MABLEY, MOMS (Loretta Mary Aiken, Jackie Mabley) (ca. 1894–1975) Comic, Actress
Called the “funniest woman in the world,” Moms Mabley was the first African-American comedian to find a wide audience. She was born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, North Carolina, in either 1894 or 1897. Few details are known about her early life. Raised among 12 siblings, she apparently had two children, both the products of rapes, as a young teenager. The children were put up for adoption, and on the advice of her grandmother, Aiken left home to find her fortune.
Living first in Cleveland, she made friends with some performers, who, because of her beauty, suggested she go into show business. By 1908, Aiken was singing, dancing, and appearing in comic skits in a minstrel show in Pittsburgh. For the next decade, she found work in many African-American theatrical revues, one of which briefiy made it to Broadway. During these years, she became friendly with fellow entertainer Jack Mabley. Although they never married, she took his name and began billing herself as Jackie Mabley. By the early 1920s, Mabley was a regular on the “chitlin’ circuit,” the network of black-owned southern clubs and theaters. There she developed her most famous character—an elderly woman wearing baggy clothes and a toothless grin with an insatiable taste for younger men. In one of her most quotable lines, her comic persona insisted, “There ain’ t nothing an old man can do for me but bring me a message from a young one.” Offstage, far from her shabby character,Mabley was an elegant young woman with a love of furs and fashionable clothes. To further her career, Mabley came to New York City in the mid-1920s. Soon she was a headliner, playing the Savoy Ballroom and Cotton Club with musical stars such as BESSIE SMITH, Louis Armstrong, and Cab Calloway, with whom she was romantically involved. She also began playing small parts in films, most notably a role as a madam in The Emperor Jones (1933), starring Paul Robeson. Mabley made frequent appearances on Broadway as well, including a performance in Fast and Furious (1931), which also featured writer Zora Neale Hurston.
In 1939 Mabley made history by becoming the first comedienne to play the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. Before large crowds, she honed her routine, perfecting her comic timing and improving her gift for ad-libbing. Mabley often complained that white male comedians came to her shows, notebooks in hand, ready to steal her best material. Among her fellow performers, though, she gained a reputation for generosity and compassion, traits that earned her the nickname “Moms.”In her standup comedy, Mabley often dealt with racial divisions head on, pioneering the social commentary that would later become a staple of black comedians. She was also known for her offcolor language and risqué humor. In part because of her “blue” humor, Mabley found it more difficult to find a mainstream audience than many other African-American performers. It was not until her recording career began that Mabley gained widespread recognition outside of black nightspots. In 1960 Chess Records released Moms Mabley: Funniest Woman in the World, which recorded a live performance Mabley gave in Chicago. A surprise hit, the album sold more than 1 million copies. Mabley went on to perform on 25 more comedy records.
In the late 1960s, Mabley found a still greater audience on television. She made her television debut in 1967 on A Time for Laughter, a special produced by Harry Belafonte featuring an allblack cast. Mabley soon became a regular guest on variety and talk shows, such as The Smothers Brothers Show and The Mike Douglas Show.
An overnight television star after 50 years in show business, Mabley was offered her first starring film role in Amazing Grace (1974), the story of an elderly busybody who tries to reform a corrupt city government. While filming the comedy, she suffered a heart attack but recovered. Soon after the movie’s release, however, she fell ill and died on May 23, 1975. Her groundbreaking career has since been the subject of several offBroadway plays, including Alice Childress’s Moms: A Praise for a Black Comedienne (1987).
Watkins, Mel. On the Real Side. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Williams, Elsie A. The Humor of Jackie “Moms” Mabley: An African American Comedic Tradition. New York: Garland Publishing, 1995.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
On Stage: Funniest Woman in the World. MCA, CD, 1990