In 1925, the Minneapolis Journal described Jackie Mabley, born March 19, 1894, as ranking ‘with the best of the world’s entertainers’. Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley, reputedly America’s first stand-up comic, stayed at the top for the next half-century.
Jackie Mabley ran away and joined the black vaudeville circuit as a 15-year-old following a reportedly horrific childhood. In vaudeville, she sang, danced and performed comedy sketches. Her surname came from a former boyfriend.
“He took a lot off me, the least I could do was take his name.”
A celebrated beauty, the comic originally wore men’s clothes on and off stage and became best known for her comedy impressions. Such was her fame in the late 1920s, she was one of the very few black performers chosen to perform for the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, during a US tour.
Over time, Jackie Mabley began to focus on one impression — that of a sharp-talking older woman. She wore a rumpled housecoat, droopy socks, men’s slippers, and a squashed hat and took her teeth out to perform.
Jackie Mabley discovered that an older woman could say things an attractive young black woman would never get away with. On the surface, her act showcased physical comedy — comic dances and lots of mugging with her bulging eyes and devilish toothless leer. But Jackie Mabley also incorporated nuanced political and social commentary. And she upended the normal social convention by portraying an elderly woman with an eye for younger men.
“There ain’t nothin’ an old man can do for me but bring me a message from a young man!”
Presumably, Augustin Austin, show reviewer for the New York Age was an elderly man. Although unable to deny Jackie’s talent, he constantly moaned about the racier lines in her act.
“It is a pity that Jackie, one of the best ad-libbers on uptown stages, has to be rated as a low comedienne because of her failure to eliminate suggestiveness from her repertoire.”
Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley
Jackie Mabley first appeared at Harlem’s Apollo Theater around 1939. She would perform there for the next 35 years, between tours, movie roles and later, television. It was at the Apollo that fellow performers nicknamed Jackie ‘Moms’, and she adopted the name for stage.
Dancer and comedian Norma Miller worked with Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley at the Apollo. The 86-year-old reminisced about Jackie in the 2013 documentary Whoopi Goldberg presents Moms Mabley. (Watch trailer below.)
“I met her at the Apollo Theater, and she and I shared a dressing room for two weeks. She and I and her girlfriend.
“She was real. I mean she was Moms on stage but when she walked off that stage she was Mr Moms. And there was no question about it. We never called Moms a homosexual. That word never fit her. We never called her gay. We called her Mr Moms.”
While many fans mistook Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley’s character for a real person, Whoopi Goldberg says fellow performers said she always changed into stylish men’s clothes after her performances.
“And I will assume that when Moms came out of costume — because that’s what the hat and the shoes and the housedress was — and put on that silk shirt with those pants and that fedora and had those women on her arm — I think everybody was like, ‘OK’.”
In the sixties, Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley enjoyed renewed popularity as a television performer. While Mom’s basic character never changed, she never seemed dated. She addressed the issues of the day and frequently referenced pop culture. So, she still disparaged the old men she claimed to marry for money but with contemporary twists. She told Merv Griffin her current elderly husband was “older than air, and twice as polluted.”
Although Jackie had four children and adopted another, she never married. She came out at the age of 79 and Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley then performed at lesbian clubs billed as Mr Moms almost until her death aged 81.
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