Celebrating Black Entertainment on Television: Beulah: 1950 – 1953, ABC’s First Hit Sitcom

Written By: Greg Howell - Jan• 30•21

Beulah, the long-running radio show starring Hattie McDaniel, moved to TV in 1950. While Hattie continued on radio, legendary entertainer and Oscar-nominated actress Ethel Waters originated the role on ABC-TV. According to press releases of the day, she was “the queen of the kitchen and manager of the house.” Butterfly McQueen was her co-star and sidekick on the sitcom.The sitcom represented a number of important firsts in TV: Beulah was television’s first sitcom starring AND featuring black actors; and, Beulah was ABC’s first hit sitcom, giving the troubled network a much needed boost.Most episodes dealt with Beulah scheming to get her white bosses out of some trouble they had landed. Other sitcom devices of the day filled out other episodes, such as misunderstandings between the household members, Beulah hoping to marry her beaux Bill Jackson, and more stereotypical devices such as the handyman napping between chores, and the boss’ daughter that always pranked him.

Beulah quickly caught the ire of the NAACP for the use of negative stereotypes, most often the antiquated speech and diction of characters in the show. And, of course, the portrayal of a black character as a mammy stereotype. Ethel Waters and Butterfly McQueen left the show at end of season one when the show moved from the Bronx to Hollywood. Miss Waters was starring on Broadway and had no desire to move to California. Hattie McDaniel took over the role, but fell ill after 6 episodes.

Louise Beavers accepted the role until the show was cancelled in 1953. Though the ratings were still high, pressure from the NAACP put this show and Amos ‘n Andy out of production only months apart in 1953. Both TV shows enjoyed long syndicated reruns until the early 1960s.

CELEBRATING BLACK HISTORY ON TV: Eddie “Rochester” Anderson

Written By: Greg Howell - Jan• 30•21

The many years of the 1950s and 60s when the television landscape was glaringly white, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson was the sole continuing, African-American character on television. As the most popular side-kick to Jack Benny, Anderson danced, sang, and won the hearts of viewers with his wiser-than-Jack one-liners.

By his start in television in 1950 on The Jack Benny Program, Eddie had been working in Hollywood for over 2 decades. His success in Vaudeville, film and radio landed him a one-shot deal on the popular Benny radio program. One appearance led to another one, and in a few months, with fan mail pouring in, Anderson began playing Rochester, a role tailored for him, on radio in early 1937.While the role was that of valet to Benny, he and the writers took special care with the Rochester character, eliminating racial stereotypes. Over the years, as Anderson’s star power grew, Rochester became as much best friend and confidant to Jack Benny as valet.

After a 15-year run on television for The Jack Benny Program, an enormous hit all those years, Anderson continued in guest starring roles on television.Over his long career, he made over 60 movies, including roles in classics like “Cabin in the Sky,” “You Can’t Take It With You” and “Brewster’s Millions.” After his death, he donated his home in Los Angeles (now 1932 Rochester Circle) for substance abuse assistance. In 1989, Anderson’s son created the “Eddie Rochester Anderson Foundation” and rechristened the home “Rochester House.”

Celebrating Black History on TV: Sammy Davis, Jr.

Written By: Greg Howell - Jan• 30•21

It is difficult to imagine TV without Sammy Davis, Jr. He made over 50 appearances on scripted TV shows such as All in the Family, I Dream of Jeannie, Here’s Lucy, Carol Burnett, and so many others, and seemingly 100s of appearances on countless variety shows. He also starred in his own television specials, earning numerous Emmy award nominations and wins. Sammy had been performing since he was a small kid, on stage, movies and radio. He earned a Tony nomination for his role in Golden Boy. On TV, he performed his many hit records plus a large repertoire of jazz and popular standards. He perhaps is even more remembered for his dynamic dancing style. His first TV appearances began in the late 1950’s until his last just months before his death in 1990. He is one of the all-time great entertainers in the history of television. Here is Sammy performing, singing, dancing, entertaining with his own inhibitable style, Mr. Bojangles.

It is difficult to imagine TV without Sammy Davis, Jr. He made over 50 appearances on scripted TV shows such as All in the Family, I Dream of Jeannie, Here’s Lucy, Carol Burnett, and so many others, and seemingly 100s of appearances on countless variety shows. He also starred in his own television specials, earning numerous Emmy award nominations and wins. Sammy had been performing since he was a small kid, on stage, movies and radio. He earned a Tony nomination for his role in Golden Boy. On TV, he performed his many hit records plus a large repertoire of jazz and popular standards. He perhaps is even more remembered for his dynamic dancing style. His first TV appearances began in the late 1950’s until his last just months before his death in 1990. He is one of the all-time great entertainers in the history of television. Here is Sammy performing, singing, dancing, entertaining with his own inhibitable style, Mr. Bojangles.

Celebrating Black Entertainment on Television: Gail Fisher

Written By: Greg Howell - Jan• 30•21

Gail Fisher, Mannix, 1968-1974, Emmy and Golden Globe Award Winning ActressAfter a problematic, low-rated first season of Mannix, Lucille Ball, in one of her final decisions before selling Desilu, with producer Bruce Geller, revamped the detective series with a softer, more feminine approach. Bringing in Gail Fisher as Peggy, his independent, loyal, and sensitive assistant was the solution. And Gail Fisher delivered!

Her portrayal ascended to new heights for women in TV, not just African-American women. With power, class and grace, Fisher delivered a nuanced portrait of a successful woman in the early 1970s.With the newly revamped format – thanks mightily to Gail Fisher’s remarkable performance – the team delivered a ratings-friendly Mannix. In just a couple seasons, it would be a solid Top Ten performer. Gail Fisher won two Golden Globes, in 1971 and 1973, for her portrayal of Peggy Fair, and an Emmy Award in 1970 for Outstanding Female Performance in a Supporting Role. She was the first African-American to win both of these awards.

Celebrating Black Entertainment on Television: Leslie Uggams – From Early TV Child Star to Super Stardom

Written By: Greg Howell - Jan• 30•21

One of television’s very earliest child stars, Harlem-born Leslie Uggams began at age 8 on 1951’s Beulah sitcom, playing the niece of Ethel Water’s title character. Her unique singing ability landed her regular appearances throughout the 1950s on top-rated TV shows like Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, Lawrence Welk, and Name That Tune. By 1958, she was a household name, and she had a record deal and a couple of hit records – yet only 15 years old. In 1961, she joined the cast of Sing-Along With Mitch, a popular TV offering featuring performances of top hits of the day – while song lyrics displayed across the TV screen.

After a 4 year run of with Mitch, Miss Uggams left television for Broadway, winning a Tony Award for Leading Actress in a Musical in 1968’s “Hallelujah Baby.”Her Broadway success delivered her back to TV, starring in her own self-titled variety show for the 1969-1970 TV season. The first variety series to star an African-American in 11 years, the show featured an all-black cast, comedy sketches and weekly guest stars. In 1977, her lead role of Kizzie in the phenomenal TV series Roots won her an Emmy nomination.

She won her first Emmy in 1983 for the Daytime show, Fantasy. Over the years, she has made many TV appearances, and most recently, roles in both Deadpool movies and played the mother of Lucious Lyon on the TV hit Empire. Her tremendous success on television, movies, Broadway, and recordings earned her two honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degrees in 2015 and 2018.