Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Did Somebody Really Bawl For Her?

“Amos ‘n’ Andy” wasn’t the only show on radio featuring white men playing someone of a darker skin. It was just the longest running programme, one that was a national obsession in the early ‘30s. No, there was another where, for a time, a white man named Marlin Hurt (photo, right) played a black woman. A black maid, to be precise. Her name was the name of the show—“Beulah.”

The character was tremendously popular on radio. Her catchphrase “Somebody bawl for Beulah?” brought laughter and applause. But were Beulah’s gags and situations really funny? It’s impossible to ask that question today without getting bogged down in the endless baggage of the polarised racial debate in the U.S. So, let’s go back the days when the show aired. Herald-Tribune syndicated columnist John Crosby wrote about it twice in 1947. He pretty well sums up the problem with the show and, in fact, the things that plagued most radio sitcoms. The jokes were eye-rollingly obvious and characters were the same kind you heard on who-knows-how-many other shows. The material is even hokier today. And Crosby had a problem with “the scene.” You’ve seen it on TV comedies, when the characters suddenly turn serious in the climax before resolving their situation, breaking for a final commercial, then returning to yuck it up during the tag.

This is Crosby’s column from March 14, 1947.
Radio in Review

Beulah is a radio character who has wandered restlessly from network to network and program to program like a lost sheep. Way back in 1938 the late Marlin Hurt originated Beulah, a negro maid with a perpetually distressed voice, on a comedy program called “Hometown, Unincorporated” on NBC. In 1943 Beulah drifted away from Hometown to become Fred Brady’s girl friend in a program called “That’s Life”, also on NBC.
Beulah’s next job was opening the door at Fibber McGee’s house, where she attracted considerable national attention. So much, in fact that she was given her own program as a summer replacement on CBS in 1945. The program was good enough to be continued as a regular winter show, which came to an end when Hurt died in 1946. There followed a 12 month search for a voice to replace Hurt’s which ended when the program’s producers signed Bob Corley, of Atlanta, Ga., who says he had a negro mammy who sounded just like Beulah. Mr. Corley can be heard as Beulah on ABC, 9 p. m. Mondays.
I’m not entirely sure Beulah is worth all this explanation except as a bit of radio folklore showing how a radio character, once well under way, is perpetuated virtually forever. Beulah, as I recall, was funny on the Fibber and Molly show but then she didn’t have to carry an entire half hour by herself. Beulah is now the harassed maid of the Jones family, which is composed of young Harry Jones and Aunt Alice Jones, who devote much of their time toward rescuing Beulah from the scrapes her boy friend Bill gets her into.
Bill is shiftless, scheming, grasping and everlastingly hungry and he is always on the verge but never quite marries Beulah, which provokes much of the discussion in the Jones household, I’m afraid Bill also sounds a little too much like de Kingfish in Amos 'n' Andy.
“We gotta assume the canine.”
“Assume the canine?”
“Put on de dog."
That’s a fair sample of Bill’s conversation. Recently Bill bought a piece of land with Beulah’s money. The property looked for a moment as if it might contain oil, but you and I knew all along that it wouldn’t. This sort of by-play isn’t enough to fill half an hour so several other minor characters bob into the Jones household now and then with their problems which are entirely unrelated to the rest of the plot. One of them is a man named Mr. Frank, who sounds like Titus Moody and who exists in a state of total confusion. The act never varies much and goes something like this:
“Howdy do. This is Mr. Frank at the front door.”
“Howdy do, Mr. Frank.”
“What brings you here?”
"You de one dat rang de doorbell.”
“Uh . . . . I did? You mean I’m on the outside and you’re on the inside?”
“That's right.”
“I thought this room was rather large. What’s that?”
"That's the front hall mirror. That's your reflection in it.”
“Oh my! Gotta get that fixed.”
There’s also another character who stutters ba-hup, ba-hup and whistles, a device you can get tired of in an awful hurry. That about sums up Beulah. There really isn’t anything the matter with it except that it isn’t very funny and, at times, the writing seems a little aimless.
It’s also at time sentimental to an extraordinary degree. Unabashed sentiment seems to, be a new trend in comedy programs. You find an awful lot of it in the new movies too. Maybe it’s a sign of the times. For all I know we are headed into a postwar era in the popular arts, not at all like that of the last war, but like that after the Napoleonic wars which culminated in Queen Victoria.
CBS changed the “Beulah” format in the fall of 1947 and that occasion prompted Crosby to review the show again. There was also a cast change. Crosby sarcastically takes a shot at the radio industry for doing what it should have done earlier. This was published on December 30th.
Radio in Review

