Wednesday 17 December 2014

The No-So-Jolly Christmas of the Second Amos Jones

Favourite Christmas specials pop up on TV year after year after year, but the idea didn’t originate in television. Annual Christmas broadcasts were a fixture on radio.

One of the most popular was on “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” where Amos touchingly interpreted The Lord’s Prayer to little Arbadella. It was heard annually beginning in 1940 and was so popular that producers decided to feature the recitation on the “Amos and Andy” TV show in 1952.

Popular the routine may have been, but the TV version of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was a lump of coal in everyone’s stocking—CBS’s, which owned the show and put it on TV as it did most of its other radio hits; the black community, which was fed up with the dialect humour and stereotyping of characters as schemers or deadbeats; and the actors on the show themselves, who quickly became untouchable due to their association with it.

There was no possible way series creators Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll could appear on TV in character in blackface (instead they acted as consultants). So African-American actors were hired. Alvin Childress, who played the video Amos, explained to Ebony magazine in October 1961 that he refused to dress in loud, ratty clothes and that Gosden, who originated the role in 1927, ended up being tossed off the set for good. Gosden complained Childress’ co-star, Spencer Williams, wasn’t reading his lines in a minstrel-sy dialect like Amos and Andy would. Williams snapped that he ought to know how black people talked because he had been one all his life.

Childress and Williams’ changes weren’t enough. The name “Amos ‘n’ Andy” carried too much racial baggage. Childress related the irony to Ebony, no doubt with some frustration, that a Los Angeles school teacher told him “I likes the Amos ‘n’ Andy show, but I don’t like the dialect you uses.” Pressure on sponsors resulted in the last show being filmed in November 1954, and it was tough for Childress to find acting work. Residuals? What actor in the early ‘50s thought of reruns? The cast got them for only 21 episodes, nothing more, as the shows kept re-running around the world. Childress had to spend one Christmas toiling in a post office instead of reading to an actress playing Arbadella.

Here’s a syndicated newspaper column published in the Troy Times-Record of November 13, 1964 about his post-Amos tribulations.

“Amos” Of “Amos ‘N’ Andy” To Appear On “Perry Mason”

Hollywood—Among the cast of characters in next week's “Perry Mason” show is one billed “A Janitor.” His name is Alvin Childress, and if he has a familiar look it's because he portrayed Amos Jones in the popular “Amos ‘n’ Andy” TV series.
The series still is widely syndicated on TV stations here and abroad by CBS, but it is more than 10 years since the 68 half-hour episodes were filmed, and acting jobs for Childress since then have been few and far between.
Three years ago he found his first steady employment in the Los Angeles County Assessor's office, and last June he transferred into the County Civil Service Commission's test division.
When acting jobs were particularly scarce following the windup of production on “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” Childress tried everything—including parking cars for a while at the Beverly Hills Luau restaurant.
“I wanted to stay in California, if I could make a living, because I preferred it to New York,” he says.
Childress was first of the three lead characters to be hired for a TV version of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” by James Fonda, a CBS producer at the time, who had gone through three years and 800 auditions in his search.
CBS had bought the rights from Charles Correll (Amos) and Freeman Gosden (Andy) [sic], but they retained casting control over the TV series. “Mr. Correll and Mr. Gosden were not easy to please,” Childress recalls. “I don't think they ever got over not being able to do the TV show themselves.”
Childress helped producer Fonda find Tim Moore and Spencer Williams for the roles of Kingfish and Andy, respectively. Tim died a few years after the series was completed. Spencer has retired and lives here.
Fonda is now producer of the “Hazel” TV series. Childress says he has not heard from him since the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” days. It was the “Hazel” series, ironically, which was singled out by one of the Negro groups not long ago as a test case to get more Negroes employed in TV. The beef was squared, more or less, when Fonda was given a Negro assistant.
On the subject of more integration for TV, Childress fears that the pressure mounted by the National Assn. for Advancement of Colored People and others didn't gain for the Negro what they intended to gain.
“Now writers and directors in TV simply duck the problem by putting the blame on the NAACP,” Childress says.
He was amazed that the “Perry Mason” people would call on him or any other Negro to play the role of a janitor. Parts for menials created the stereotype Negro which NAACP asked that movies and TV desist from perpetuating.
Childress disagreed with the NAACP's similar attitude toward the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” TV series.
“I didn't feel it harmed the Negro at all,” he says. “Actually the series had many episodes which showed the Negro with professions and businesses like attorneys, store owners and so on which they never had in TV or movies before.”
Childress left his home in Mississippi and got his first job in New York with producer John Golden in a 1931 Broadway show called “Savage Rhythm.”
He developed into a fine actor and was playing the role of Noah, the bartender in the stage play of “Anna Lucasta” when Fonda tapped him for the TV series.

Childress died in a sanitarium at the age of 78 in 1986. His biggest role turned out to be anything but the racial breakthrough he hoped it would be. As Ebony put it: “For it is certain in this age of youthful protestations of sit-ins and freedom rides, Negro America is no longer amused by the buffoonery of the Mystic Knights of the Sea or the bungling machinations of such as the Kingfish.” The fact there were no other major roles for Childress says more about television (and perhaps, by extension, American society) in the 1950s than does Amos and Andy. Reading The Lord’s Prayer to a little girl at Christmas wasn’t going to change that.


  1. Was James Fonda related to Henry Fonda? Tim Moore has always been one of my favorite black comics, and his interpretation of the Kingfish really nailed the character and made him funnier than the radio version, IMHO.

  2. Hi, Mark. James Fonda was from Mississippi. His wife Margaret was a radio actress.
    Someone was mentioning to me that Moore was booked a number of times on Jack Paar's Tonight Show and was very funny.

  3. The article gets the roles backwards: Freeman Gosden played Amos, Kingfish, ang Lightnin'; Charlie Correll played Andy and Henry van Porter. Together, they played over three hundred different characters on that show from 1928 to 1960 on the radio, as well as the leads in the animated CALVIN AND THE COLONEL during the 1961-62 season.

    1. This is referenced in the episode "Amos Is Missing". A hospitalized Amos says "Anytime I get sick sick, Kingfish and Lightnin' get sick with me!".

  4. And it wasn't Childress who had the blowup with Gosden; it was Spencer Williams, himself an independent filmmaker ( GO DOWN DEATH, SOULS OF JESUS, HARLEM ON THE RANGE . And DIRTY GERTIE FROM HARLEM U.S.A.).

  5. Joe, thanks for the note about Williams. I misread Ebony. I've fixed that and have linked to those who want to read the full piece.
    I can't do much about Hal Humphrey's transposition.