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Fond memories of Amos and Andy

Posted by Howard Denson on October 5, 2016 at 11:05 AM

By HOWARD DENSON

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She Who Knows All and I once rotated in hosting film parties back in the days when guests brought copies of 16mm reels of, say, Frankenstein, Dracula, and whatever cartoon might be available from the library or friends’ collections.

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The cartoons were usually from Warner Bros.’ Golden Age (of Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and Tex Avery). One night, the cartoon at the get-together was Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943). It opened with beautiful animation of a crackling fire, and a mammy telling a story to a child.

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As the story and visuals unfolded, the room went into shock. The guests, probably all Southerners, had never seen such blatant racism and stereotypical characters. It turned out the cartoon was a parody of Disney’s Snow White, and it attempted to pay homage to American jazz, similar to what Clampett had done in Tin Pan Alley Cats. The cartoon parodied the poisoned fruit, the zonked-out-probably-dead So White, and the attempts to revive her with a special kiss. Along the way, it used imagery of the day: zoot suits, the war, fighting the Japanese, etc.

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The cartoon is now in the public domain (as are some others in the Censored Eleven cartoons from Merrie Melodies and Loony Tunes). Called one of the best cartoons ever, it is worth admiring the classical-age animation even if you have to distance yourself from the content.

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As that WB cartoon played back in the Forties, Americans had no television (except in experimental pockets) and were entertained by Golden Age Radio Shows, including Amos ’n’ Andy, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and dozens of others.

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The one show that gets zinged for political incorrectness, of course, is Amos ’n’ Andy, but I’ve had a fond spot in my heart for the characters ever since I was a child.

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The show was created in the late 1920s by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two white performers. They first did a dialect show on radio called Sam and Henry, for which they were paid little or nothing. Initially that was okay because they wanted an attraction to bring folks to their stage act. When they moved to another station, they did not own the rights to Sam and Henry and had to alter their material. They came up with Amos Jones and Andrew H. Brown, who ran the Open Air Taxi Service in Chicago (later moved to NYC’s Harlem). The white guys voiced the two featured characters, along with the Kingfish a.k.a. George Stevens of the Mystic Knights of the Sea Lodge, and about 170 others. I have neither heard the early shows nor read the scripts from the late 1920s through the 1930s. I only recall the show entered my consciousness in the 1940s.

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The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began complaining about the show in about 1930, and perhaps they were on to something. Except for brief scenes in a documentary, I’ve never seen Gosden and Correll in blackface in the film(s) done back then nor their voicing for cartoons done then.

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Eventually a biography of Jack Benny noted that he had instructed his writers about 1938-40 to treat Rochester (Eddie Anderson) with respect. The writers came up with scripts in which Benny was vain, cheap, stubborn, and untalented as a violinist. Rochester was always smarter than his boss.

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Had similar directions been given to the writers for Amos ’n’ Andy? Or were the creators more interested in the characters, including an intelligent family man (Amos), his good-natured friend and a chump (Andy), the old rascal (Kingfield), and so on?

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Memories play tricks on us, if only because of the oceans of facts, scenes, and imaginings that we experience. From Amos ’n’ Andy, I recall the Christmas show, when Amos would explain to his daughter Arbadella the Lord’s Prayer (or the story of Joseph, Mary, and Bethlehem). The Christmas season also meant that A Christmas Carol would be aired on radio, with Lionel Barrymore playing Ebeneezer Scrooge. I listened to both each year.

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In the early Fifties, Amos ’n’ Andy made it to TV, and they wisely decided to cast black actors in the parts.

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Amos Jones was played by Alvin Childress, a native of Meridian, Mississippi, while Ruby Jones, as sensible as the mom on Father Knows Best, was played by Jane Adams (no, not today’s Jane Adams).

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Andrew Hogg Brown was portrayed by Spencer Williams of Vidalia, Louisiana. In researching the Charles Norman Film Studios in Jacksonville, where African American actors played straight dramatic roles for films that were shown to minority audiences, I came across the name of Oscar D. Micheaux, an influential African American director of films. Norman, a white, helped to distribute some of Micheaux’s films. In the same book on African Americans in U.S. films were extensive sections on the actor who played Andy. Spencer Williams wrote films, directed them, and even starred in Western films.

