This game changer was the first female to play the Apollo and perhaps the original female comedian. She was definitely one of few black comedians in her time, and she was most definitely the first openly gay comedian. She was light years ahead of anyone. This game changer was Jackie “Moms” Mabley.
Born 1894 in North Carolina as one of 12 children, tragedy greeted Mabley early in life. She lost both her parents in separate accidents. Her father died as a volunteer fireman in a fire truck explosion. Her mother was run over by a car coming home from church on Christmas. Mabley was also raped twice, both times resulting in pregnancies. The babies were given up by adoption. After all this, she ran away to Cleveland, Ohio, and joined a Vaudeville group. All of this happened before she was 15 years old.
Mabley travelled around the the Chitlin Circuit, a group of venues safe for African Americans performers. Her real name was Loretta Mary Aiken. She took the stage name from an ex boyfriend, Jack Mabley. As she puts it to Ebony in 1974, “I was real uptight with him and he certainly was real uptight with me; you’d better believe. He took a lot off me and the least I could do was take his name.” The addition of “Moms” came later from a nickname because of her caring nature for other performers. Her look and act came out of the admiration for her grandmother. Mabley started her act at a young age, but played as though she were a senior citizen. Her voice was coarse, and she wore a frumpy dress and a knit hat. In her later years, she would perform toothless.
Her act was satirical, consisting of sexual innuendos and riffing on old men. While she was openly gay with colleagues and friends, her jokes favored young men. A classic line she used was, ”Ain’t nothin’ an old man can do for me but bring me a message from a young man.” Mabley was also a social critic and a Civil Rights icon. She made race a part of her act, quipping, “I was on my way down to Miami… I mean They-ami. I was ridin’ along in my Cadillac, you know, goin’ through one of them little towns in South Carolina. Pass through a red light. One of them big cops come runnin’ over to me, say, ‘Hey woman, don’t you know you went through a red light?’ I say, ‘Yeah I know I went through a red light.’ ‘Well, what did you do that for?’ I said, ’Cause I seen all you white folks goin’ on the green light…I thought the red light was for us!’” She manifested humor from storytelling, and she also sang songs. She was known for being very hip.
Mabley took her act to Harlem in New York City. She was performing in Connie’s Inn and the Cotton Club. When the Apollo reopened in the 1930s as a welcoming venue for black performers, Mabley became their biggest star as one of their most billed acts. However, she did not enter into mainstream attention until after she started recording albums near the end of her life. She dropped at least two dozen records. In 1962, she played Carnegie Hall. It was not until the late 1960s, early 1970s that Moms was getting booked on TV including The Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers.
If Mabley was bitter about her late fame, she did not let it show. She was quoted, “I would have liked to have gotten my chance earlier, but that’s the way things were in those days…better times are coming.” Those better times may have came, but only because of a foundation laid out by a game changer like Jackie “Moms” Mabley.