"Offstage Moms Mabley is a striking figure in tailored slacks, matching sports shirt, Italian shoes, horn-rimmed glasses - and teeth. She looks utterly sophisticated. Onstage, however, is a different story. She creates the impression that the theater cleaning woman has somehow wandered into the spotlight." - Ebony, August 1962
"Moms Mabley ... She was fabulous." - Rudy Ray Moore
"A woman is a woman until the day she dies, but a man's a man only as long as he can." - Moms Mabley
Moms Mabley was one of the greatest comedians of all time. She is widely regarded as one of the most important African-American entertainers that ever lived and as the first bonafide female stand-up comedy superstar. At her peak she was making ten thousand dollars a week for stage appearances alone. It is ludicrous that a book has never been written about this comedy legend.1 Moms was one of the first, perhaps the first, to advocate for civil rights from a comedic perch. The social issues that boiled over in the late sixties were something Mabley had been addressing for decades. When the struggle against war, racism and varied discrimination became the focus of a new generation, Mabley suddenly found herself a bigger star than before, her message embraced by those involved in the fight. Television programming geared to the new youth market regularly booked Mabley and white viewers discovered the joy that the Black community had known about for years. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour booked Mabley several times. So did ABC's Music Scene. Both of these television shows fell victim to controversy when a jingoistic establishment objected to their progressive politics.2 Yet Moms Mabley, their occasional guest star, managed to take on the same bullheaded power structure and get away with it. Mabley convinced her audience that she was a harmless, placid grandmother. By the time she left the stage, she had lectured on war, segregation and a racist society she had fought her entire life. An audience convulsed, ribs sore from jubliant hysterics, would walk out of the theater having been hipped to the struggles of a woman, a race and a generation. Most did not even realize it.
For most older whites The Ed Sullivan Show would be their first introduction to Moms Mabley. By the time she reached the Sullivan show, Moms' stage persona matched her age. Just as actor Walter Brennan began to portray old codgers while in his twenties, Mabley adopted the persona of an old woman early on. The frumpy manner, floppy hat and a mouth that seemed to be consuming itself were based on Mabley's own grandmother who had once been a slave. Mabley spoke of her in an interview: "You know who hipped me? My grandmother. This is the truth! She lived to be 118 years old. And you wonder why Moms is hip today? Granny hipped me. She said, 'They lied to the rest of them, but I'm not gonna let you be dumb.' One day she's sitting out on the porch and I said, 'Granny, how old does a woman get before she don't want no more boyfriends?' She was around 106 then. She said, 'I don't know honey, you'll have to ask somebody older than me."
THE EARLY YEARS: VAUDEVILLE TO BROADWAY
The details of Jackie Mabley's upbringing are unpleasant. Her biological father died in a car accident when she was eleven years old. Less than two years later her mother, who had re-married, was hit by a truck and died. She was primarily raised by her grandmother. "My granny was a slave," she explained. "She did all her cooking in her fireplace ... she told me, 'Child, you look into that fireplace and see the future in those flames, cause you're gonna see the world like your granny never did."
By the age of fifteen she had borne two, some say three, children. "I was raped and everything else," she explained. The children were given up for adoption. Her stepfather, acting as her only guardian, forced her to marry a man much older than she was and whom she did not like. She ran away from this horrid North Carolina life to Cleveland, hitching a ride with a travelling minstrel show. Here, she first witnessed the joys of Chitlin' Circuit performers and concluded it was what she wanted to do. She changed her name from Loretta Aiken to Jackie Mabley. The name change was the result of a shaming she received from one of her many brothers whom felt show business was a sinful trade. The name Jackie Mabley was chosen after a few brief dates with a Canadian man named Jack Mabley who she wasn't with for long. "I was real uptight with him," explained Moms. "He certainly was uptight with me; you better believe. He took a lot off me and the least I could do was take his name."
Like all who played vaudeville, she had multiple talents: dancing, singing, jokes. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she had a gift for crafting original material far stronger than the stock routines others toured with. At the prompting of the vaudeville team Butterbeans and Susie, she moved to New York City in the early twenties and found herself in the the Harlem Renaissance. Mabley would perform her comedy act in vaudeville theaters while simultaneously auditioning for straight theater. Butterbeans and Susie had helped an unknown blues singer named Ethel Waters at the same time. It appears that Butterbeans and Susie were not merely popular performers, but uncanny talent scouts. Moms would always credit the comedy duo with rescuing her from the brutal slog of the TOBA circuit and the unwelcoming small towns of the South. "I never went back across the Mason-Dixon line," recalled Mabley. "Not for another thirty years."
