Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Moms Mabley

Episode Summary

Once billed as “The Funniest Woman in the World”, Moms Mabley (1894-1975) was one of the most successful vaudeville performers in history, and the first woman to ever perform at the Apollo Theatre.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today marks the first day of a new month and the first theme of our second season! We’re bringing you another full year of women you may not know about, but definitely should. All month we’re talking about Leading Ladies. Women whose talents dazzled and transformed the entertainment industry. 

Today we’re talking about a woman once billed as “The Funniest Woman in the World”. She is one of the most successful vaudeville performers in history, and the first woman to ever perform at the Apollo Theatre. 

Let’s talk about Moms Mabley. 

Loretta Mary Aiken was born on March 19, 1894 in Brevard North Carolina. She was one of 12 children. Her childhood was marked by tragedy and violence. When she was 11, her father died in an explosion. Just a few years later, her mother was hit by a truck and killed on Christmas Day. By her early teens, Loretta had been raped twice. She became pregnant both times and the two children that she bore as a result were given away. 

When she was 14, Loretta moved to Cleveland, Ohio. There she was first introduced to the world of show business. She decided this was the world she wanted to be in and started working venues that catered to Afriacn American audiences. 

Some of Loretta’s family members did not approve of her career choice so she adopted a stage name -- Jackie Mabley -- which was a just a slight deviation from her then-boyfriend’s name, Jack Mabley. Her name transformed once again when her fellow entertainers began referring to her as Moms, due to her propensity to mother the other performers. 

Moms hit her big break when she was discovered by the vaudeville team Butterbeans and Susie and began performing with them in New York City. There, she debuted at Connie’s Inn and moved on to other noted venues including Harlem’s Cotton Club. Eventually, she headlined at the famed Apollo Theater. 

Not only was Moms Mabley the first woman to ever perform at the Apollo Theater - she became a regular! She appeared more often than any other act in the theatre’s history. 

Moms comedy was littered with sexual innuendos, disparaging comments towards old men and lusty comments towards young ones. She used her deep voice, toothlessness, and seemingly-elastic face to great effect. On stage she wore a house dress, floppy shoes and knit cap. Her old lady persona was largely modeled after her grandmother, who had been enslaved, and was itself a commentary on bigotry toward African Americans. She was known for this type of sly social commentary, as well as for her timing and ability to ad lib. 

In 1931, Moms took her talents to Broadway when she partnered with Zora Neale Hurston - best known for her celebrated novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” - on the show Fast and Furious. In 1933, she made her on-screen debut in the film Emperor Jones and in 1948 appeared in the film Boarding House Blues

Moms’ stand-up performances were recorded live and compiled into over two dozen comedy albums. The 1961 hit, Moms Mabley, The Funniest Woman in the World,sold over a million copies. 

Moms became more widely known when she started making appearances on popular comedy shows including The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and The Ed Sullivan Show. 

In 1974, while shooting a film entitled Amazing Grace, Moms suffered a heart attack. She managed to complete filming but passed away shortly thereafter on May 23, 1975. She was 81 years old. 

Moms Mabley’s trailblazing career was celebrated on stage in the 1987 play Moms and in the documentary, Moms Mabley: I got Somethin’ to Tell You, directed by Whoopi Goldberg.

To this day, she remains a barrier-breaking, gut-busting woman who charted a new course for what a comedian could look and sound like. 

All month, we’re talking about comidiennes and leading ladies. 

For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!