On this day in comedy on October 3, 1950 ‘Beulah’ premiered on ABC.
Carrying the historical distinction of being the first sitcom to star a black female, Beulah got its roots on radio in 1945. At that time, it was on CBS and the original performer playing the title character, Beulah Brown, was a white man; Marlin Hurt. The guy made a living off her. It was Hurt who invented Beulah, the housekeeper/cook for radio in 1939 for the Hometown Incorporated radio series. He moved her over to NBC’s Show Radio in 1940. Hurt was Beulah in 1943 for That’s Life and in 1944 he/she was a regular on Fibber McGee and Molly. Then in 1945 Hurt aka Beulah hit the big time; their own show entitled (get this) The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show.
Hurt died of a heart attack in 1946. He was replaced by another white actor: Bob Corley. Corley lived, but was replaced by Hattie McDaniel in 1947. This made her the first black actress to star on a radio show, where she doubled the show’s ratings and earned $1,000 per week. When McDaniel became ill in 1952 she was replaced on radio by Lillian Randolph, who was replaced the following season by her sister, Amanda Randolph.
The show hit television in 1950 and that’s when it got confusing. “The Queen of the Kitchen” was still outsmarting her Caucasian employers by knowing how to solve problems that perplexed them, but you never knew which Beulah you were going to get. The same applied to fellow characters, Bill, her boyfriend and Oriole, her friend / maid from next door.
The first television Beulah was Ethel Waters. This also made Waters the first black woman to star in a television show. She quit after one season saying the scripts were degrading to black people. The next Beulah was Hattie McDaniel; familiar with the role from her radio version. After six episodes, she got sick and was replaced quickly by Louise Beavers. The reason for the rapidness was because none of McDaniel’s episodes had aired. So audiences saw Ethel Waters, then Louise Beavers, then Hattie McDaniel. When McDaniel learned of her situation was more serious than first considered (she was diagnosed with breast cancer), Beavers became the permanent replacement and the new Beulah.
Similar shenanigans went on with the other cast members. Initially Butterfly McQueen played Oriole under the Ethel Waters regime. When Hattie McDaniel came aboard McQueen was replaced by Ruby Dandridge, who’d played the part on radio. Dooley Wilson (Sam from “Casablanca”) became the new Bill after Percy “Bud” Harris walked citing the refusal to portray Uncle Tom in any form as the reason. Ernest Whitman was the final Bill under the Louise Beavers era.
Of course, the artistic attackers without solutions – the NAACP, jumped on the stereotypes and Beulah’s days were numbered. The show managed to crank out 87 episodes before being shut down for good. Eighty of those episodes have been destroyed. Only seven survive along with only 21 of the radio broadcasts.
Beulah aired its last televised episode on December 23, 1952.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
Check out this clip: