I love to resurrect the ghosts of the greats, particularly when it is about someone who opened doors and made a significant impact on the African American culture. So it pleases me to bestow the honor of this writing onto a veteran of the Chitlin Circuit of African-American vaudeville. This stand-up comedian was born Loretta Mary Aiken, who was known to us as Jackie “Moms” Mabley. However, we affectionately called her “Moms” and was billed as the Funniest Woman in the World.
Moms career began at age 14 and became a teenage runaway joining the Negro troupe of Henry Bowman and Tim Moore and, in a short time, became a success. She took her stage name, Jackie Mabley, from an early boyfriend, commenting to Ebony in a 1970s interview that he’d taken so much from her; it was the least she could do to take his name. Later she became known as “Moms” because she was indeed a “Mom” to many other comedians on the circuit in the 1950s and 1960s.
She came out as a lesbian at the age of twenty-seven, becoming one of the first triple-X rated comedians on the comedy circuit. Quick-witted and quick-tongued, Mabley’s unorthodox, self-assured routines as an outspoken grandma while wearing bag lady clothes with old-fashioned print dresses and floppy hats. She was a favorite with Black female audiences, particularly when she was lampooning the psychology of men. Her career spanned five decades, although white audiences did not know of her until the early 1960s.
During the 1920s and 1930s, she appeared in androgynous clothing (as she did in the film version of “The Emperor Jones” with Paul Robeson and recorded several of her early “lesbian stand-up” routines. Mabley was one of the top women doing stand-up in her heyday, eventually recording more than 20 albums of comedy routines. She appeared in movies, on television, and in clubs.
She made her New York City debut at Connie’s Inn in Harlem. In the 1960s, she became known to a wider white audience, playing places like Carnegie Hall and making a number of mainstream TV appearances. This is to include her multiple appearances when that CBS show was number one on television in the late 1960s, which introduced her to a whole new audience. At the height of her career, she was earning $10,000 a week.
One of her regular themes was a romantic interest in handsome young men rather than old “washed-up geezers”. She was able to get away with it courtesy of her stage persona, where she appeared as a toothless, bedraggled woman in a house dress and floppy hat. She also added the occasional satirical song to her jokes like her (completely serious and melancholy) cover version of “Abraham, Martin, and John” that hit #35 on the Hot 100 on 19 July 1969. At 75 years old, Moms Mabley became the oldest living person ever to have a US Top 40 hit.
All of the modern comedians own Moms a debt of gratitude for opening doors for them, particularly, women comedians! Moms, I loved you, and the world continues to miss you. And that’s my thought provoking perspective…