Beulah: 1950 – 1953, ABC’s First Hit Sitcom

Written By: Greg Howell - Jan• 26•20

Beulah, the long-running radio show starring Hattie McDaniel, moved to TV in 1950. While Hattie continued on radio, legendary entertainer and Oscar-nominated actress Ethel Waters originated the role on ABC-TV. According to press releases of the day, she was “the queen of the kitchen and manager of the house.” Butterfly McQueen was her co-star and sidekick on the sitcom.

Ethel Waters and Butterfly McQueen

The sitcom represented a number of important firsts in TV: Beulah was television’s first sitcom starring AND featuring black actors; and, Beulah was ABC’s first hit sitcom, giving the troubled network a much needed boost;

Most episodes dealt with Beulah scheming to get her white bosses out of some trouble they had landed. Other sitcom devices of the day filled out other episodes, such as misunderstandings between the household members.

Beulah quickly caught the ire of the NAACP for the use of negative stereotypes, most often the antiquated speech and diction of characters in the show. And, of course, the portrayal of a black character as a mammy stereotype.

Ad for “Beulah” for syndicated run.
BEULAH, Hattie McDaniel, 1952.

Ethel Waters and Butterfly McQueen left the show at end of season one when the show moved from the Bronx to Hollywood. Miss Waters was starring on Broadway and had no desire to move to California. Hattie McDaniel took over the role, but fell ill after 6 episodes. Louise Beavers accepted the role until the show was cancelled in 1953. Though the ratings were still high, pressure from the NAACP put this show and Amos ‘n Andy out of production only months apart in 1953. Both TV shows enjoyed long syndicated reruns until the early 1960s.

Louise Beavers, 1952-53

The radio show ran until 1954, with Lillian and Amanda Randolph in the roles. In all, on radio and TV, 5 actresses portrayed Beulah from 1947 – 1954. Prior to 1947, the character of Beulah was portrayed by a white man, including on the character’s run on the popular radio show, “Fibber McGee and Molly.”

Nat King Cole: America’s Favorite Guest Star

Written By: Greg Howell - Jan• 24•20
One of the last songs recorded by Nat King Cole in late 1964, L-O-V-E, the single and album, were released shortly before his death in February 1965.

Nat King Cole was TV’s perennial and favorite guest star in the 1950s and 1960s. Beginning with Ed Sullivan in 1950 (he ultimately made 14 appearances on that show), his smooth, crystal clear vocals and classic songs enamored audiences on the biggest TV shows of the day. Gleason, Skelton, Benny, Berle, Gobel, Paar, and Shore, to name just a few, featured Nat King Cole in over 100 appearances.

In 1956, Cole starred in his own variety show that ran for 49 episodes and making him the first African-American man to star in his own variety series. While well-received, the show never was able to attain an official national sponsor. Without sponsorship, he was forced to end his show December 17, 1957. He said publicly about the situation, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”

Nat King Cole was one of the biggest recording starts of the time, landing eight #1 hits on the Billboard Charts. He had a successful run in the movies with one reel shorts, 18 films total, that played as opening act to movie theater audiences. In 1963, he headlined his own television special for the BBC, “An Evening with Nat King Cole.”

In 1991, daughter Natalie Cole recorded an album of her father’s songs, titled and anchored by an “Unforgettable” duet and single, the #1 album sold over 7 million copies, winning 6 grammy awards, including album, song, record, and traditional pop vocal performance.

The Great Jackie Robinson

Written By: Greg Howell - Jan• 22•20

It’s not a stretch to label Jackie Robinson the first African-American superstar on television. His inaugural year in fact, 1947, was the same year National League Baseball began regular broadcasts on network television. And Jackie Robinson was the discussion, initially for the wrong reasons, around television sets across the country.

By October 1947, with the first broadcast of the World Series, and coincidentally, a legendery series by Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees, the “edge-of-your-seat” series generated tremendous excitement for television. And Jackie emerged a superstar.

Jackie Robinson Promotional Photograph

Jackie Robinson’s dignity was evident. His stance on non-violence, and his remarkable talent for baseball, hitting runs, and stealing bases quickly moved the needle toward inclusion and desegregation. 3.1 million viewers tuned in to watch the series finale; with only 10,000 sets in the New York viewing area, the per television viewers numbered 40 to 50 for each set!

Television sales immediately escalated after the series, as did Jackie Robinson’s approval ratings. Jackie became legendary overnight. By 1950, a successful documentary movie was released. Jackie’s unparalleled courage in the game of baseball was noticed and rewarded, despite the occasional set-backs.

Jackie Robinson and Dan Bankhead after the Dodgers won the sixth game of the 1947 World Series. Credit…Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

In 1949, he had to testify for the House UnAmerican Activities Committee regarding a close friend; he had little option, as he would have certainly been implicated as a communist otherwise.

Finally, in 1955, and the first color telecast of a World Series, Robinson and the Dodgers won the series in another 7-game nail biter. Even though Robinson would retire in a few years, his impact on televised baseball was gigantic.

As reported by The New York Times, in the late 1950’s, Robinson hosted a television show emphasizing morality and ethics. Airing on WOR in New York, it showcased the importance of maintaining personal dignity and making moral choices.

He overcame the greatest obstacles to be heralded as one of the greatest of baseball players, but most remarkable and significant, he had crossed the unfair barriers of racism. He brought into focus that Americans were Americans, no matter their color. Jackie Robinson became one of the most celebrated and honored men walking the entire earth.


William Marshall, Harlem Detective, 1953-54

Written By: Greg Howell - Jan• 22•20
William Marshall, Award-Winning Actor, 1924 – 2003

William Marshall began his career with aplomb, landing roles in diverse works like Carmen Jones, Othello, and numerous other Shakespeare plays. Working both on Broadway and across Europe, the classically trained actor quickly established himself as a hot commodity.

The London Sunday Times labeled him “The Greatest Othello of Our Time” and Jet Magazine, on January 3, 1952, claimed his as “Hollywood’s Newest Glamour Boy.” He notably starred as abolitionist Frederick Douglas.

Profoundly handsome, his graceful, larger-than-life presence and haunting voice promised a long career. In 1953, WOR-TV in New York began production on “Harlem Detective,” a television series based on the popular books by author Chester Times. William Marshall accepted the leading role playing a police detective, giving him the distinction of being the first African-American to star in a drama on television.

Hollywood’s Newest Glamour Boy, Jet Magazine, 1952

As with Hazel Scott a few years before, by the 14th episode, Williams had been labeled as a communist by an influential anti-communist magazine. The show was immediately canceled in January, 1954; fortunately, he was able to survive the smear, and continued with a long career in television, movies, and theater.

In 1974, William Marshall won 2 Emmy awards for a local PBS production of “As Adam Early in the Morning.” Marshall is most often remembered for his “Blacula” films and his two Star Trek episodes in the late 1960’s.

IMDB offers this notation: “In addition to his acting and producing work, Marshall taught acting at various universities including University of California, Irvine and at the Mufandi Institute, an African-American arts and music institution in the Watts section of Los Angeles. He did similar work at Chicago’s eta Creative Arts Foundation, which in 1992 named Marshall one of its Epic Men of the 20th Century. Marshall was the unmarried partner for 42 years of Sylvia Gussin Jarrico, former wife of blacklisted screenwriter Paul Jarrico. Marshall died on June 11, 2003…”


Celebrating Black History on Television, Jan. 20 – March 1, 2020

Written By: Greg Howell - Jan• 20•20