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Whoopi Goldberg's "Moms Mabley" special

Sun Nov 17, 2013 5:53 pm

Here's info about Moms Mabley: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moms_Mabley

Here's info about the special: http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/whoopi ... oms-mabley

And now here's the article about it:

http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainmen ... -1.1516246

'Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley' celebrates the groundbreaking African-American comedian

HBO documentary tells how she rose from vaudeville to the chitlin' circuit to headlining concert halls and TV shows

By David Hinckley / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Sunday, November 17, 2013, 2:00 AM

Michael Ochs Archives

Moms Mabley got her start on the chitlin' circuit, honed her craft there, and eventually became a big-name entertainer, appearing at Carnegie Hall and on Ed Sullivan's TV show.

“Ain’t nothing an old man can do for me,” Moms Mabley used to tell her audiences, “but bring me a message from a young one.”

Moms Mabley, or at least the Moms Mabley who finally broke out of the chitlin’ circuit and won herself a mainstream audience during the 1960s at places like Carnegie Hall and on TV shows like Ed Sullivan’s, had one of the weirdest shticks ever in the already-weird world of comedy.

She wore garish, oversized dresses that made it look like she woke up in the dark in a thrift shop and put on the first half-dozen items she could get her hands on.

Did we mention she also didn’t put in her teeth?

Then she shuffled out onto the stage, where she became, arguably, the funniest woman of the 20th century.

“No one was funnier,” says Whoopi Goldberg, who grew up listening to Moms Mabley albums. “And remember that for most of her career, no one was doing what she was doing — a woman telling those kinds of jokes in that world. Without her, a lot of us wouldn’t be here today.”

That’s a bold statement Goldberg backs up impressively in the documentary “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley,” which premieres Monday night at 9 on HBO.

Among the comedians and performers bowing to the memory of Moms, who died in 1975 at the age of 81, are Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers, Sidney Poitier, Kathy Griffin, Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Quincy Jones, Arsenio Hall, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.

“It may not be obvious now, when there are so many women in comedy,” says Goldberg. “But Moms went on the road in the 1920s and from then until at least the 1950s, she was pretty much alone.”

Like her male colleagues from vaudeville, she played a circuit of black theaters that included the Apollo in New York, the Howard in Washington and a handful of others.

Officially, the circuit was known as the Theater Owners Booking Association, or TOBA. Unofficially, among the performers, TOBA stood for “Tough on Black A--es.”

“That was a hard world to work in,” says Goldberg. “Not only was the pay low, but the audience was demanding. Those were the days when you WOULD get hit by a tomato onstage if someone in the audience didn’t like you.”

In vaudeville, the weak were culled without mercy or pity. An artist who couldn’t sing, dance, join a sketch, tell a joke and engage the crowd within three minutes was expendable.

Whoopi Goldberg grew up listening to Moms Mabley; her documentary is called “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley,” running Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

“There were always plenty of people right behind looking to take your spot,” says Goldberg. “So you had to know how to do everything.”

That’s why, even though Moms made her reputation as a comedian, one of the last scenes in Monday’s documentary shows her singing “Abraham, Martin and John.” That recording reached the top 40 in 1969, as Moms was turning 75.

Moms never revealed much of her life story, which apparently was less than idyllic. She was born Mary Aiken in Brevard, N.C., and took the name Jackie Mabley, later “Moms,” from her first boyfriend.

She started at local theaters, where she caught the eyes of the star vaudeville team of Butterbeans and Susie.

Butterbeans and Susie were known for their grown-up comedy, including songs like “I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll” and “Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus (And Mama Ain’t No Christmas Tree).”

They gave Moms a shot at the bigger time and she ran with it.

Once she got onto the TOBA circuit, she held her own with the menfolk. She beat them at cards, returned their banter and at the end of the workday, discarded the garish dress and changed into her preferred outfit, which was a lot more like Pops than Moms.

“No one made any big deal about her sexual orientation,” says Goldberg. “It wasn’t a secret, it just wasn’t something anyone talked about.”

What they did discuss was her comedy. She never abandoned the popular double entendre humor that was standard in the repertoire of so many artists like Butterbeans and Susie, but she also became a storyteller who addressed delicate subjects like sex and politics.

“She could get away with it,” says Goldberg, “because she did it so well.”

Goldberg cites a scene, shown in the documentary, where an older Moms is on a talk show discussing how she assimilated into the white side of showbiz.

They’re real nice to me, she’s saying. “Why, they even gave me a name ... after the horse that fellow in the cowboy hat rides."

“Roy Rogers?” says the host. “Trigger?”

Moms Mabley held her own with male entertainers and was also an accomplished singer.

“That’s it,” Moms says. “They’ll see me and they’ll say, ‘Hello, Trigger. Howya doin’, Trigger?’ ”

The audience, sensing they’ve just heard a rambling shaggy dog story, murmurs politely.

Then Moms adds, “At least I think they’re saying ‘Trigger.’ ”

“She sets you up so exquisitely,” says Goldberg. “You think she’s going someplace entirely different and then she gets you.

“No one had better timing. She was impeccable.”

It’s gratifying, says Goldberg, that Moms avoided to some extent the fate of women like Billie Holiday, who had to work so hard to navigate the segregated, often crushing universe of show business in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s that it hardened them and made them distrust the world.

“I think she knew in the last years that she was well-respected,” says Goldberg.

Still, Goldberg says she had no easy time selling this first-ever documentary on Mabley’s life.

“I started out thinking I’d do a one-woman show on Moms,” Goldberg says. “Then I decided to do a documentary so all these great people who admire Moms could be part of it.

“I knew how to make a documentary. I just had no idea how much it would cost. Thank God for Kickstarter.”

The difficulties here may mean that some of Goldberg’s other dream projects, like documentaries on dancers like Peg Leg Bates and the whole rich spectrum of mid-20th-century black entertainment, will have to wait.

For one thing, Goldberg does have a few other things on her own plate, like hosting “The View.”

“I don’t know if I’ll get to those films or not,” she admits. “But someone should do them. If we don’t document our history, we lose it.”

dhinckley@nydailynews.com