We just had winter finales of some shows, and I was thinking about the evolution of Black women on television.
The Beulah Show is an American situation-comedy series that ran on CBS Radio from 1945 to 1954, and on ABC Television from 1950 to 1952. The show is notable for being the first sitcom to star an African American actress. The show was controversial for its caricatures of African Americans.
Originally portrayed by white actor Marlin Hurt, Beulah Brown first appeared in 1939 when Hurt introduced and played the character on the Hometown Incorporated radio series and in 1940 on NBC radio’s Show Boat series. In 1943, Beulah moved over to That’s Life and then became a supporting character on the popular Fibber McGee and Molly radio series in late 1944. In 1945, Beulah was spun off into her own radio show, The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show, with Hurt still in the role. Beulah was employed as a housekeeper and cook for the Henderson family: father Harry, mother Alice and son Donnie. After Hurt died of a heart attack in 1946, he was replaced by another white actor, Bob Corley, and the series was retitled The Beulah Show.
When black actress Hattie McDaniel took over the role on November 24, 1947, she earned $1000 a week for the first season, doubled the ratings of the original series and pleased the NAACP which was elated to see a historic first: a black woman as the star of a network radio program.
McDaniel continued in the role until she became ill in 1952 and was replaced by Lillian Randolph, who was in turn replaced for the 1953-54 radio season by her sister, Amanda Randolph.
For most of the radio show’s run, the series ran as a 15-minute daily sitcom, a format popular among daytime serials.
In 1950, Roland Reed Productions adapted the property into a TV situation comedy for ABC, and the Beulah TV show ran for three seasons, Tuesday nights at 7:30 ET from October 3, 1950 to December 23, 1952.
Most of the comedy in the series derived from the fact that Beulah, referred to as “the queen of the kitchen”, has the ability to solve the problems that her employers cannot figure out. Other characters included Beulah’s boyfriend Bill Jackson, a handyman who is constantly proposing marriage, and Oriole, a befuddled maid for the family next door.
For at least the first season, the Beulah was filmed at a studio in the Bronx while Ethel Waters was simultaneously appearing on Broadway in The Member of the Wedding.
Ethel Waters starred as Beulah for the first year of the TV series before quitting in 1951. Hattie McDaniel, star of radio’s Beulah, was cast in the title role in Summer 1951, but only filmed six shows before falling ill. She was quickly replaced by Louise Beavers in later 1951. The McDaniel episodes were shelved pending an improvement of her health, and so the second season began in April 1952 starting with the Beavers episodes. The six McDaniel episodes were tagged onto the end of the second season, starting July 1952 and running until August 1952. It was around this time that McDaniel learned that she had advanced breast cancer. Beavers returned in the role of Beulah for the first part of the third Beulah season, which aired from September to December 1952.
Butterfly McQueen, (McDaniel’s fellow cast member from Gone With the Wind, where they had also played servant roles) starred as Oriole for the first season. Ruby Dandridge (Dorothy’s mother), Mrs. Kelso in Cabin in the Sky and the voice of Oriole on the radio version of Beulah, replaced McQueen when the entire television cast was overhauled upon the arrival of Hattie McDaniel. Percy “Bud” Harris originally portrayed Bill, but he walked out on the part during the first season, accusing the producers of forcing him to portray an “Uncle Tom” character. He was succeeded in the role by Casablanca pianist Dooley Wilson until Ernest Whitman followed radio co-stars McDaniel and Dandridge to TV in April 1952. The show was directed at various times by future sitcom veterans as Richard (L.) Bare and Abby Berlin.
Like the contemporaneous television program Amos ‘n’ Andy, Beulah came under attack from many critics, including the NAACP, which accused the show of supporting stereotypical depictions of black characters with Beulah viewed as a stereotypical “mammy” similar to Aunt Jemima.