Lauretta Mary Aiken was born in Brevard, North Carolina in 1894, she was one of twelve children born to James Aiken and Mary Smith. Her father was an entrepreneur and a volunteer fireman who subsequently died in an accident involving an exploding firetruck. In the year 1910 her mother was hit by a truck and killed on Christmas Day. More tragedy stuck the young life of Mabley, by the age of fifteen she was raped twice and each time became pregnant from her attacker. She was forced to give both of her children away before she left North Carolina for Cleveland, Ohio. Mabley was fourteen when she began her career as a comedian on the “chitlin circuit” under the Theatre Owners Booking Association. Jack Mabley was a fellow performer would become her boyfriend and the man whose last name she used in her stage name. Aiken was given the nickname “Moms” because of her nurturing qualities; it is said that one of her brothers did not agree with her career choice, so she created her stage name “Moms Mabley” and her life was never the same again.
Mabley began working with the comedic duo Butterbeans & Susie which helped her find enough success to earn her comedic debut at Connie’s Inn in New York City. Mabley was a hit and eventually earn her spot in the world famous Cotton Club in Harlem, New York. Her success as a comedian helped propel her career and led her to acting in films and in stage plays. She appeared in the 1931 Broadway show Fast and Furious: A Colored Revue in 37 Scenes which was written by Zora Neal Hurston. She would next appear in the film Emperor Jones starring the late great Paul Robeson. Mabley was the first female comedian to perform at the Apollo Theater, she also made several appearance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the late 1960’s. In 1962 she appeared and performed at Carnegie Hall exposing her comedy and musical style to all-white audiences. She would appear in other films such as The Big Timers, Boarding House Blues and the musical Killer Diller which also starred Nat King Cole.
Mabely would record and release over 20 comedy albums in her career, some of her most notable albums were The Funniest Woman Alive, Moms Mabley at the Playboy Club, Moms Mabley at the UN and Young Men, Si – Old Men, No. She would release her satirical song “Abraham, Martin and John” in 1969 and it reached number thirty-five on the Billboard top 100; this achievement made Mabely the oldest person to have a top 100 hit. Later Mabley would make her debut on the Ed Sullivan Show before appearing in the film Amazing Grace in 1974. Unfortunately Mabley suffered a heart attack during the filming of Amazing Grace but she managed to complete the filming. Mabley died in White Plains, New York in 1975, but left a comedic legacy other African-American comedians could build uphold. Actress Clarice Taylor portrayed Moms Mabley in the 1987 play Moms which was held at the Astor Place Theater. Whoopi Goldberg would revitalize Moms Mabley’s name with the documentary Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You. The documentary debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and in 2013 the documentary aired on HBO.
Moms Mabley was a comedic genius that made the best of her opportunities; she was often criticized for her style of comedy that addressed racial and sexual issues amongst African-Americans. She would present herself on stage as an old lady with a thing for young men. Often, she would appear on stage dressed in a man’s suit blurring gender lines. In her personal life she was a beautiful woman who baffled some of her fans; they were used to seeing the image of an aging lady on stage. She was one of the first comedians to use sexual situations within her jokes, she was often heard advocating for older women hooking up with younger men. Moms Mabley was more than a comedian, she was a trailblazer and always ahead of her time with her comedic styles and social commentary. Lauretta Mary Aiken aka Moms Mabley, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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