Friday, January 20, 2012

Jackie "Moms" Mabley - "Killer Diller" (1948)

I was originally intending to do a short piece about Jackie "Moms" Mabley, the iconic African-American comedienne. I thought that I was going to post a short bio about her along with some memories of watching her on The Merv Griffin Show when I was about 11. She was frequent guest on the show, which aired on WNEW-TV in New York City. That was Channel 5, a part of the Metromedia network, which eventually became Fox.

But I was surprised at the lack of You Tube videos from the Merv Griffin Show with Jackie "Moms" Mabley, who often performed with Redd Fox. She was, after all is said and done, the African-American version of Minnie Pearl, the disheveled comedienne of the Grand Ol' Opry. But good news often follows bad, and I ran across this full length movie with "Moms" Mabley, as well as the King Cole Trio, Butterfly McQueen and a host of African-American acts from the late 1940's. It runs about an hour and a quarter, and it's a fun movie to watch.

Here's a brief recap of "Moms" life story as outlined in Wikipedia. She was born in Brevard, North Carolina in 1894. This was a big surprise to me, as I had always thought she was from the Deep South, somewhere like Mississippi, and also much older.

Her father was a mulatto who ran a General Store, and her mother, who ran a boardinghouse, was recorded as being able to read and write in the 1870 Census. This was only 5 years after the end of the Civil War, so it is surmised that she was either a house servant, or a free woman of color. Again, this was a surprise to me. I had always assumed that her parents were slaves.

By the age of fifteen years old, Jackie, her given name, had been raped twice, giving birth to 2 children who were both given up for adoption. Against her father's wishes, she took off for Cleveland, Ohio where she secured work in a traveling minstrel show as a singer and dancer.

Her stage name, Jackie Mabley, was apparently taken from an early boyfriend, and she was quoted in an Ebony Magazine interview, 5 years before her death in 1975 "that he'd taken so much from me, it was the least I could do to take his name." She became known as "Moms" because she was like a mother to many of the younger comedians playing the "Chitlin' Circuit" during the late 1940's through the early 60's. I knew that.

At 27 years old she declared herself to be a Lesbian, becoming one of the first female entertainers to do so, black or white. In short, she was quite ahead of her time. Since comedy, especially "Mom's", is often rooted in the changes to society at the time in which it is performed, it can be interesting to listen to her acts now, if only to see how little has changed over the years. Minor improvements aside, we are much the same in 2012, as we were back then. I think it’s called human nature.

Here's a link to some of her unique comedy, which influenced performers such as Bill Cosby, as well as Richard Pryor. As a matter of fact, if you listen to some of their old records you will hear them doing some of her jokes. The only difference is the addition of some cursing on the part of Richard Pryor, which may add a bit of spice to the performance, but adds nothing to the jokes themselves.

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