Jackie "Moms" Mabley

The Grandmother of Comedy (March 19 1894 - May 23 1975)

To be a relevant and revolutionary comic is the dream of most performers. For a few it comes naturally, for others it requires exceptionally hard work to come close. But some are not even aware of their status because they’re too busy making millions laugh. Moms Mabley was such a comedian.

 

Not playing on her race or her sex, Moms’ material was unique to Moms herself: the opinionated grandmother, the outrageous old woman who lives next door, the saucy senior citizen saying the unsayable. She managed to get away with this more risqué material because it was delivered with a genuine warmth and affection, albeit carrying no hint of her truly heart-breaking early life. 

"Life's like a game of poker. If you don't put in the pot, there won't be any to take out."

A polished performer in her little floppy hat and gaudy flowered housecoat, Moms talked to her audience as if they were her children. She delivered superbly solemn routines, original in their time yet amazingly, never bettered. As soon as Moms delivered her opening line “I gots something to tell you...” she immediately captured the attention of everyone in the room - and those rooms were full for over fifty years. 

Moms Mabley was born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, North Carolina, one of sixteen children. Her parents, “Uncle” Jim and Mary Aiken, were financially sound, and the first ten years of Moms’ life were pretty rosy. Her mother kept house and took in boarders, while her father owned and operated several businesses. Jim Aiken, a respected man in the community, was also a local volunteer fireman - during an emergency callout his fire truck exploded and killed the businessman instantly. 

Moms’ mother Mary took over the main family business, a large general store in downtown Brevard. Now a widower and solely responsible for her huge family, she quickly established herself as a good businesswoman, and the store thrived. A second marriage brought further stability, but within four years of her first husband’s death, Mary was also dead after being struck down by a truck on her way home from church. Moms went to live with her grandmother (one of the first freed slaves in that state) and the two developed a strong bond. It was on this gutsy older female that Moms based her stage character. 

"This is the truth. My granny lived to be 118 years old. Granny hipped me. One day she was sitting on her porch, and I said, “How old does a women have to be before she don’t want no more boyfriends?”  She said, “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask someone older than me."

Moms’ life took a turn for the worse. By the time she was fifteen she had borne two children resulting from sexual assaults: the first by a neighbour when she was twelve, and the second, two years later by a local sheriff. Her stepfather, who had remained her guardian, gave both children up for adoption and then forced Moms to marry a much older man who she despised. 

Within weeks, Moms decided to run away from her deplorable life in North Carolina. She thumbed a ride with a travelling Minstrel show and managed to get as far as Cleveland, Ohio, but the journey was enough to change her life forever. The company stopped off at theatres along the way, allowing Moms to witness the joys of the “Chitlin Circuit”. This represented a string of venues in the eastern, southern and upper mid-western areas of America. They were known to be safe for African-American performers to work in during a time of racial segregation.

Moms saw an opportunity to try out her own voice, and discovered that she was a natural at singing, dancing and telling a joke. Especially telling a joke. She realised she had something that many of her contemporaries didn’t - original material. Since her sheltered life had hampered any introduction to current comedy routines, Moms inevitably began to craft authentic pieces based on her own experiences, much of it based on Granny’s pearls of wisdom.  

A chance meeting with an elder brother led to her being rebuked for choosing such a line of work: he attempted to make her ashamed of her sinful trade, show business. It was at this moment that Loretta Aiken decided to change her name. The name ‘Jackie Mabley’ was chosen - after an old boyfriend who she’d not seen in a while. In a 1970s Ebony interview, Moms explained that, since he’d taken so much from her, it was the least she could do to take his name. 

"Anytime you see me with my arms around an old man, I'm holding him for the police."

And so by 1919, at the age of 25, Moms was a T.O.B.A. regular. The Theatre Owners Booking Association (colloquially known as ‘Tough On Black Acts’) was a new African-American vaudeville circuit run by caucasian venue managers. It proved to be a great training ground for Moms. She tightened up her routines, played around with her character and learned how to handle an audience. She also met the vaudeville duo Butterbeans and Susie (right), a husband and wife team performing racy songs, comic dances and fast patter about their marital problems. 

During a show at The Ella B. Moore Theater in Dallas, Susie Edwards watched Moms perform and could see she deserved better than the one-dime dives in which they were playing. Susie convinced her to move to New York. Clearly, the Edwards had an eye for talent: they had made the same suggestion only weeks before to the Blues singer, Ethel Waters (left), who was subsequently nominated for both an Emmy and an Oscar. 