In 1931 Mabley exercised her writing ability when she collaborated with Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was one of the great playwrights and short story writers of the Renaissance. The cultural force of the nineteen twenties and thirties splintered after an explosive dispute between Hurston and Langston Hughes. Hughes and Hurston had run a literary magazine called Fire!! and later collaborated on a play titled Mule-Bone that did not see a public performance for sixty years. Langston Hughes felt he deserved sole credit for the play and Zora felt she had done most of the work. One theater company attempted to perform the play at the end of the year, but the very bitter (and very public) dispute resulted in its cancelation. It also resulted in the artists of Harlem choosing sides, splitting the community into two hostile, warring camps. Ironically, the plot of Mule-Bone revolved around two hunters fighting over a turkey until one knocks the other cold with a mule's hock bone. The quarrel divides the community down the middle and what begins as a matter between two individuals explodes into a larger conflict.
Mabley's sympathy remained with Zora Neale Hurston, a fellow strong-minded female artist, and the two would collaborate on Hurston's first project since the vicious row. Together they wrote a play titled Fast and Furious: A Colored Revue in 37 Scenes. It had a short run. Mabley played the lead with a young Tim Moore, still a few years away from his famed portrayal of the Kingfish on Amos n' Andy. The show suffered from an unofficial boycott courtesy the anti-Hurston crowd.
Hurston and Mabley may have shared similar politics as fellow Black feminists during the time of their partnership, but their politics eventually veered to opposite ends. Mabley was a strong advocate for civil rights, a supporter of Martin Luther King Jr. and the freedom rides. Her comedy act would regularly ridicule segregationists. Mabley did, however, stop short of supporting the Black Panthers or Malcom X. She also chastised the community for inner city uprisings, convinced such actions would simply re-enforce racist hostility toward African-Americans. Moms was on the left, but an advocate of agitation in moderation. Hurston, on the other hand, could have easily become the Condoleezza Rice of her day had she entered the political field. As Hurston aged, the isolation she experienced in the early thirties expanded. She became a hardline believer in the Booker T. Washington pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps remedy for America's Black population. She rejected the Black community's claims of institutionalized racism. Contemporaries accused her of appeasing white racists. This belief was solidified when she supported reactionary Ohio Senator Robert Taft's bid for the presidency in 1952. Taft ran on a platform that included a vow to uphold racial segregation in housing. Taft belonged to a political dynasty that continues to this day. His father was the 27th President of the United States, William Howard Taft. Papa Taft once stated the purpose of his administration's foreign policy in Latin America, "The day is not far from distant [when] the whole hemisphere will be ours - in fact as, by virtue of our superiority of race, it is already ours morally." Notable Black artists such as Richard Wright and Paul Robeson would dismiss Zora Neale Hurston as an enemy of her people.
Mabley enjoyed steady gigs in nineteen thirties Harlem as a regular in Black theater revues. She performed in Blackberries of 1932 with Mantan Moreland and a man she would be associated with for much of her life, Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham. She was an extra in the early Paul Robeson picture Emperor Jones (1933). She opened for the orchestras of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Cab Calloway at famous venues like The Cotton Club and The Savoy. Those experiences no doubt influenced her act in later years when she incorporated the idioms of the jazz hipsters, uttering jive talk in her act, to the giddy delight of her audience. In 1939 she became the first female comedian to perform at The Apollo. The Apollo, in operation for thirty-five years, had only opened its doors to Harlem's Black population four years earlier. It was during her early tenure at The Apollo that she obtained the nickname "Moms." Legend says the name was due to her protective nature toward fellow performers. Mabley stated that she regularly spotted white comedians in the Apollo crowd with pen and paper in hand - whom she had no problem confronting about stealing material from her fellow Black comics (the Pat Boones of stand-up comedy, if you will).
