Moms Mabley – Laughter and Longevity

Moms Mabley Offstage Having a Smoke

I was a kid who spent some afternoons after school at my Grandmother’s house, and before I was old enough to even go to pre-kindergarten, I spent time at my Grandmother’s house while my parents were at work. Grandma called it the Rose Garden Nursery, or something like that. She had beautiful rose bushes in her yard in the Bronx, not that I spent much time appreciating those then. But, I did get a kick out of watching TV with my grandmother. Mornings were the Virginia Graham show and Mike Douglas in the afternoon. (Of course, there was also time for coloring, playing outside, being read to, and Julia Child.)

Moms Mabley Cutting Up

It was the Mike Douglas show that introduced me to Moms Mabley. She seemed from another time and place, and in a way she was. Her humor wasn’t aimed at little kids, so probably most of it went right over my head at first, but as I got older I grew to appreciate her humor.

I appreciate all those old timers who performed on the Chitlin’ Circuit, when a performer lived for their craft. Those were not places where a performer sent a rider ahead of time with their requests for specific bottled water, and fruit and cheese trays. The dressing rooms in the small towns might have a clanky radiator and a cracked mirror. The performers were there for the audience.

There was fame on the Chitlin’ Circuit to some extent, certainly within the Black community, but the “fortune” was nothing like it is today for sitcom actors and the big name comedians. Moms was a pioneer as a woman in American stand-up comedy and she eventually made a good living at it. Her career reached from the Chitlin’ Circuit to TV, records, and film. She was one of Chess records’ superstars.

The “old woman” character central to Jackie “Moms” Mabley’s comedy was based on her grandmother who had been born into slavery. Moms lived from 1894 to 1975; she was born in North Carolina and passed away in White Plains, New York. Moms’ grandmother inspired her sense of comedy and character. In an interview she said:

“You know who hipped me? My grandmother. This is the truth! She lived to be 118 years old. And you wonder why Moms is hip today? Granny hipped me. She said, ‘They lied to the rest of them, but I’m not gonna let you be dumb.’ One day she’s sitting out on the porch and I said, ‘Granny, how old does a woman get before she don’t want no more boyfriends?’ She was around 106 then. She said, ‘I don’t know honey, you’ll have to ask somebody older than me.” (Source: WFMU)

On this fifth day of February, I honor Moms Mabley for her sense of humor and her fortitude, and I thank her for the laughs.

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