As NewsOne looks back on the life of Jackie “Moms” Mabley and her vaunted status as one of Black America’s pioneering comic figures, her astounding journey from vaudeville player to performing in front of sold-out crowds came by way of very humble beginnings.
Born Loretta Aiken in 1894, just 29 years after the abolishment of slavery, the comedienne was born to a large family in Brevard, North Carolina. Sadly, tragedy struck when at age 11, Mabley’s father died as a result of a car accident. A couple of years later, her mother would also die in similar fashion. Raised by her grandmother from that point on, Mabley suffered physical abuse and a forced marriage at 15 before leaving Brevard to go to Cleveland along with a traveling minstrel show.
Mabley’s introduction to vaudeville came by way of playing shows at segregated stage theaters across the southern United States and Midwest. The so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit” was where Mabley and her fellow players honed their stage acts and comic timing, and she continued to vie for straight theater work as well. At the urging of a popular duo of the time, Mabley would move to New York, where she would find much of her fame.
Changing her name to Jackie Mabley, after an estranged ex-boyfriend, she took the bold stance of announcing herself as an “out” lesbian and identifying with feminist and liberal principles. However, her bawdy comedy act would shadow much of her politics in humor, although she remained staunchly committed to injecting critiques on racism and other societal ills by way of her act.
After doing small stage events and appearing in early “race films, “Moms” Mabley would reportedly command as much as $10,000 dollars per week at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. Her following at the Apollo eventually led to a recording contract and her first live comedy vinyl album in 1961 titled On Stage (Funniest Woman In The World). Recording more than 22 records while she was alive, compilations of older recordings have been released since the time of her passing in the mid-’70s.
Mabley’s sharp wit and propensity to address larger issues couched within her brash style of humor made her one of the most popular and well-paid entertainers of her day. Storming the stage with her matronly look, gruff voice, rubber-faced antics and unflinching edge, Mabley catapulted herself onto the world stage and into the hearts of America as a fixture on the popular 1960s CBS show “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
Dubbed the “Funniest Woman In The World,” Moms Mabley remains an iconic figure not only for her ability to tickle funny bones, but also her outspoken views regarding war, racism and Civil Rights. Her tenacious spirit coupled with her sometimes acerbic but expertly done comedy act has earned her many well-deserved accolades.
Happy Birthday to Moms Mabley! She would have been 118 today!