Before long, Moms was part of the cultural, social and artistic explosion in New York known as the Harlem Renaissance. During this time, she’d perform her comedy act at night while auditioning for Broadway during the day. With sufficient work in the area to sustain her income, Moms quit the T.O.B.A. circuit: “I never went back across the Mason-Dixon line, not for another thirty years.”

In 1923, Moms headlined Connie’s Inn, previously an infamous, seedy saloon known as Shuffle Inn, right in the heart of Harlem. Within months she was performing at every major Harlem nightclub: Lennox Avenue Club, The Savoy Ballroom, The Lafayette Theater and the one-and-only Cotton Club. Moms was sharing bills with the likes of Thomas “Fats” Waller, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. 

"Love is like playing checkers. You have to know which man to move." 

By the early 30s, she was also securing regular work appearing in revues and shows on Broadway such as Swinging The Dream, Blackbirds and Fast And Furious: A Colored Revue In 37 Scenes. Moms played the lead in Fast And Furious, co-written by the American novelist, Zora Neale Hurston and featuring a young Tim Moore (below right) who went on to huge success as Kingfish on The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show.­­

Moms and Pigmeat would perform together in cabarets and revues, even releasing a few collaborative comedy albums. When the two of them were on a bill together, the house was guaranteed to be full. Just one venue, The Apollo in Harlem, refused to book Moms since their policy excluded female comics. It took five years, but by April 1939 Moms’ popularity could not be ignored, and she became the first female comedian in The Apollo’s line-up, leading quickly to full residency. Despite her growing renown, she remained a thoughtful, caring performer, and it was at this point that her fellow comics began calling her "Moms".

Her time in Blackberries of 1932 introduced Moms to Mantan Moreland, best known for his role as Birmingham Brown of the Charlie Chan films. In the same revue she met a comic who would becoming a lifelong friend, Dewey ‘Pigmeat’ Markham (above right), also known as ‘Mr Vaudeville’ and later famed for chanting “Here comes the judge” in Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

The act went from strength to strength. Moms developed her elderly persona and most audiences took her for a real old lady. Coming out at the age of 27, her real-life lesbianism was at a tangent to her stage character: a rampant senior brimming with saucy asides and a penchant for younger men. Moms also loved to make fun of older men, ridiculing both their displays of authority over women, and the declining of their sexual powers. Her catchphrase became: 'Ain't nothin' an old man can do for me but bring me a message from a young man.’

People were coming from all parts of New York to see Moms Mabley at the Apollo. Well-known white comedians were regular audience members, usually seen with pen and paper in hand, though Moms herself once pointed out: “They all come and see me, all the white comedians, every one of them, every one of them except Jack Benny.”

"They say you shouldn't say nothin' about the dead unless it's good. He's dead. Good."

The forties saw Moms make two “race-films” – movies produced by All-American News for African-American audiences, in which the cast members were all black. In Boarding House Blues she played a happy-go-lucky landlady whose tenants put on a show to prevent her eviction (not that you’d know from the film’s titillating poster). Killer Diller was an awful crime caper saved only by her performance and that of Nat King Cole and highsteppin’ Clark Brothers.

Cinema stardom eluded her but Moms preferred live work, and enjoyed a decade of this during the 1950s. Constantly in demand at every major African-American comedy nightclub and theatre in New York, Chicago, Detroit and California, she also ended up performing at The Apollo Theatre more then any other entertainer in its history.

"Advice to children crossing the street, damn the lights, watch the cars. The lights ain't never killed anybody."

By the late 1950s Moms Mabley was one of the highest-paid comics in the US, making $10,000 a week. She was still playing mainly to black audiences. Earlier in her career she had recorded some of what she described as her “lesbian stand-up” routines, and these had become quite a hit with the new hip youngsters of the west coast, and college students country-wide.

 

She had also recorded a set for A Night At The Apollo, a compilation album which despite being well-received, did not no pay for her contribution. Moms decided to record her own album, and on January 1st 1961 On Stage (Funniest Women in The World) was released on the Chess label. The record went Gold within three weeks.

The album was recorded in The Tivoli, Chicago. Moms would have preferred The Apollo but Leonard Chess had secured a low hire price and besides, an unexpected bonus was an invite from Hugh Hefner to perform in the city’s Playboy Club, and join his roster of comedians who perfomed across the country.

For Mabley this was her first time in front of an all-white audience (who in the early 1960s were a distinctly avant-garde crowd). They loved her. So much, that by the end of the year she had recorded the album Moms Mabley At The Playboy Club. Moms’ transition to non-black audiences meant reaching a public who’d not heard her before. A household name in African-American communities, she was now gaining ground in white America. 

