances. Godfrey Cambridge died on November 29th 1976, while working on playing the role of Idi Amin in a television movie about the raid on Entebbe.

Posted by crazy3/nyashia at 9:56 PM EDT
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Mom's Mabley
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.

Posted by crazy3/nyashia at 9:45 PM EDT
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