1939 also saw Mabley participate in an ambitious jazz rendering of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream dubbed Swingin' the Dream and sponsored in part by The New York World's Fair. It was set in 1890's New Orleans and featured demonstrations of jazz and, according to promotional material, voodoo. The remarkable cast had Louis Armstrong as Bottom, Butterfly McQueen as Puck and Mabley as Quince. Other cast members were Dorothy, Etta and Vivian Dandridge, singer Maxine Sullivan and dancer Norma Miller. The program stated, "Scenery based on cartoons designed by Walt Disney." The Benny Goodman Sextet and Bud Freeman's Summa Cum Laude performed compositions written by Fats Waller, W.C. Handy, Johnny Mercer and the great Slam Stewart. The hepcat venture was written by erudite commentator Gilbert Seldes whose critical writings helped establish James Joyce's Ulysses and T.S. Elliot's The Wasteland as modern classics. By the end of his career, however, he was reviewing sitcoms for TV Guide (he called The Beverly Hillbillies brilliant). In the end, Swingin' the Dream was a failure. Shocking, considering the talent involved, it lasted only thirteen performances - opening November 29th, 1939 and closing on December 9th. It lost almost one hundred thousand dollars, an enormous sum at the time.
As a solo act, Mabley continued to hone her elderly persona. She became so convincing that most crowds mistook her for the real deal. "I had in mind a woman about 60 or 65, even when I first came up," explained Moms. "She's a good woman, with an eye for shady dealings. She was like my granny, the most beautiful woman I ever knew. She was the one who convinced me to go make something of myself. She was so gentle, but she kept her children in line, best believe that."
THE MIDDLE YEARS: B-GRADE FILM TO A-GRADE VINYL
Mabley continued as an Apollo mainstay where she enjoyed her most fervent following. In the forties, she appeared in the curious world of all-Black cast pictures, also referred to as "race films." These films travelled a vast Black theater circuit and filled a niche that the studio-run theaters refused to provide. The Big Timers (1945) was an all-Black musical and, like all films in this genre, looked cheap. It is readily available in the public domain on poor quality DVDs often with Mabley's name splashed across the front cover.3 The most controversial character in the history of Black cinema, Stepin Fetchit, is featured prominently in the movie and sing-mumbles a song called "Put Down the Pork Chop." Fetchit also dances with a dwarf dressed as a bellboy.
Hollywood churned out a few big-budget novelties in the genre like Hallelujah (1929), The Green Pastures (1936), Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Stormy Weather (1943), but they were still created for the white moviegoer, whereas the low budget items were made by Black filmmakers for a Black audience. These pictures, despite being products of poverty row, were beloved. An all-Black western with Mantan Moreland adorning a ten-gallon hat? Was it just a weird dream? Black people as stars? Love interests? Heroes? Could this be for real?
Scholars pinpoint Birth of A Nation (1915) as the motivating factor for the intensified efforts of the Black community to create their own film industry. Hollywood would always be racist, it was assumed, both in regards to employment and in its depiction of African-Americans on the screen. In 1918 an all-Black production was released titled Birth of a Race - a direct response to the racist D.W. Griffith epic. One of the first production houses to enter the genre was the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, incorporated in 1916. They explained their mandate: "To picture the Negro as he is in his everyday life, a human being with human inclination, and one of talent and intellect."
As early as 1929 there were four hundred and sixty-one "colored movie houses" across America. They were owned and operated by, and catering specifically to, African-Americans. All-Black cast films regularly played this circuit. They were B-movies, filmed in a couple of days, creaky looking, short, often with inept acting captured in one-take. However, many of them featured music and dance that could match anything done in an MGM or Warner Brothers spectacular. One can only imagine what could have been had these films had access to a large budget. Tim Moore's future Amos n' Andy co-star, Spencer Williams, was a regular in all-Black westerns. He starred in Harlem on the Prairie (1937), Two-Gun Man From Harlem (1938), The Bronze Buckaroo (1938) and Harlem Rides the Range (1939). Cab Calloway starred in a couple features of his own as did countless other Black jazz groups. Eventually the independent Black studios expanded the experience by adding Black film shorts and Black newsreels to the bill.
Moms Mabley was the star of the all-Black cast film Boarding House Blues (1948) in which she played landlord to a building of rent-dodging vaudeville performers. Comedian Slappy White remembered, "It wasn't hard casting the actors. All of us were out of work before the picture started." Slappy then noted the reality of the Black actor's trade at the time. "We would all be out of work again as soon as it was finished." The script was credited to Hal Seeger. Seeger wrote four pictures for the all-Black genre - his first jobs in show business. Seeger was a white man that became famous in television animation, creating the shows Milton the Monster and Batfink. Boarding House Blues also showcased "Crip" Heard, a tap dancer with only one arm and one leg who provides the movie with its greatest moments (obviously). Hal Seeger scripted Moms' final picture in this novel league, Killer Diller (1948). Its highlights come from a comedy turn by Butterfly McQueen, a song by Moms and a performance by The King Cole Trio. The Clark Brothers also do an amazing, high-energy tap routine.