Her voice couldn’t have come at a better time: the civil rights struggle was gaining momentum and Moms’ act was becoming increasingly political. There were other black comics in the US at that time who were talking about freedom, and their topical material included the race riots, marches and the famous Woolworth lunchtime sit-ins. Mom’s old lady persona was far less threatening than someone like the comic Dick Gregory (left), and this accessibility meant white audiences listened and took note.

After her success at The Playboy Club, it was only natural that Moms should be asked to perform on Hefner’s TV show, Playboy After Dark. She was a major hit, and within weeks was being pursued to appear on variety programmes, talk shows and any other broadcast vehicle that included a comedy interlude. Moms became a regular on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, covering material about the highly topical “racial situation”. She did so well on the ultra-conservative Merv Griffin Show, that she found herself invited back a brief ten days later. 

Chess Records were turning out multiple recordings of Moms’ work. She had five top selling albums in 1964 alone. Add her prolific TV appearances, and it’s clear why her popularity flourished. She was able to command large fees for any theatre or cabaret spot in the country and as a consequence, returned to the south for the first time in more than thirty years.

 

Halfway through the act, five shots were fired in the crowd.  At the first shot Moms froze, after the second she ran from the stage. It actually turned out to be an argument in the crowd between some audience members but Moms concocted some personal drama from the moment: 'I hadn’t been in South Carolina for thirty-five years and now bullets ran me out of town.'

"Honey, it takes Moms four minutes just to get on to the stage"{On turning down an invitation to appear for four minutes on The Ed Sullivan Show} 

Moms was a frequent television guest, seen on The Flip Wilson Show, The Pearl Bailey Show, Laugh-In, and as a regular on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. One of her most memorable TV moments was during the 1973 Grammy Awards (right), sharing the podium with Kris Kristofferson. While he read from the teleprompter (making a conspicuous hash of it) Moms took out her false teeth and put them on the lectern. “When they’re uncomfortable…I take them out” she reasoned. It brought the house down.

In 1974, at the age of 80, Moms had her first starring role in a major motion picture. Amazing Grace was a quaint little comedy that teamed her up with old pals Butterfly McQueen, Slappy White and Stepin Fetchit, all from the Chitlin Circuit. The film was moderately successful and Moms had intended to do more, but the shooting schedule had taken its toll and she suffered a major heart attack soon after the movie opened. 

As soon as she’d been fitted with a pacemaker, Moms planned to continue her career. Her two grandmothers had lived to the ages of 97 and 106; her great-grandmother had lived to be 118. “Moms will never retire” she announced. “As long as I live I will never be too old. Moms is going to stay in show business”. And so against her doctors’ advice, she started working again, but on May 23rd 1975 it proved too much and she passed away.

Moms Mabley’s influence on American comedy can clearly be seen today. Any actor who plays a feisty black grandma (Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor; Clarice Taylor as the Huckstable gran in The Cosby Show; Martin Lawrence in Big Momma’s House) owes a debt to her genius. Her comedy appealed to all audiences, and went a long way towards alleviating racial tension. The warmth and lack of bitterness which underpinned her humour, despite the harshest of beginnings, makes her all the more remarkable. 

Jackie "Moms" Mabley performing live in 1969

"You are living in the greatest day that ever was and ever will be right now, children, in the atomic age. Go where you want to go; do what you want to do; love who you want to love; marry who you want to marry."

Sources and Suggested Reading

 

Williams EA. The Humor of Jackie Moms Mabley: An African American Comedic Tradition (1995)

Tafoya E. Icons of African American Comedy  (2011)

Smith RL. Who’s Who in Comedy (1992)

Malson L Kantor M. Make ‘Em Laugh (2008)

Berger P. The Last Laugh (1985)

Nachman G. Seriously Funny (2003)

Taylor C. Moms Mabley Revisited Ebony Magazine (1988) Vol 93 No. 17 pp. 124-130

Audio

1961 On Stage (Funniest Woman in the World)

1961 Moms Mabley at the "UN"

1961 Moms Mabley at The Playboy Club

1962 Moms Mabley Breaks It Up

1962 Moms Mabley at Geneva Conference

1963 I Got Somethin' to Tell You!

1963 Young Men, Sí - Old Men, No

1964 Moms the Word

1964 Out on a Limb

1964 The Funny Sides of Moms Mabley

1964 Moms Wows

1964 Best of Moms and Pigmeat, Vol. 1

1965 Men in My Life

1965 Now Hear This

1966 Moms Mabley at the White House Conference

1968 Best of Moms Mabley

1969 The Youngest Teenager

1969 Her Young Thing

1970 Live at Sing Sing

1972 I Like 'em Young

1994 Live at the Apollo

1994 The Funny Sides of Moms Mabley

1994 Live at the Ritz

2004 Comedy Ain't Pretty