When I look out on an audience, they belong to me as my own children. We all have little weaknesses. I been insulted. I been called names. But I don’t get angry. I feel sorry for ignorance in any form. And I’ll try to help them.
If you wanted to stick a proper name on women’s struggle to be accepted as stand-up comedians in American show business, you could call it “Moms Mabley.”
Jackie “Moms” Mabley began her comedy career not long after World War I, performing in all-Black shows for all-Black audiences on an all-Black vaudeville circuit (sometimes even in blackface, more on which soon), and she ended it in the 1970s, as a staple on TV, the star of a feature film, the spokesperson in several national ad campaigns, and a headliner at venues such as Carnegie Hall, Yankee Stadium, and the Fabulous Forum alongside the likes of the Jackson 5, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Tina Turner.
She was born in North Carolina in the nineteenth century to a family that included former slaves, and she died a suburban New York homeowner who wore minks and diamonds, was chauffeured around in her own Rolls-Royce, and was invited to the White House to discuss civil rights.
She had logged forty years in show business before someone thought to capture her comedy act on records, and another seven before someone put her on TV, and she wound up selling millions of albums and appearing regularly on national variety shows and as a presenter at the Grammy Awards.
She was billed as “the funniest woman in the world” for decades before she was able to carve a path out of the narrow lane of Black show business and cross over to the quote-unquote “mainstream,” becoming popular with white (and, impressively, youth) audiences at an age when a lot of entertainers would be thinking about retirement—an overnight success, as it were, in her sixties and seventies.
She was a lifestyle groundbreaker, who favored man-cut suits offstage and the company of chorus girls, who often accompanied her as travel companions. She was a crackerjack gambler, hustling jazz musicians and stagehands in games of pinochle and Spanish Pool checkers. Onstage, she broached profanity and sang suggestive parodies of popular songs and spoke openly of sex and of political topics such as racial equality.
In short, she woke up every morning for decades facing impossible odds of racism, misogyny, prudery, dismissal, and doubt, and she went out and stood alone in front of a microphone and created her own legend by making people laugh with the sheer force of her wit and her sensibility. If there was ever a woman who made her own luck out of raw, audacious willpower, it was Moms Mabley.
The ability to pursue her quixotic ambition to be a professional entertainer despite the twin disadvantages of being Black and a woman was part of a particularly confident, upbeat, and resilient character instilled in her as a child. She was born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, a mountain town about thirty miles southwest of Asheville in western North Carolina. It was, as she recalled, a bucolic setting, small and airy and uncommonly tolerant. “To tell the truth,” she said in 1961, “there was no segregation where I was born.”
The histories and genealogies of rural families of this era can be hard to pin down reliably. Dates and timelines disagree with one another; spellings on government forms can be irregular; and there are often gaps with no documents of any kind. What’s more, the stories that do get passed down (particularly those shared by Moms, who tended toward fancies and reveries) aren’t always consistent or verifiable.
Some things, though, we can assert for sure. Loretta’s father, James P. Aiken, was born a free man in 1861, the son of Benjamin Franklin Aiken and Mary Jane (Rhodes) Aiken, who had several children each from earlier marriages that had ended in their spouses’ deaths. The Aikens were prosperous, and James carried on the family’s good fortune, entering into various business enterprises, establishing himself as one of the town’s top merchants. According to his daughter, “He had the only white barber shop, the undertaker shop, a grocery store, a dry goods shop” as well as “a house and a plot for all his children.” Aiken was considered a significant man of the town, enlisting in the volunteer fire department, a position that carried prestige and was considered an honor.
In 1884, Aiken, who already had two children, married Daphne Bailey Keyth. Seven years later, in 1891, she died soon after giving birth to their only known child together. Aiken very quickly married again; his bride, Mary Magdaline Smith, daughter of Pink and Emiline Smith, was, at age fifteen, some fourteen years his junior. With his new wife, Aiken continued to grow his family—a total of ten children over the subsequent eighteen years, seven of whom would survive birth. Loretta would fall right in the middle among those surviving siblings, arriving in the Aikens’ large home, complete with servants, on March 19, 1897.