Moms Mabley's fame exploded during the comedy record boom of the early sixties. Her first vinyl appearance came a few years prior with the 1956 Vanguard Records release A Night at the Apollo. The album is a fascinating social document with liner notes written by Langston Hughes. Mabley's introduction is greeted with uproarious applause from her devout Apollo fan base. Comedian George Kirby, best known for his impression of Pearl Bailey, also performs. Perhaps the album's most enjoyable selection is the elongated "amateur competition" hosted by house emcee Leonard Reed4 and featuring teenage Doo Wop vocalists sparring for top prize. Amateur vocalists named Danny Rogers and Pearl Jones are both featured, as is a woman named Doreen Vaughn who is partially booed by the notoriously cruel Apollo patrons, while doowoppers The Heartbreakers and The Keynoters receive generous ovations.5 The record was a favorite of beatnik comedian Lord Buckley, according to his old friend Charles Campbell. Campbell remembered, "[Mabley] made ... A Night at the Apollo ... Buckley heard it and every time he came in the house he'd say, 'Put Moms Mabley on!' And he was ecstatic about her ... Her delivery was incredible and Buckley said 'Jesus, if I could just, you know, get more like Moms."
Phil and Leonard Chess were Jewish immigrants from Poland who had settled in Al Capone's Chicago a few months prior to the stock market crash. With the end of prohibition the two brothers quickly got into the liquor business and bought a pair of watering holes on the South Side. Their Macomba Lounge became a hot spot when they started booking live music. The majority of the acts were Black rhythm and blues artists - the performers with the greatest draw. The Chess brothers realized most of the artists that spawned long lines in front of their club were not available on record. Cut to the chase - Chess Records was created. Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Slim, Bo Diddley, Yusef Lateef and Chuck Berry all recorded as unknowns for Chess between 1952 and 1957, shortly before finding stardom. Chess delivered new found joys for the white public and offered posterity for Chicago's African-American crowd, already hip to the sounds.
In 1960 the Chess brothers, always on the look out for what was popular with their Black audience, signed the most popular African-American comedian around, Moms Mabley. Initially Moms was reluctant to participate. She was not happy with the fact that she had never been paid for the Night at the Apollo recording. However, with comedy records being one of the hottest fads of the year, manager Joe Glaser convinced her it would be a good idea.6 That year Chess would release the first of many comedy albums. Moms Mabley on Stage (also known under the name Moms Mabley: The Funniest Woman Alive) was the first, and long overdue, solo recording for Jackie Mabley. Recorded live at Chicago's Tivoli Theater, the record went gold. Chess then followed suit pressing a comedy album by Pigmeat Markham, the first of many and Moms Mabley at the U.N. was recorded immediately at Philadelphia's Uptown Theater in order to get while the gettin' was hot.
Chicago was host to Hugh Hefner's Playboy Club, a venue that always featured a strong roster of Black performers and plenty of white bohemians. Moms Mabley at The Playboy Club (later re-issued by Chess as Moms Wows) had a totally different sound than her previous two albums. Only a small smattering of applause greets her introduction, whereas on the other albums she receives the ovation of a rock star. This different response can be chalked up to one of the biggest changes of her career. She was performing for an all-white audience.
Moms was attempting to cross over. After conquering the Black entertainment world, appearing in the community's greatest theaters and sharing the bill with the greatest stars of African-Americana, Mabley was ready to sell her act to whites. The church bombings, the fire hoses, the lunch counter sit-ins and the freedom marches were occurring rapidly and the civil rights struggle was accelerating. Moms knew white audiences needed to hear her message now. Mabley's act became increasingly political, but her benevolent old grandma persona made her non-threatening and more accessible to white crowds. They accepted things from her mouth that when stated by Dick Gregory would make them far more uncomfortable.
Chess continued to capitalize on the windfall of her initial releases. In 1962 they released Moms Mabley at the Geneva Conference and Leonard Chess bought a full page ad in Billboard. It bragged that her last two albums still sat on the Billboard charts for best selling monaural LPs. The following year three more records came out: I Got Something to Tell You, The Funny Sides of Moms Mabley and Young Men Si, Old Men No. October 1963, the far whiter Mercury Records lured her away with a grandiose contract. Moms the Word and Out on a Limb were subsequently released. Her Most Ribald Raucous Irreverent Recent Best, Moms Mabley at the White House Conference, The Youngest Teenager, Her Young Thing and Live at Sing Sing were other Mercury pressings.7 A latter day Chess pressing, put together from outtakes, was Moms Mabley - The Men in My Life. It was an interesting title.
