So authentic was LaWanda Page (Alberta Peal, 1920-2002) in her role as the hot-tempered, pious Aunt Esther on Sanford and Son and its various sequels (1972-1981) that many must have assumed as I did (though I was a child), that she was a talented non-actor, cast for her genuine real-life qualities rather than her ability to play a role. In reality, much like the similar Moms Mabley, “LaWanda/ Esther” was a character Alberta Peal had developed over the years in nightclubs with great success, one that was easily transplantable to the Sanford universe.
Peal had been a close friend of Redd Foxx’s in high school in St. Louis. Like Foxx, she began working the Chitlin’ Circuit when she was young, initially as a dancer, and then as a fire-eater billed as “The Bronze Goddess of Fire”. Gradually she became part of Skillet and LeRoy’s comedy act, before going out as a solo stand-up performer, working the same audiences as Foxx, Mabley and Richard Pryor. In the late ’60s and early ’70s she recorded a string of raunchy comedy albums, one of which, Watch it, Sucker (1972), released after her success as Aunt Esther, went gold.
As Fred Sanford’s foil, Page was an instant national hit. She was the butt of Foxx’s jokes, but one who gave as good as she got, usually accompanied by a swat from her lethal pocketbook. Aunt Esther was a church lady who valued uprightness and called anyone who didn’t toe the line “heathens”. Yet, when pushed (and it didn’t take much to push her) she revealed herself to be a wild woman who’d kill you if someone nearby didn’t hold her arms down.
Sanford and Son wasn’t the the sum total of Page’s career, though it no doubt helped her get cast in most of her subsequent roles (as many of them were riffs on the same character). She appeared with Sherman Hemsley on The Love Boat and later on his later show Amen; she was also on Starsky and Hutch, Diff’rent Strokes, Hill Street Blues, Amazing Stories, In Living Color, 227, Martin, and The Sinbad Show, and in movies like My Blue Heaven (1990), Shakes the Clown (1991), and Don’t be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the ‘Hood (1996). Her last credit was the posthumously released West from North Goes South (2004), with the intriguing cast of Larry Linville, Phyllis Diller, Tina Louise, and Morris Day from Purple Rain!