On this day in comedy on October 19, 1920 Comedienne, Actress, LaWanda Page was born in Cleveland, Ohio
The woman who would earn the title “The Queen of Comedy” and “Queen of Black Comedy”, (depending on who was doing the talking) was born Alberta Peal in Cleveland, Ohio on October 19, 1920 and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. She began her career in show business dancing at the age of 15, then working small nightclubs under the title of “The Bronze Goddess of Fire”; an act where she would light cigarettes with her fingertips and eat fire. From that platform she integrated into stand-up comedy running through theaters and clubs on the so-called Midwestern ”chitlin circuit.”
One of her many friends on the circuit was a former schoolmate and dear friend, Redd Foxx. It was Foxx who encouraged her to go into stand-up comedy. Once she honed her skills from years of club work she moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s and joined Skillet, Leroy & Co. She had signature lines like, “”Honey, that old man couldn’t keep no kinda job. That’s the only man I know that ever went to the unemployment office and lost his place in line.”
Page was making a name for herself on the circuit, but the circuit she was on was limited. She was doing clubs and recordings for Laff Records, but no matter how massive her reign at that level she’d always be a goldfish in a toilet bowl. So the plan was not to keep waiting to get flushed down the tubes. Page was getting out of show business and had moved back to St. Louis to take care of her ailing mother. All that changed when she got a call from her former schoolyard buddy, Redd Foxx.
Redd was now Fred Sanford. He was going to be on NBC with his own sitcom and he wanted to work with his friends from stand-up and that meant her. She’d play the Bible thumping Aunt Esther, the sister of his deceased wife. It was truly a blessing; that is until she had to deal with the suits over at NBC.
During casting Redd had told one of the show’s producers about Page. This producer was not only familiar with her reputation for being funny, but had himself caught her stage act so he needed no convincing. With that Redd called LaWanda in St. Louis and got her on the first thing smoking back to L. A. She was going to be a TV star. All she had to do was read for the part. She did and got it. Then things got foul. They loved her persona, but after a rehearsal they decided they wanted to go with a trained actress and told Redd to fire LaWanda. She was hilarious and all that, but didn’t know the fundamentals of how a television sitcom was run. Foxx didn’t care how it was run. If you wanted him you’d have to take her. Foxx worked with her, she learned quickly and in virtually no time Aunt Esther was one of the most popular TV characters of all time.
Everybody knew an Aunt Esther. She was pious; knew how to turn the other cheek, while simultaneously slapping yours. So maybe she’d take a zinger from Foxx and other cast members, like the time Sanford’s friend Grady said, ”Nice having her around, she makes the junk look so pretty.” But Aunt Esther would hit back with lines like ”Watch it, sucker!” her favorite catch phrase or “You old fish-eyed fool.” Foxx was the star of the show, but Page was that extra reason to watch.
After brief stints on spin-offs “Sanford” and “Sanford Arms”, Lawanda Page guest starred on practically every black sitcom on television, roasted with best of them on the Dean Martin Roasts and remained active in comedy up until her death September 14, 2002 from complications of diabetes.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
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