Although Mabley constantly joked about her penchant for young men, several sources state matter-of-factly that Moms was a lesbian. The theory is primarily found in "celebrities you never knew were gay" books, but from time to time it is a subject found in respected scholarship. I tried my best but could not find any sources that confirmed Mabley was also a gay pioneer. No specific sources or anecdotes, let alone any statements from Moms herself, can be found. None point to the name of any female lover nor produce an eyewitness account. It is an interesting assertion, but seems to stem only from Mabley's working involvement with many gay men and women throughout her career. That being said, many facts about Mabley's life remain murky and many stories contradict. The "Moms Mabley was a lesbian" concept may or may not be urban legend.
THE GOLDEN YEARS: A MAJOR STAR
Moms became more popular than she had ever been thanks to the comedy record boom. Her appeal was spreading. She went to Los Angeles in 1964 for the filming of a high-profile cameo in a Steve (no relation to Butterfly) McQueen vehicle - The Cincinnati Kid. In 1966 Moms returned to the South for the first time in over three decades. What occured was as bad as anything that happened the last time around. "I hadn't been in Columbia, South Carolina, for thirty-five years," explained Moms, "and [now] bullets ran me out of town." In the middle of her show five bullets were fired from the crowd. After the first gunshot, Mabley froze in shock. After the second she scrambled from the stage. Gratefully, the bullets came nowhere near her and, apparently, had to do with a squabble unrelated to the performance itself. Regardless, a story made the rounds that one of the bullets went straight through her floppy hat.
Ebony reported in May 1967 that Moms "lives quietly in a suburb of New York City, but still makes electric appearances occasionally in theaters ... Her outlook on the progress and position of Negro comedians is pessimistic." Moms was quoted as saying, "There has been a little change in the picture affecting Negro comedians, but not as much as there should be. There are stil ten thousand whites to every Negro on television, though the Negro has made America happy." Harry Belafonte used his clout to try and improve this situation. His attempt would jolt Moms Mabley from "living quietly" to a rapid pace and a level of popularity unlike anything she had ever known.
The airing of the Belafonte produced A Time For Laughter: A Look at Negro Humor in America was done under the banner of an hour-long variety series called ABC Stage 67. The show featured a different theme and format each week. Based on the title of this episode one might expect a history of Black comedy. In actuality, it showcased the greatest African-American comedians performing in brand new sketches written by Bill Attaway, a close friend of novelist Richard Wright. Moms Mabley opened the show in a teaser that showed her sporting a Queen Victoria costume, a white wig towering above her head. Later Mabley joined Godfrey Cambridge and Diana Sands in a sketch in which she played a maid, frowning upon Godfrey's interracial relationship. Dick Gregory, playing a civil rights marcher in a prison cell, delivered a funny monologue about Black Power. Pigmeat Markham played a judge in a sketch in which he presided over Harry Belafonte and Diahann Carroll as a quarrelling couple. Richard Pryor delivered a solo piece as an undertaker who has to deliver an awkward eulogy after the clergyman fails to appear. George Kirby played all seven characters in one sketch and Redd Foxx delivered a routine as a pool hustler ranting about racial inequality. Mabley did interviews with a variety of newspapers and magazines in the publicity blitz leading up to the airing. Searching for a humorous quip, her statements were often heavier than what the press wanted to hear. "The humor of the Negro has been stolen from him by white people," she said. "A white man 'loves' the Negro until he gets what he wants from him... and then discards him." A Time For Laughter was nominated for an Emmy as Outstanding Variety Program but lost... to a Bob Hope special.
Shortly after the success of this spectacular, Moms saw her stock balloon. Her triumphant turn as a variety performer placed her in high-demand for guest appearances on countless television programs. Her first of three appearances on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had her performing a stand-up routine about "the racial situation." Counterculture kids, drawn to the program for its ridicule of LBJ and Nixon were quick converts to Mabley fandom. The week before Christmas she did the whitest of talk programs, The Merv Griffin Show, and shared the panel with fellow comedian Jack Carter and pugilist Rocky Graziano. She returned to Merv's show an unprecedented ten days later, so popular was her first guest shot.
