Moms Mabley: Trailblazing Comedic Legend

Moms Mabley: Trailblazing Comedic Legend

Written by Mark Williams, In Celeb, Published On
February 12, 2024
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In Short:

  • Moms Mabley was a pioneering comedian who broke down barriers for women, especially women of colour, in the early 20th-century entertainment industry.
  • She first found fame through the “Chitlin Circuit” of African American vaudeville theatres in the 1920s before becoming a well-known mainstream star in the 1960s.
  • Mabley was known for her edgy comedy routines that tackled controversial topics like race relations and sexuality that pushed boundaries for the time.
  • She inspired many future generations of women comics and performers, with her influence is evident today in stars like Whoopi Goldberg and Wanda Sykes.

Moms Mabley was a pioneering comedian and entertainer who broke down barriers for women and African Americans in the entertainment industry. Though she first rose to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s through the “Chitlin Circuit” of African American vaudeville, she later became known to mainstream white audiences through hugely popular TV appearances in the 1960s. Mabley pushed boundaries with her edgy comedy routines addressing topics like racism and sexuality. She inspired future generations of comics and performers, with her influence clearly evident in the work of Whoopi Goldberg. At the time of her death in 1975, the New York Times wrote that “The history of black comedy on television and on the stage in this country over the last two decades is pretty much the history of Moms.”

Moms Mabley Profile Details

Birth Name Loretta Mary Aiken
Stage Name Jackie “Moms” Mabley
Birthdate March 19, 1897
Birthplace Brevard, North Carolina, USA
Death May 23, 1975 (age 78), White Plains, New York, USA
Medium Stand-up comedy, vaudeville, television, film
Years Active 1910s-1975

Moms Mabley biography

Moms Mabley

Moms Mabley made $10,000 a week at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. Her stage acts were many.

Acts Acts
The Bowman Cotton Blossoms (1919) Sidewalk of Harlem (1930)
Look Who’s Here (1927) The Red Pastures (1930)
Miss Bandana (1927) Blackberries (1932)
Fast & Furious (1931) Swinging the Dream (1938)
The Joy Boat (1930)

Mabley was “The Funniest Woman in the World”. Her cover of “Abraham Martin and John” reached 35 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July 1969. She added bizarre satirical music. White audiences didn’t recognize her until the early 1960s, despite her 50-year career. In 1962, she played at Carnegie Hall. Flip Winston, Mike Douglas, Merv Giffin,

The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour (1967) and Rowes and Martin Laugh-In (1967) were among his 1960s TV appearances.

The irreverent Feminist comics of the time impacted her. She did multiple shows. Her famous films include Emperor Jones (1933), Killer Diller (1948), and Boarding House Blues. Amazing Grace (1974) It’s Your Stuff (1970 documentary). In White Plains, New York, she died on May 23, 1975. Mabley has six children without marriage. By age 14, Mabley had given birth to two twins after being raped by an older black man at 11 and a white sheriff at 13. Giving up their kids for adoption.

Early Life and Career Beginnings

Mabley was born Loretta Mary Aiken in 1897 in Brevard, North Carolina. She endured traumatic experiences in her childhood, including sexual assault, giving birth at ages 11 and 13, and losing both her parents in accidents. Seeking escape, she ran away at 14 to join a travelling minstrel show. She began performing song and comedy routines across the so-called “Chitlin Circuit” of African American vaudeville in the 1910s and 1920s. She adopted the stage name Jackie Mabley, becoming one of the circuit’s top earners despite meagre wages for Black performers, especially women, at that time.

Chitlin Circuit Success

In Cleveland, Aiken joined a travelling minstrel show run by the comedy and musical duo Butterbeans and Susie. She began honing the song and dance skills that would later become her trademark. She took on the stage name Jackie Mabley and hit the road performing as part of the “Chitlin Circuit,” a loose network of independent African American theatres in the early 20th century. During an era of intense racism and segregation, the Chitlin Circuit gave black entertainers like Mabley a platform to develop their talents when they were shut out of mainstream white venues.