By her own accounts, Loretta was a happy child. The house was comfortable, there was sufficient food and clothing, and she had extended family all around her, giving her a sense of safety and security. “I wasn’t born in any log cabin,” she boasted. “I was born to a prominent family in North Carolina.” Such was her contentment that she thought the world ended in the mountains of the Pisgah National Forest that formed the horizon west of Brevard, at the point where the peaks met the sky, and she never imagined life beyond it. “The mountains were very high,” she remembered, “so high that we grew up thinking that on the other side everything drops off into eternity.”
In particular, her grandmother and great-grandmother, who lived with the family, were inspirational guiding spirits. “My great-grandmother was a grandmother in slavery, and my grandmother was born during slavery,” she said. That great-grandmother, according to Loretta, “lived to be 117, and her words were like gold nuggets. . . . She used to tell me stories about slavery. She would always say to me—she couldn’t say my name Loretta—she would say, ‘Retta, you are free-born. There’s a world out there, and I want you to go out in it.’ ” Grandma, too, had lessons to share. “My granny was a slave,” Loretta remembered. “She was never sold or nothing. But she was a slave. . . . 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.’ ”
That future would come fast enough, and on the heels of several painful episodes. On August 25, 1909, Jim Aiken and his older brother, Lawrence, raced to the scene of a conflagration in their roles as members of the volunteer fire brigade. The town’s fire truck carried a boiler to generate pressure and force water through hoses, and on that hot day the boiler exploded, killing both Aiken brothers. Mary found herself a widow at twenty-four, with six children of her own, three more from her late husband’s previous marriage, and Jim’s last child due that fall.
By then, Loretta was on her way to becoming a mother herself. In various tellings, she said she was raped by at least two grown men while living in Brevard, as early as the age of eleven, and she was impregnated by at least two of her rapists, one of whom was, she said, the town sheriff. Both of those children were put up for adoption, leaving no traces in historical records. Years later, their mother would recall that she served as a wet nurse to a well-to-do white family when she was “about 14” and nursing a baby of her own. “I loved that baby like my own baby,” she said of the white girl she nursed. “I sacrificed my own baby Lucretia sometimes. I would say, ‘You’re a big strong baby, but Lois is weak and sick. Now don’t cry, and save some of that milk for little Lois.’ ”
Mary broke up the Aiken family home sometime after 1910. She found a new husband, George Parton, who worked as a waiter at Union Station in Washington, D.C., and by the 1920 census she had moved north with him and added yet more children to her large brood. For a time, Loretta joined Mary, but she couldn’t abide Parton, and she ran away from home, and once again was preyed upon by a man. As she told it, “I was in Buffalo, New York, and, as young girls do who run away from home, got in a little situation.” That situation resulted in another child: Yvonne, born in 1917.
In that desperate moment, pregnant and on her own, Loretta sought divine counsel to steer her through her confounding life. “I got on my knees . . . and prayed to God to open a way. And I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a voice like that or not, but something said to me, ‘Go on stage.’ ”
Divine or not, this wasn’t a completely random inspiration. Back in Brevard, she recalled, she had taken part in local theatricals. “I used to star in a lot of church plays,” she said decades later, “and I was always the funny one. So why not try it for a living?”
As fate would have it, the home in which she was staying was next door to a boardinghouse that catered to entertainers. One of them, a singer and dancer named Bonnie Bell Drew, noticed Loretta hanging around and struck up a conversation. “She asked me was I in show business,” Loretta later remembered. “And I said, ‘No.’ And she said, ‘Well, you should be. You’re pretty. You’re beautiful.’ Well, I didn’t know how the Lord would answer my prayer, but she says, ‘Tonight, throw your clothes over the fence.’ ” And so, accepting this offer to run away again, she joined the troupe the next day as it headed off for Pittsburgh. There, as she bragged in the Pittsburgh Courier decades later, she marked “The first time I set foot on a stage.” She may have appeared alongside the celebrated hoofing-and-singing duo Buck and Bubbles (John Bubbles would later become a breakout star). As she recalled it, she was given a role in a sketch called “The Rich Aunt in Utah,” and the audience ate up her performance.