June 15, 1968, Moms hit a milestone when she was double billed with Hugh Masekela's Quintet for two shows at Carnegie Hall. Billboard reported that she was her "pixie like self" and that her "song and dance were effective parts of the venerable performer's hilarious stint." In 1969, Mercury had great success when Moms covered Dion's Abraham, Martin & John, a sentimental piece of pop that paid homage to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr, JFK and, in Mom's version, the President's slain brother Bobby. Mercury pressed a full length LP based on the single's success and padded it with Mabley cover versions of Sunny, He's Got the Whole World in His Hands and The Isley Brothers hit It's Your Thing. She also gave Paul Anka's My Way a Christian twist by changing it to His Way. Chess cashed in by pressing Moms Mabley Sings, an album that swiped cuts from old Mabley Chess comedy records in which she sang the odd song.
Moms Mabley was clearly a huge success with both Black and white audiences. The fact that it took so long for this to occur was not something Mabley was bitter about. To the contrary, her attitude was that her success was courtesy several decades of methodical training in thousands of theaters, nightclubs and saloons. "Kids these days make one record and if it sells," Moms lamented, "they are launched into a career at the top of the heap without learning the fundamentals of timing and musicianship. After that one record fades, so do the singers. Without that basic foundation in showmanship, an act can't remain at the top ... I was taught to work; couldn't jive my way through. You talk about rehearsals - honey, we rehearsed before shows, between shows and after shows." And it paid off. Moms was a star.
Stax Records remains one of the most storied soul music labels of all time. After incredible success in the nineteen sixties, some shady accounting practices nearly bankrupted the company. Just when they needed it most, Isaac Hayes provided them with their greatest triumph, the soundtrack for the motion picture Shaft. They took the new influx of cash that Shaft brought and invested in overly ambitious projects. One was a subsidiary devoted solely to comedy albums - Partee Records. Moms Mabley would have her last vinyl release put out by the division, while comedian Richard Pryor would have one of his first.8 The album I Like Them Young was released in 1972. It featured Stax session players, and former members of Booker T and the MGs, Duck Dunn and Al Jackson backing her up. Her legacy is thankfully preserved through the many recordings and she remains, to this day, the highest charting female comic in history.
Having done her first all-white gigs at The Playboy Club, it was only natural that Heff would have her on the television series Playboy After Dark. Around the same time Moms showed up on The Mike Douglas Show where she indulged in amusing banter with fellow guest Ralph Nader. August of 1969 she once again performed on The Merv Griffin Show, this time sitting next to Woody Allen (If that's not worth a membership at the Museum of Television and Radio I don't know what is). The year finished with her first of several killer appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Moms was now driving around the neighborhood in a stunning Rolls-Royce with vanity plates that read JMM. Everyone knew they stood for Jackie Moms Mabley.
The Flip Wilson Show starred the most innocuous of the popular African-American comics. The network could count on Wilson to remain apolitical, but he was certainly good to the comedians that had paved the way. Redd Foxx, Slappy White and Moms all had a turn on Wilson's hit program (Moms appeared in one episode alongside Marcel Marceau!). Mabley was popping up on everywhere; The Pearl Bailey Show, Laugh-In, the aforementioned Music Scene and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Bill Cosby, like Flip, paid homage to his childhood favorites. Mabley guest starred on the failed sitcom The Bill Cosby Show. Mabley played Cosby's elderly aunt while Cosby's uncle was portrayed by veteran Black character actor Mantan Moreland. Over the course of their one episode, Mabley and Moreland argue ad nauseam, driving Cosby up the wall. It's great fun to see the two aging legends together. Moms enjoyed her final television appearance as a presenter on the 1973 Grammy Awards alongside Kris Kristofferson. She relished in the loudest reaction of the night as Kristofferson, reading from the teleprompter, was upstaged by Mabley removing her false teeth. "When they're uncomfortable... I take 'em out." It brought down the house.
During this period of greater fame, scholars gave Moms her due for pushing boundaries long before anyone else. "Her comments bristled with the sexual and the political," wrote Donald Bogle. "Full of folk wisdom and sly insights ... Politics and sociology were never left out ... she even commented on Richard Nixon saying, 'Even old Moms couldn't do nothin' for that man 'cept give him a few licks upside the head." Jackie Mabley appeared in two major theatrical releases in the nineteen seventies. It's Your Thing (1970) is a hard to find concert film that took place in Yankee's Stadium. It features one of the more unfettered Moms Mabley performances ever committed to film; an authentic Moms Mabley experience. Also on the bill are The Isley Brothers, The Eddie Hawkins Singers and Ike and Tina Turner.
