The Vaudeville of Whoopi Goldberg

Long ago, Whoopi Goldberg (b. 1955) became an American institution. Her stage and screen credits wax close to a thousand in number. She acts in movies, plays and tv shows; does solo theatre and stand-up; narrates documentaries; hosts TV talk shows. She starred in the first movie Penny Marshall directed, and the last one Don Ameche appeared in. She has been the muse of Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, and Robert Altman, voiced Walt Disney animated classics, played a major character on Star Trek, co-hosted the first U.S. Comic Relief special, has hosted the Oscars, and has been a co-host on The View for the past 15 years. On and on and on. Her movies range from the silliest of comedies to heavy dramas, to children’s classics. They include such credits as The Color Purple (1985), Ghost (1990), Sister Act (1992), The Lion King (1994), Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), Girl Interrupted (1999), and For Colored Girls (2010). She’s performed with The Muppets, Pee-Wee Herman and Sesame Street, been in remakes of A Christmas Carol and Alice in Wonderland, and Stephen King’s The Stand. She has an EGOT and a Mark Twain Prize!

An institution. And it’s easy to take institutions for granted. So I thought it would be worthwhile to note and celebrate a few aspects of her career that may have faded into the background as her stature has grown and grown and grown.

Now that Whoopi is on Mount Olympus, I think it has truly been forgotten the degree to which she was revolutionary. I can assure you, in 1984, no one, NO ONE in mainstream show business looked like this. Everything about her was subversive. The hair style was a self conscious statement that evoked stereotypes and minstrelsy, decades into a struggle for empowerment whose public strategies typically ranged from integrationist (e.g. Diahann Caroll and Phylicia Rashad) on the one hand to combative (Angela Davis’s afro). Goldberg’s look raised questions. Was it intended as irony? Or was she “owning it”, as Richard Pryor and the rap/hop hop community were owning the N word? There is also a feminist component to it, it would seem. She is not a glamour puss like the above-named women. Her looked seemed a comical embrace of her less conventional appearance, a sort of lookism “damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead” tactic.

Further, there was the enigma of her professional name. Born Caryn Johnson, she chose an outlandish, self conscious moniker plainly designed to sound like that of a hacky Jewish comedian. At various times she hinted Jewish heritage (though later DNA testing on her turned up none). At other times it sounds more like it may have been a cynical ploy, at her mother’s suggestion, to curry favor in a business healthily represented by people of Jewish heritage. Or was it a political statement about that fact, which is another stereotype? Or another possibility (one this writer can speak to) is that as a comedian she merely identifies with, and admires, funny Jews? Or is at all of the above?

At any rate, all of that exploration of identity and stereotype are very, very vaudeville. And she seems to enjoy pot stirring. Ted Danson claimed that she had encouraged him to make his controversial blackface appearance at her Friar’s Club Roast in 1993 (how he ever came back from that, I’ll never know). She also played Buckwheat’s mom in the 1994 Little Rascals reboot! A few months ago she was temporarily suspended from The View for a few weeks for some ill-chosen remarks about the Holocaust. I find it much more likely that Whoopi is a Judeophile than an Anti-Semite, however. Sometimes people say unfortunate things when they are trying converse cross-culturally. That, too, is very vaudeville.

Speaking of vaudeville: Goldberg is a major fan of Moms Mabley. She starred in a one woman show about Moms in San Francisco in 1983 and 1984, and presented a 2013 documentary about her on HBO (the same year she visited the Anne Frank House…which informs the conclusion of the previous paragraph). In 1984, she returned to her hometown of New York to open The Spook Show at Dance Theatre Workshop. (Thus we of Off-Off Broadway can claim her as one of our own). Mike Nichols then moved it up to Broadway where it was a smash, and it put her on the map. It was then filmed for HBO. My family watched it at the time, and again…no one had seen anything quite like it. I’d call it performance art, with elements of solo theatre and stand-up. She played a variety of characters, a little girl, and old man, and most memorably a drug addicted street kid named “Fontane” (I think that’s him in the photo at the top of this post). Naturally the piece was often funny but also frequently touching and dealt with the grim realities of life (a fact my mother found confusing when we watched it, as I recall). Whoopi revived the show for its 20th anniversary, and has appeared on Broadway on several other occasions, notably a 2004 revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson.

When Whoopi Goldberg first made it big she was already 30 years old, a recovering drug addict. As we write this, she has something like half a dozen projects in post-production. The lesson: never stop punching.

For more on vaudeville and show biz history, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,