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Mabley, Jackie (1894–1975)

Mabley, Jackie (1894–1975)

Popular American entertainer, who was the first black female comedian to gain widespread recognition . Name variations: Moms Mabley. Born Loretta Mary Aiken in 1894 (some sources cite 1897 or 1898) in Brevard, North Carolina; died of natural causes at age 81 in White Plains, New York, on May 23, 1975; one of several children of Jim Aiken (a businessman and volunteer firefighter); never married; children: five, including Christine, Yvonne, Bonnie, and Charles.

Left home at 14 and moved to Cleveland, Ohio; began entertainment career in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (c. 1910); changed name to Jackie Mabley soon after beginning performing career; performed on Chitlin' Circuit (c. 1910–23), developing act; debuted at Connie's Inn in New York (1923), where career took off; performed regularly at black venues from then on; by 1939 was a regular at the Apollo Theater in Harlem; performed in several Broadway shows, including Fast and Furious and Swinging the Dream ; was a regular on radio show "Swingtime at the Savoy"; was discovered by white audiences (1960s), began recording comedy records, including Moms Mabley—The Funniest Woman in the World, Now Hear This, Moms Mabley at the U.N. , and more than 20 others; made television debut (1967) on all-black comedy special "A Time For Laughter" (ABC); appeared on several television variety shows, including "The Ed Sullivan Show," "The Flip Wilson Show," and "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"; appeared at Copacabana and Carnegie Hall in New York City and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; starred in film Amazing Grace (1974). Member of NAACP; was guest at White House Conference on Civil Rights (1966).

Jackie Mabley spent most of her life in show business, becoming the first African-American female comedian to achieve widespread recognition and popularity. She spent half a century performing in nightclubs on the black vaudeville circuit, constantly refining her act. Her stand-up persona was described in Notable Black American Women as "a cantankerous, spicy, raucous old lady with [a] shabby wardrobe and [a] broad, toothless smile." As Elsie Arrington Williams observed, Mabley had "a remarkably durable career that stretched from minstrel shows to the Harlem Renaissance to movies to record albums to television."

Fellow performers soon discovered Mabley's deep compassion and generosity and gave her the nickname "Moms." The name stuck, becoming a natural addition to her already established act. Williams noted that "salty, … wisecracking Jackie Mabley was called 'Moms' for so many years that it was easy to believe that she was ancient when she started out in show business." In fact, however, Mabley was remarkably young when she embarked on her performing career—barely a teenager.

Born Loretta Mary Aiken in 1894 in Brevard, North Carolina, Mabley was one of several children of Jim Aiken and his wife (name unknown). Aiken owned several businesses, including a grocery store in Brevard. A volunteer firefighter as well, he died in a fire truck explosion when Mabley was young, and her mother soon married a difficult man with whom Mabley did not get along. She was raped twice as a child, once when she was 11 and again two years later; each attack produced a child. Finally heeding her grandmother's advice that any future lay somewhere down the road, Mabley left her children in the care of two women and left home at age 14. She went to Cleveland, living for a time with a minister and his family. A rooming house next door catered to vaudevillians, and she became friends with a performer named Bonnie Belle Drew who was taken with her beauty and encouraged her to get into show business. Still calling herself Loretta Aiken, she lied about her age, claiming to be 16, and accompanied Drew to Pittsburgh, where she joined a minstrel show and began performing on the Theater Owners Booking Association Circuit. At this time, she met a Canadian performer named Jack Mabley, to whom she became engaged. Although the marriage never took place, Loretta Aiken took his name; from then on, she was known as Jackie Mabley. Her ex-fiancé took a lot from her, she said, so the least she could do was take his name.

Jackie Mabley was performing on the Chitlin' Circuit, a network of black-owned venues around the country that welcomed African-American vaudevillians. Earning $12 a week, she sang, danced, acted in skits, and did comedy bits. The act for which she is remembered, a wise, sassy old lady with a funny hat and a baggy dress and stockings, began to evolve in the 1920s. According to Notable Black American Women, "Her trademarks became her bulging eyes, rubbery face, gravelly voice, and later, her toothless grin." Addressing her audience as "children," Mabley fashioned herself after her own wise grandmother. During these years, Mabley performed with such black vaudeville greats as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Dusty "Open the Door, Richard" Fletcher, Pigmeat Markham, and Cootie Williams. She also met Pearl Bailey and took credit for convincing Bailey to tap her own comedic talents.

In the early 1920s, Mabley was "discovered" by the dance team Butterbeans and Susie, who took her to New York. Her debut, at Connie's Inn in 1923, was a hit, and her career finally took off. She appeared at big venues such as the Savoy Ballroom, the Cotton Club in Harlem, and Club Harlem in Atlantic City, New Jersey, often sharing billing with luminaries such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie.

Toward the end of the decade Mabley began to get bit parts in films, and appeared in Boarding House Blues (also known as Jazz Heaven) in 1929, and in the film version of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, starring Paul Robeson, in 1933. By 1939, she was a regular at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She would eventually appear at the Apollo more times than any other performer in the history of that institution. Mabley also appeared in Broadway shows such as Blackbirds and Swinging the Dream. She teamed up with Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston in 1931, writing and performing in Fast and Furious: A Colored Revue in 37 Scenes. Mabley was also a regular on the radio show "Swingtime at the Savoy" and continued her stand-up performances throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

The 1960s brought Mabley more widespread fame, as white audiences finally discovered this wise and folksy comedian. She also began recording comedy albums. Her first album, Moms Mabley—The Funniest Woman in the World, sold more than a million copies for Chess Records. Switching to Mercury Records in 1966, she recorded Now Hear This, Moms Mabley at the U.N., and Moms Mabley at the Geneva Conference. All told, she would record more than 25 comedy albums.

Mabley made her first television appearance on "A Time for Laughter," a 1967 comedy special featuring an entirely black cast. After the special's success, Mabley was a frequent guest on various television shows, including "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," "The Mike Douglas Show," and "The Flip Wilson Show." Although she appeared once on "The Ed Sullivan Show," she turned down a repeat offer, because Sullivan would not give her at least four minutes on the air. Television exposure widened Mabley's popularity even further, and she was much in demand, appearing at the Copacabana in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. At age 80, Mabley had a starring role in the 1974 film Amazing Grace.

Jackie "Moms" Mabley died of natural causes on May 23, 1975, in White Plains, New York. She was 81. In 1986, Mabley was honored with a play by Alice Childress entitled Moms, A Praise for a Black Comedienne.

sources:

Estell, Kenneth, ed. The African-American Almanac. 6th ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1994.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Williams, Elsie Arrington. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Vol. II. Edited by Darlene Clark Hine. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1993.

Ellen Dennis French , freelance writer in biography, Murrieta, California

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