Amazing Grace (1974) was a mild comedy that would have felt at home on the Disney roster. Regardless, it was a monumental event for those that had followed the comedienne's career - and a monumental moment for Moms Mabley; her first starring role in a major motion picture. When the film was released, Mabley was candid. "I try not to be bitter," she said. "I would have liked to have gotten my chance earlier, but that's the way things were in those days ... better times are coming." Unfortunately Amazing Grace neutralized much of what made her a star. The hysterical young-man-loving, politician-scolding granny she played on the stage makes no appearance in the film, replaced by a doddering, placid homemaker named Grace. Despite being a blasé film, it retains much novelty value for viewers today. It is a large and wonderful dose of Moms all at once and has the further distinction of showcasing elder Black stars Butterfly McQueen, Slappy White and Stepin Fetchit. The film's chief overseer, Matt Robinson, cast both Slappy and Butterfly in the picture because of his "sympathy for the plight of black screen actors of [their] time." He wanted to pay homage to his heroes - including Moms. However, Stepin Fetchit, then retired after years of controversy, was never supposed to be part of the deal. "Step showed up uninvited as Slappy White's dialogue coach."
The timbre of this gentle family comedy can be attributed to the writer and the director, both of whom were fresh off of Sesame Street. The film was written by Matt Robinson, who had portrayed the original "Gordon" on the show. Robinson also added an African-American sensibility to Sesame Street when he created the "urban" character Roosevelt Franklin, a purple Muppet that taught children about race relations. Amazing Grace director Stan Lathan started his career at the Children's Television Workshop, eventually following Robinson to the Sanford and Son staff. From there he joined Barney Miller and The Waltons before returning to distinctly African-American projects; directing The Redd Foxx Show, The Def Comedy Jam, The Bernie Mac Show and a pair of Dave Chappelle stand-up specials (with some time spent on that most soulful of productions... An Eight is Enough Wedding).
Lathan and Robinson were thrilled with Mabley throughout. "She just came in and took over," said Robinson. "Her timing is so great, that face is so, ah, different, she's just overwhelming. People think she ad-libbed the whole thing." While Moms was an old pro and easy to work with, Stepin Fetchit was a different story. At age eighty-three the actor who was once the wealthiest man in Harlem still had an ego to match. He bragged to all that would listen that he was living in Butterbean's old Chicago house, emphasizing that Butterbean was the one responsible for Moms' career. Fetchit, who wasn't even supposed to be in the picture, started complaining loudly that his part was too small. When informed of this kvetching, Mabley said, "Well, let him put on [the] dress."
In the middle of filming Amazing Grace, Moms Mabley had a heart attack. The shoot was put on hold for three weeks while she had emergency surgery. A pacemaker was installed. She returned to the set considerably weakened. Journalist Mark Jacobson culled anecdotes from the scene. "One day Butterfly asked Moms if she wanted to meet Sammy Davis Jr. Moms is always up for young men, so she said sure. Butterfly pulled an alley cat named Sammy Davis Jr. out of a bag." Mabley said that she "went up the wall - it almost gave me another heart attack ... Matt had to hustle Butterfly out of there after that with them cats ... I hates cats." Amazing Grace did not receive much in the way of critical reception, but Jacobson wrote, "When Moms looks into the camera for the last shot and says, 'You know, I think they need someone like me in the White House,' some people are going to walk out of the theater thinking the Old Lady deserves some kind of Oscar." Moms responded to the suggestion. "I'd love it," she said. "I've been in show business sixty-one years and I've never gotten that kind of recognition." She also reflected on sixty straight years of playing a senior. It hadn't bothered her, she said, "until recently... when I sort of started to catch up to myself." She remained optimistic about her health, knowing that her grandmothers lived to be 97 and 106 and that her "granny," that is to say the woman that was her great grandmother, lived to be 118. She was entertaining the idea of doing another film and teaching a class in "show business professionalism" when Amazing Grace was completed. Alas, it was not to be.