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For bits of stage business, Williams stands out for the way he lifts his derby, removes his cigar, and says a melodic “H-e-l-l-o” when meeting a potential lady friend. The bit is similar to Matt Le Blanc’s Joey Tribbiani saying “How-ya-doin’ ” to sweet young things.

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A splendid actor and stand-up comedian, Tim Moore of Rock Island, Illinois, played the rascal George “Kingfish” Stevens. A key bit of comic business occurred when the Kingfish was trying to hook Andy into one of his schemes. He’d tilt his head, purse his lips slightly, and study Andy to see if his fish was on the line.

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Kingfish’s wife, Sapphire (Ernestine Wade of Jackson, Mississippi), had the same sort of exasperated expression that some of the women in my allied families had with their husbandly reprobates.

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Sapphire’s mother and Kingfish’s mother-in-law was Ramona Smith, who was played by one of two sisters on the show, Amanda Randolph of Louisville, Kentucky. Her “hmmph!” let you know that she saw straight through the Kingfish no matter what his shenanigans were.

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Andy’s on-again-off-again sweetheart was Madame Queen, played by Lillian Randolph of Knoxville, Tennessee.

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A recurring character was the shyster lawyer, Algonquin J. Calhoun. Johnny Lee of Los Angeles would get him wound up as he bellowed and pounded the table to someone in authority, “Do you mean to tell ME that—” Invariably, perhaps as he realized a desk sergeant was thumbing through a stack of wanted posters, he would be deflated and quickly hurry outside. Lee is best known for his voice work on Disney’s The Song of the South.

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The character of Willie “Lightnin’” Jefferson was played by Nick Stewart (billed as “Nick O’Demus” ) of New York City. Lightnin’ was rubberstamped from characters portrayed by Stepin Fetchit (the first black actor to become a millionaire) and Willie Best.

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It is interesting to learn that Stewart took the part in order to raise enough money to open the Ebony Showcase Theatre in Los Angeles so that minorities would not be restricted to playing maids and porters. Their alumni, from all races, included John Amos, Phil Collins, Tom Ewell, Al Freeman Jr., Chaka Khan, B. B. King, Eartha Kitt, Gladys Knight, Nichelle Nichols, Isabel Sanford, William Schallert, and Yuki Shimoda.

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When She Who demands that I do something, I’m still apt to answer, “I’m going to whiz on out there,” and then take my time doing anything.

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The radio show, in particular, relied on word-play and malaprops: “Let’s simonize our watches.” Meanwhile, on Jack Benny’s show, a character was repeatedly asking for “cimarron toast.” At the movie theater, Stan would complain to Ollie that he was having a “nervous shakedown.” Comic word-play of this nature goes back to Shakespeare’s Constable Dogberry and Mistress Quickly and Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop.

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Amos ’n’ Andy helped to expand the horizons of this kid back then (as did The FBI in Peace and War, Johnny Dollar, and Richard Diamond on radio). Keep in mind that this shy kid lived in such big cities as Jasper in Alabama, Vidalia in Georgia, Marianna in Florida, and eventually Pensacola. I had never seen a judge except in movies and on TV shows. The black judges on Amos ’n’ Andy seemed as sensible and competent as Morris Ankrum or Ray Collins on other shows.

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My towns did not have any black policemen or deputies, but I saw them on Amos ’n’ Andy.

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I rarely went into stores run by blacks, except when my father drove a bread truck and I “helped” with deliveries. In Cokeoven (the black region of my hometown), a black man ran a small store and invented pulleys that he could manipulate to open doors and close shutters. But Amos ’n’ Andy had shopkeepers and merchants as dignified as, say, family friends Herman and Bernard Weinstein in my hometown.

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Amos ’n’ Andy planted seeds that said African Americans could do more than they were doing in the Forties and Fifties in the South.

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The black cast of Amos ’n’ Andy would have sympathized with Robert Townsend’s plight when he moved from Illinois to make his way in an entertainment world that restricted black actors to playing maids, porters, waiters, and the like. He satirized Hollywood’s preference for Mandingo stereotypes in Hollywood Shuffle (1987). Black actors were often told they weren’t black enough for key roles.

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Each decade or age will have its respective fads and foibles. Sometimes we have to recognize when some talented people strived to good work in a project that we may not admire overall.

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Categories: The Human Comedy or Tragedy

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