BEULAH

U.S. Situation Comedy

Beulah, the first nationally broadcast weekly television series starring an African-American in the leading role, ran on ABC from 1950 to 1953. The role had originally been created by white, male actor Marlin Hurt for the Fibber McGee and Molly radio program and the character was spun off onto "her" own radio show in 1945. After Hurt's untimely death in 1946, Hattie McDaniel played the role on radio until her death in 1953. Ethel Waters played the character on television during its first two seasons and Louise Beavers in its third year.

A half-hour situation comedy, the program revolved around the whimsical antics of a middle-aged black domestic, Beulah, the so-called "queen of the kitchen," and the white family for whom she worked--Harry and Alice Henderson and their young son, Donnie. Beulah's boyfriend Bill Jackson ran a fix-it shop, but managed to spend most of his time hanging around Beulah's kitchen. Beulah's other black companion was Oriole, a feather-brained maid who worked for the white family next door. Storylines tended to involve Beulah coming to the rescue of her employers, by providing a great spread of Southern cuisine to impress Mr. Henderson's business client, teaching the awkward Donnie how to dance jive and impress the girls, or saving the Henderson's stale marriage. Beulah's other major obsession was trying to get Bill to agree to marry her. A regular comedic feature of the show involved Bill hyperbolically proclaiming his devotion to Beulah, while always finding a reason why the two could not wed just yet.

As one of the very few images of African-Americans on prime-time television in this period, the program came in for a certain amount of criticism for perpetuating comic black stereotypes. The show was panned in the The New York Times and condemned by widely syndicated television critic John Crosby who singled out Ethel Waters for censure. Waters achieved great renown as a vocalist, actress (particularly for her work in the Broadway production, A Member of the Wedding), and as an author with her brutally honest rags-to-riches autobiography. Yet her work in Beulah was considered by Crosby--and some critics in the black press--as a betrayal of her other exemplary accomplishments. Actor Bud Harris, who had been contracted to play the role of Bill, quit the series a few months into its run, complaining that the show's writers were forcing him to play the character as an "Uncle Tom" and engage in comic activity he found degrading to his race.

Despite these examples of controversy, Beulah never generated the amount of heated debate that Amos 'n' Andy provoked. The latter series joined the television airways a year after Beulah and became a flashpoint for organized protest. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), at its June 1951 annual convention, condemned both shows for depicting black people in a derogatory manner which "tends to strengthen the conclusion among uninformed or prejudiced peoples that Negroes and other minorities are inferior, lazy, dumb and dishonest." The organization, however, chose to engage in a consumer boycott only of Amos 'n' Andy's sponsor, and not Procter and Gamble, the sponsor of Beulah.

Beulah is significant in that it was part of a phenomenon in early entertainment television programming which saw more diversity in ethnic and racial depictions than would be seen again at any time until the late 1960s. The portrayals may have been stereotyped--as they were in other early 1950s ethnic sitcoms such as The Goldbergs and Life with Luigi--but at least African-Americans were visible in prime-time hours. After Beulah left the air in September 1953, no programme would star a black woman again until fifteen years later in 1968 when Julia appeared.

-Aniko Bodroghkozy


Beulah (Louise Beavers)

CAST

Beulah (1950-52).................................... Ethel Waters Beulah (1952-53)................................. Louise Beavers Harry Henderson (1950-52)................. William Post, Jr. Harry Henderson (1952-53)........................ David Bruce Alice Henderson (1950-52)...................... Ginger Jones Alice Henderson (1952-53)........................ Jane Frazee Donnie Henderson (1950-52).................... Clifford Sales Donnie Henderson (1952-53).................... Stuffy Singer Oriole (1950-52).............................. Butterfly McQueen Oriole (1952-53).................................. Ruby Dandridge Bill Jackson (1950-51).................... Percy (Bud) Harris Bill Jackson (1951-52).......................... Dooley Wilson Bill Jackson (1952-53)........................ Ernest Whitman Alice's Mother........................................ Madge Blake Harry's Mother...................................... Ruth Robinson

PRODUCER Roland Reed

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

ABC

October 1950-September 1953 Tuesday 7:30-8:00

FURTHER READING

Dates, Jannette L., and William Barlow, editors. Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media. Washington, D.c.: Howard University Press, 1990.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. "From Beulah to Oprah: The Evolution of Black Images on TV." New York Times, 15 January 1993.

MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1983.

Steenland, Sally. The Unequal Picture: Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American Characters on Television.

Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Working Women, 1989.

 

See also Waters, Ethel