Moms had never been busier, but doctors pleaded with her to slow down. She refused. "Moms will never retire. As long as I live I will never be too old ... Moms is going to stay in show business." Even so, she had to cancel a series of engagements when "she was confined for 10 days to the White Plains Hospital." After her first heart attack and subsequent pacemaker procedure, she was "put on strict medication and diet." According to her daughter Bonnie, "Moms' return to the hospital was prompted by the fact that she didn't strictly adhere to her salt free diet and fluids started collecting in her legs." On May 23, 1975, the all-time record holder for appearances at The Apollo passed away at the age of 81. Dick Gregory delivered the eulogy at her funeral. He spoke to the large crowd of notable showbiz figures. "Had she been white, she'd have been known fifty years ago."
1One book does exist. An extremely drab study of Moms was released as The Humor of Jackie "Moms" Mabley: An African American Comedy Tradition by Elsie A. Williams (Routledge, 1995). The heavy-handed analysis in this term-paper-as-book has some good information but is not an enjoyable read. Its over examination of the motivations and undercurrents in Mabley's comedy destroys the spirit of Moms' act. If one were to read it without knowledge of Mabley's work it would lead one to conclude she was a very boring figure indeed. A sentence from the book's one lonely Amazon review is more entertaining than the whole book: "As a ventriloquist, I draw from this type of humor..."
2Music Scene was to be hosted by the subversive sketch comedy group The Committee (notable members for varying durations were Howard Hesseman, Rob Reiner and Carl Gottlieb - Rob and Carl would also write for The Smothers Brothers). Appearing on The Dick Cavett Show a few months before the fall premiere of Music Scene (Cavett was also on ABC), the group sat on the panel. Cavett brought up Music Scene, "I understand you'll be hosting a new show this fall?" Committee member Morgan Upton responded, "Yes, but before we get into that I just want to state that we are all opposed to the criminal war being waged against the Vietnamese." When Music Scene premiered a few months later, The Committee weren't on it. They had been replaced by the less-outspoken David Steinberg - even though CBS noted Steinberg's material as its reason for cancelling the anti-war Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
4Reed was a lauded vaudeville tap dancer who invented the famed steps of the Shim Sham Shimmy - his vaudeville dance act was billed "Brains as Well as Feet."
5Listen to The Heartbreakers track here.
6Chess had previously dabbled with spoken word albums when they released several sermons on 78 delivered by Aretha Franklin's father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin
7Chess continued to put out LPs featuring recycled Moms Mabley bits, not willing to let her stuff go out of print while her popularity with white audiences was on the rise. One More Time with Moms Mabley & Pigmeat Markham was a best of recording doubling up the pair's previous solo albums. Moms Mabley Breaks Up the Network, Laugh Time with Moms Mabley & Pigmeat Markham and Moms and Pigmeat all consisted of more previously issued stuff.
8Richard Pryor's That Nigger's Crazy was one of only five comedy records that ever made it out of the Stax gate and it would be enough to interest Warner Brothers. Pryor's previous releases were on the notorious Laff Records label. The Stax engineers taped the performance at Don Cornelius' Soul Train Club and it went on to win a Grammy Award. Stax collapsed the same year, retarding the album's release that had not yet finished its distribution. Pryor managed to obtain the rights to the masters, re-issuing it on WB the following year. Partee also pressed Laugh Your Ass Off by Clay Tyson, Super Soul Brother alias Clark Dark by Timmie Rogers and At Last Bill Cosby Really Sings.
Several off-Broadway and fringe type shows have been mounted over the past several years based on the life and works of Moms Mabley. However, we'd probably all be better off dimming the lights and listening to Moms records rather than have someone try to recreate it. Whoopi Goldberg was one of the earliest with her 1984 one-woman show in which she played Moms. Goldberg received solid reviews for the show. Wanda Sykes has been concentrating on using her growing popularity and clout to get a major theatrical biopic of Mabley (her hero) off the ground - something that could, hypothetically, be wonderful. Despite the many good intentions of those who have revamped Moms' act and delivered it in their own inferior way, what we simply need is more Moms. Woody Allen and Moms Mabley swapping barbs back and forth on The Merv Griffin Show? Concert footage of Moms live at Yankees Stadium? DVDs of these performances will win over a fringe play any day. Why this hasn't happened yet is anybody's guess.
Known Theatrical Appearances of Jackie Mabley:
Bowman's Cotton Blossoms (1919)
Look Who's Here (1927)
Miss Bandana (1927)
Fast and Furious (1931)
The Joy Boat (193?)
Sidewalks of Harlem (193?)
Red Pastures (193?)
Swingin' the Dream (1939)