To sum up the “Beulah” show in as few words as possible, it's good-natured, harmless, engaging and, at infrequent intervals, very funny. Beulah has been around a long time. Originally she was played by the late Marlin Hurt, who was white and male and yet somehow very convincing as a Negro maid. Since Mr. Hurt’s death, several other white males tried out not very successfully as Beulah; then the program's producers, in one of those rare flashes of inspiration, thought of Hattie McDaniel who was both the wrong sex and the wrong color for a negro maid but somehow qualified anyhow. How do they think of these things in radio?
Last year Beulah was a once a week half-hour show. Now it’s on five times a week (CBS 7 p. m. Mon.-Fri.) which is a happy solution to her problem. As a half-hour heroine she wheezed rather strenuously in the last 15 minutes. By putting her on five times a week, CBS is pushing radio ahead some 20 years, way up to 1928 when Amos ‘n’ Andy did the same thing on NBC. It’s not a bad idea either. A 15-minute show five times a week has an entirely different quality from a half-hour show once a week. It is — if you’ll pardon the expression and I’m not going to pardon that expression much longer myself — soap opera with humor which, in a small, different way, is a stride toward wherever radio is going.
Beulah has much of the fascination of the comic strips—same people—same time, station, five days a week. You don’t expect the polish of a 15-minute show; you do ask that the people involved be interesting and above all human enough to keep you absorbed. Beulah does it rather well.
She is a warm-hearted, earnest, loyal, lovable female Rochester of literal mind and extraordinary patience who is employed by the Henderson family, which consists of Mistah Harry, Miz Alice and Donny, a small, vexing thorn of indeterminate years. (Somewhere between 11 and 14, I’d say, but don’t quote me.)
Beulah is quite a cross to the family and they are a bit of a cross to her. As the repository of all family confidences, she was told, for instance, by Miz Alice to save $10 out of the family food budget to pay for Mistah Harry’s Christmas present and then, a few moments later, requested by Mistah Harry to save $15 out of the same budget for Miz Alice’s Christmas present.
That's the sort of crisis you get in Beulah, intimate, domestic, human, credible and consequently totally unsuited for the housewives, in daytime programming. (A housewife confronted with a dramatic problem involving what to have for dinner instead of a routine poisoning might be emotionally upset for weeks.)
Most of Beulah’s humor is harmless and reasonably engaging. “In college I spent four years with Sigmund Freud,” somebody told her not long ago. “Your roommate?” asked Beulah innocently. Sometimes the gags are so weighty and worked over they sound a little like an address by Sen. Robert R. Taft: “All I know is that if I don’t make up my mind soon, (about Christmas presents) I’ll deliver my presents in the middle of an Easter egg hunt”—is one I have been trying to break up into small units and not succeeding ever since I heard it.
Besides the Hendersons, Beulah is beset by a boy friend. Bill, a swaggering hedonist, who is a compilation of all the worthless but lovable Negroes of fiction. (“I’ll come back later and watch you do the dishes.”) I have nothing against him except that he laughs a little too uproariously at his own jokes.
These 15-minute shows are fairly complete in each episode while allowing further elaboration the next day—again something like the comic strips. CBS now has two and a half solid hours of 15-minute shows lined up from 5:30 p. m. E.S. T. to 8 p. m. All of it is pretty good listening except that a solid hour is news, much of which is the same news.
Right, after Beulah comes Jack Smith, a very hearty singer who appears to be laughing at himself all the time. He’ll remind you strongly of all the musical comedy singers you ever saw particularly if you haven't seen a musical comedy for some time. I thought the type had vanished years ago. The announcers on both the Beulah and the Jack Smith shows are also laughing boys whose vigorous mirth at the opening and closing of each show may leave you rather seriously depressed.
Both “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and “Beulah” came to TV in 1951. By now, discussions of racial stereotypes were out in the open. There was no agreement, showing things haven’t changed a lot in 64 years. Crosby lit into the show in his column of April 28, 1951. Listening was one thing; seeing a show was something altogether different to Crosby. His column is to the right; click on it to enlarge it.

Let’s give you some reaction to the column from editorialist Joseph D. Bibb of the Pittsburgh Courier, a bastion of the black press. It was published on May 19, 1951.
Famed Radio and TV Critic Condemns Ethel Waters and TV Show

