If you’ve never heard of Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Whoopi Goldberg would like that to change. Back when Whoopi was on the stage every day instead of our TV screens, she would do impressions of Moms, who was an inspiration for much of her own comedy. Even if you’re not familiar with Moms (nee Loretta Mary Aiken), you’ll see her brand of funny in contemporary comedians from Eddie Murphy to Joan Rivers. Whoopi says that she began her own stand-up was through characters telling stories, which is something she took directly from Moms. On stage, Moms was a mismatched mumu-wearing woman who was interested in younger men. She took her teeth out of her mouth and told jokes about “risque stuff,” as Arsenio Hall says in the documentary, but without using crass language. “She was a wordsmith,” he said of Moms, who would make jokes about sex, adultery, poverty and racism without offending people. Better yet, she was educating people and speaking from real experiences. Moms’ sexuality is only a very small part of the documentary, but that seems to be the point. Her being a lesbian is discussed as sort of a non-issue. While she never talked about it on stage (her stage persona was called “the original cougar”), it was accepted by her peers that off-stage, Moms was interested in women. “Moms cooked here all the time, hung out with the guys, gambled with the guys. I gotta be honest with you — Moms Mabley was the first woman I ever saw wearing men’s clothes,” says an Apollo historian.
“I don’t know whether it was the voice or, like, the clothes or just her whole being — there was something about her that just knocked me out — and like knocked me out when I was a kid,” Whoopi says in Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, the documentary airing on HBO tonight. Whoopi produced the film which aims to share the story of an influential black lesbian comedian.
“She and I shared a dressing room for two years,” says a former dancer at the Appolo. “She and I and her girlfriend. She was real — she was Moms on stage but she walked off that stage and she was Mr. Moms. And there was no question about it, there was no question about it. She was Mr. Moms and had the greatest identity for two things. But you never saw her with young men, you saw her with a young girl. … She was the first complete — I don’t know, we never called Mom a homosexual. That word never fit her, we never called her gay. We called her Mr. Moms.” “See that time period, at the time it was nobody’s business,” Whoopi said. “Nobody’s business. I would assume when Moms came out of her costume, ‘cuz 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!’ and so I think she was a woman among men who was equal to those men and they treated her like a man. And I think that is what helped give her the longevity.”
Mom’s success began on the Chitlin/black circuit, as Harry Belafonte noted, which Whoopi explains as a handful of places the black crowd would go to see black entertainers perform. These theaters largely existed on the eastern side of the country in bigger cities like New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. In Harlem, Moms really took off, headlining the Apollo in 1930 and making $90 a week, which Whoopi said was a lot of money at the time. Eventually Moms was so successful she was able to play Carnegie Hall and allegedly making $10,000 a week. She was the first black female to ever play Carnegie, and she went on to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show and make several other TV appearances.
Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley is a telling portrait of a woman who greatly advanced American comedy as she was able to transcend boundaries of racism, sexism and homophobia with her talents. The documentary culls together the existing recordings, video footage, photos and commentary from those who knew her, and those who were notably influenced by her (Eddie Murphy admits to ripping her off for his grandmother character in The Nutty Professor). As Bill Cosby says in the film, “To listen to her, and look at the comedians that followed, you can hear how she opened that door for a different kind of solo.” Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley premieres tonight on HBO.