Her initial stage career was short-lived. She returned to North Carolina to have her baby and fell under the sway of an older man. James A. Hall was a preacher seventeen years her senior when Loretta met and married him at the insistence of her stepfather. She had two daughters by him, Christina Lucheria Hall, born in North Carolina in 1917, and Bonnie Bell Hall, born on Leap Day in Baltimore three years later.
It was 1920, and Loretta Aiken Hall, just twenty-three, had borne five children, three of whom—Yvonne, Christina, and Bonnie—she would claim for the rest of her life. “I had those girls young,” she later admitted. “I asked God how I could support ’em, and God got to me to tell me to do it in show business.” She wanted to take another shot at the stage, and her mother could sense the young woman’s determination to make her own way in the world: “You’re too much like me not to do something,” she said. This time, Loretta made a more systematic effort at a career. She hitched a ride with a traveling minstrel show that took her to Cleveland, where she once again caught on with a vaudeville troupe willing to give a comely young woman a crack at the stage.
As she recalled, the show was led by the vaudevillian and sometime prizefighter Tim Moore, who would go on to fame in the role of Kingfish in the deeply racist Amos ’n’ Andy TV series. And she would appear in it under a new name. No longer would she go by Loretta or by Aiken or Hall. She rechristened herself Jacki (later Jackie) Mabley, taking the name from a fellow performer, Jack Mabley, with whom she’d briefly been an item onstage and in life. “He took a lot off me,” she said repeatedly over the years, “and the least I could do was take his name.”
The stage on which the emerging Jackie Mabley learned her craft and launched her half-century-plus career was part of a Black vaudeville circuit known as the Theatre Owners Booking Association. TOBA had launched in 1920 and served as an entertainment pipeline for Black theaters across a broad swath of eastern, southern, midwestern, and southwestern states. It was composed entirely of Black performers playing before almost entirely Black audiences at theaters owned, mainly, by white businessmen, and it skipped the biggest cities—New York, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia—where larger, more profitable independent theaters could afford to book better-known acts and mount shows of their own.
Like a lot of vaudeville enterprises, TOBA gradually collapsed in the early 1930s under the twin pressures of the Great Depression and the advent of talking movies. But while it was in existence, it provided a training ground for some of the most talented, entertaining, and influential performers of the twentieth century. Among its alumni was an extraordinary array, some of whom were established headliners who traveled only briefly on the circuit, others of whom learned their profession as TOBA troupers: singers Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Josephine Baker; musicians Fats Waller, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and Cab Calloway; comedians Mantan Moreland, Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, and Lincoln Perry (aka Stepin Fetchit); and all-rounders like Sammy Davis Jr., who was barely out of diapers when he first appeared on a TOBA stage.
TOBA wasn’t as well funded as the primarily white vaudeville outfits. The salaries were lower, the transportation and accommodations more scattershot, the theaters less well appointed. It was a grueling circuit that demanded entertainers perform in as many as thirty shows a week and travel more or less nonstop, starting a route in one city, say, Washington, D.C., then spending as much as eighteen months going from place to place before finishing in, say, St. Louis. It was for good reason that the entertainers who worked for the outfit joked that TOBA stood for ‘Tough On Black Asses.’ (It was also commonly known as the Chitlin’ Circuit.)
It was, however, a superb training ground for the bigger time. According to Jackie, “It taught young people how to be entertainers. Both in character as well as ability. . . . You had to do everything and learn everybody’s parts; in case somebody takes sick, you get right in there and do their part. You had to sing, dance, and talk. That’s what was so great about the TOBA: It taught you how to do everything and do it well. They perfected you in whatever category that you were best in.” And that perfecting was work. As she later recalled, “You talk about rehearsals—honey, we rehearsed before shows, between shows, and after shows!”
Copyright © 2022 by Shawn Levy. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.