Despite the meagre earnings offered to black performers, especially women, Mabley quickly became one of the Circuit’s most successful stars. She performed everywhere, from small rural theatres to the Apollo Theater in Harlem, after making her New York City debut there in the late 1920s.

Becoming “Moms”

Moms Mabley

In the 1950s, Mabley adopted her signature toothless “Moms” character – that of a bedraggled elderly woman wearing a floppy hat and oversized house dress. Mabley said she was inspired by the maternal role she often played for fellow younger comics on the circuit. The warm yet mischievous ‘Moms’ persona gave Mabley license to deliver hilarious routines on edgy topics like interracial relationships that pushed boundaries in that era.

Mainstream Success on TV in the 1960s

In the 1960s, Mabley achieved crossover mainstream success, bringing her groundbreaking comedy to white audiences. She performed multiple times on The Ed Sullivan Show. She also made repeated appearances on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Mabley recorded comedy albums and even had a top 40 pop hit in 1969 with her cover of “Abraham, Martin, and John,” becoming the oldest living person at that time to have a hit song on the charts. She performed everywhere, from Carnegie Hall to the Apollo Theater to the Harlem Cultural Festival.

Final Years and Legacy

Moms Mabley

Mabley continued performing until shortly before she died in 1975 at age 78. She became an inspiration for subsequent generations of boundary-breaking female comics like Whoopi Goldberg, who portrayed Mabley in an acclaimed one-woman show in the 1980s. Mabley’s influence can also be seen in comics like Wanda Sykes and characters like Grandma Klump in the film The Nutty Professor. Upon her passing, the New York Times wrote, “The history of black comedy on television and on the stage in this country over the last two decades is pretty much the history of Moms.” Even today, Moms Mabley stands as an icon for both her comedic brilliance and her trailblazing spirit.

Conclusion

Moms Mabley was a versatile and barrier-breaking entertainer who succeeded in every performance medium of her era – stand-up comedy, vaudeville, theatre, television variety shows, and film. She used her comedy to boldly tackle controversial topics few others dared address in the early 20th century. In doing so, she paved the way for marginalized voices in entertainment, comedy, and beyond. Though she died over 45 years ago, Mabley’s legacy persists through those she inspired, from Whoopi Goldberg and Wanda Sykes to popular film and theatre characters. Her courage and comedic genius broke down doors for women, people of colour, and the LGBTQ community in the entertainment world – her impact still feels powerful even today.

FAQs

Where was Moms Mabley born, and what was her early life like?

Moms Mabley was born Loretta Mary Aiken in 1897 in Brevard, North Carolina. She endured immense trauma early in life, including being raped twice as a young teen. She gave birth to two children from these rapes, who she was forced to put up for adoption. Seeking escape, she ran away at just 14 years old to Cleveland, Ohio, where she joined a traveling minstrel show.

What comedy routine was Moms Mabley best known for?

Mabley was best known for her toothless mischievous old “Moms” woman character that she fully developed in the 1950s. Dressed in a floppy hat and oversized house dress, the warm yet sly “Moms” persona gave Mabley license to deliver hilarious routines on edgy topics like interracial relationships that pushed boundaries.

How did Moms Mabley die?

Mabley died in 1975 at age 78 from heart failure while working on what would be her final film, the concert documentary Amazing Grace. She had suffered a previous heart attack months earlier but returned to performing nightclub shows right up until her death.

Who did Moms Mabley influence?

Mabley influenced generations of boundary-breaking women comics, including Whoopi Goldberg, who rose to fame in the 1980s with her one-woman show portraying Mabley’s life. Her legacy can also be seen today in comics like Wanda Sykes.

What venues did Moms Mabley perform in?

Mabley was a versatile performer, succeeding in every medium, from vaudeville stages to Carnegie Hall to hit movies and top television variety shows like The Ed Sullivan Show. She performed everywhere, from small rural theaters early on to headlining at iconic venues like the Apollo Theater.

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