CAUCASIAN radio and television critic, John Crosby, for the New York Herald-Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and a host of other daily newspapers, swung hard on the “Beulah TV Show” now featuring the talented Waters and other well-known artists.
In a recent column he blistered and excoriated the presentation. Because Ethel Waters is a versatile and headline artist—likewise the author of a current bestseller, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”—the respected and recognized critic, John Crosby, cannot contemplate or comprehend just why Miss Waters should exploit her diversified talents in such sordid fashion.
He writes: “I don’t know whether we will forgive this sort of stereotyping on television . . . ” Clearly and definitely he sees how the televised Beulah TV show stereotypes colored Americans. Crosby also takes a caustic and devastating fling at other colored actors in the Beulah show. Roles played by them include such characters as Bill, a jobless, good-for-nothing yokel who "generally messes up things beautifully.” Also depicted are Jasmine, Petunia, Magnolia and Oriole. The latter character, played by Butterfly McQueen, especially arouses Crosby’s ire. He observes: “She is a feather-brained idiot.”
• • •
THIS REPORTER shares completely in the opinion of Mr. Crosby. The Beulah TV show, with Miss Waters and her feeble cast marks, stamps, defiles and desecrates colored people. The dread and despised stereotype—that of colored people presenting themselves as buffoons, slavish menials and ne’er-do-wells—is subtly, impressed upon the minds of ever-growing television audiences. Herein is great peril and inherent danger.
Television, if not already, is destined to become a dynamic and far-reaching medium of propaganda. Through this medium the stereotype can be preserved indefinitely. Other craven plans are being laid to continue such disgraceful libels on colored Americans. Soon the nauseating “Amos and Andy” show will be televised. But this time all-colored actors will play the rollicking roles of such as the King Fish—who according to his radio counterpart—is a worthless bum. Miss Waters, we regret to note, is establishing a most disgraceful precedent. Her Beulah presentation does nothing to advance the cause of the darker minority. To the contrary, it gives succor and aid to those who advocate second-class citizenship.
While on the subject of Ethel Waters, her brutal, stark and tragic autobiography as set out in “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” strikes a new low in crudeness, lack of a sense of fitness, and in cold contempt for the laudable tendency of struggling but progressing people, who would rather hide the rattling skeletons in their musty closets. The book has no survival value and no literary merit. It just panders to the morbid appetites of jaded Anglo-Saxons. But seemingly it matters little to Ethel Waters.
Some of the other “Uncle Tom” and “Aunt Dinah” performer hasten to defend their miserable roles by loudly wailing, “We got to eat.” Ethel Waters, who collects splendid royalties from her songs, who gathers shining shells from her literary efforts and who is already well supplied with funds, cannot pretend that dire necessity causes her to take to television with the role of the ridiculous and nauseating Beulah. Her position is defenseless. Crosby is eminently correct in his acidious criticism.
[Arthur] GODFREY, [Ted] MACK and [Horace] Heidt present colored people as gifted American citizens. Much goodwill has been built up by them. But the Beulah Show and the heralded “Amos and Andy” fiasco will surely show up the struggling minority as being inferior, ignorant, superstitious, lazy and shiftless. Such portrayals are typical of the impediments and barriers to recognition and respect.
Crosby has done a splendid service for the American people by denouncing and decrying such deadly histrionics.
Ethel Waters and Josephine Baker do not see eye to eye on the types they portray. Lena Horne, likewise, has refused to lend her talents in roles that will reflect upon her people. In the opinion of this reporter, Miss Waters deserves condemnation, while orchids should be bestowed upon La Baker and Miss Horne. The power and influence of television have been demonstrated by the intensive and widespread interest shown in the Kefauver quiz and with the welcome for the MacArthurs. Radio had a strong impact upon the people, but nothing like TV. That is why colored Americans should unite with Mr. Crosby and this scribe in a bold and valiant effort to establish a high TV level in presenting a lowly people.
Despite the criticism—which seems to have been focused more on “Amos ‘n’ Andy” when it debuted on TV—“Beulah” remained on the air for three seasons. Louise Beavers replaced Waters for the second season (McDaniel was supposed to take the roll but was ill; she taped six episodes which were played during summer 1952); new actors had earlier taken over for Butterfly McQueen and Bud Harris, who had played Bill and complained about his character. Columnist E.B. Ray of the Afro-American wrote.
The “Beulah” TV show, starring Louise Beavers, strikes Encores [the name of Ray’s column] as being a relief from the stereotyped shows we have been forced to swallow.
Frankly speaking, it is strictly a comedy presentation to get laughs, and in so doing it achieves its purpose in a way that shouldn’t shock the sensibilities of the most super-sensitive.
It comes nearer to being made up of skilled players of both races without the playing up or down of racial tendencies.
The relationship between the Henderson family, Miss Beavers, Bill and the other characters is tantamount to simple human proportions.
The producers have eliminated the kow-towing antics and placed the principals in a relationship that should inspire a better understanding between household employers and employees.
Beulah is a far cry from the gossipy, tell-it-all type of servant. The TV version is a loveable story in which the everyday problems of Beulah and the Hendersons get sympathetic treatment in a reciprocal manner.
The column was published October 3, 1953. By then, “Beulah” had been cancelled, though it had some life in syndication. Its distinction of being the first network TV show starring a black woman is pretty much forgotten. Considering the controversy it caused, it’s doubtful anyone will be bawling for Beulah again.

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