A Bevy of Beulahs

It’s interesting and instructive that Beulah has dropped out of the public consciousness as a cultural signifier for racist stereotype over the past half century. Somehow the names Uncle Tom, Uncle Remus and Amos ‘n’ Andy have survived, but Beulah, not so much. Beulah was in a category with Aunt Jemima and Mammy from Gone with the Wind as an archetype, a stocky, handkerchief-wearing African American female house servant. For a long time, it had that derogatory association. Nowadays when it is remembered at all, it tends to be for a more positive aspect: it was the first national radio and television show to star an African American woman.

Marlin Hurt, a white male, created the role of Beulah

The evolution and history of the show is fascinating. Over a little more than a decade, no less than seven people, of two genders and of two races played the title role in two different media. Marlin Hurt, who’d sung and played sax with Vincent Lopez’s band, began playing the character on various radio variety shows starting in 1939. Though it sounds startling today, it was the farthest thing from unusual for a white man to play a black woman for the purposes of comedy in American entertainment back then. The “minstrel wench” had been a theatrical tradition for over a century when Hurt stared playing the character, so it wasn’t new, though such caricature was falling our of favor by then.

In 1944, Marlin’s Beulah became a regular on The Fibber McGee and Molly Show, one of the most popular sitcoms in the country, playing the maid of the title characters. The following year it was spun off into its own series The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show. (Does this give you deja vu? It does me! Decades later, Esther Rolle played Maude’s maid Florida on the eponymous show before getting her own program Good Times. Similarly Marla Gibbs (Florence) got her own spin-off of The Jeffersons, but that wasn’t nearly as successful). In the new show, Beulah was the maid of a family named the Hendersons. (Before they adopted Bigfoot apparently — Beulah never would have stood for that, tracking mud across the kitchen floor!).

In 1946, Hurt died of a heart attack (God’s retribution?) and his role was taken over by another guy Bob Corley, as if somehow the part depended upon being played by a white dude.

The producers finally wised up the following year, casting Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel as Beulah, who now made history as the first African American woman to star on her own radio show. In 1950, the television version debuted, with Ethel Waters playing Beulah. Waters remained in the part for one year. For the next season, McDaniel came in, starring in both the radio and tv versions simultaneously. This took a toll on her health and she had to step out (she was thereafter diagnosed with breast cancer). Louise Beavers then took over for her on the TV show, with Lillian Randolph assuming her part on radio. The TV version ceased production at the end of 1952. The radio version soldiered on through 1954, with Amanda Randolph taking over for her sister during the show’s final season. Seven Beulahs! I would imagine most people associate Beavers with the role, as she was the one who played it the longest in a visual medium:

Both versions of the show gave lots of parts to African American actors. Ruby Dandridge, Butterfly McQueen, and Ernest Whitman were on both the radio and TV versions of the show. Dooley Wilson (Sam from Casablanca) was in the first season of the TV show; Jane Frazee played a member of the Henderson family for the tv show’s second two seasons.

While the show did generate controversy for its racial depictions, it wasn’t protested to the same extent as Amos ‘n’ Andy. It seems like the show has suffered an even worse fate for a culture product…ignored and forgotten. Beulah legacy is admittedly mixed, but it did make history. People ought to know about it.