The subjects of this week’s Diva Debate would be considered anything but Divas by today’s standards. If you’re expecting low cut blouses and skin tight dresses this week - put your peepers on pause. This week it’s aprons and hair nets with pill box hats followed by an occasional quote from the Good Book. What these two women may lack in stop-you-in-your-tracks good looks, their wit and sassiness made them more than a handful.
The characters of Esther Williams and Florence Johnston were two of the best remembered Black sitcom characters of the 1970′s. They were strong Black women, outspoken and steadfast in their convictions as Fred Sanford and George Jefferson found out.
The highlight of the Sanford and Son sitcom from the 1970′s was without a doubt the verbal and near physical confrontations between Fred G. Sanford (Redd Foxx) and his sister in law Esther Williams (LaWanda Page). Friends since their raunchy stand up comic days in St. Louis Foxx recommended that Page be considered for the part of Esther. In filming the show Page struggled with the transition from the stage to the screen and they considered letting her go. Upon hearing this Foxx threatened to leave the show if Page was released. Page was allowed to stay which turned out to be a wise decision.
Esther’s bible-toting character (a far cry from Page’s standup routines in St. Louis) was concerned about her loving nephew Lamont and the soul of her brother in law Fred who was left a widower after the death of her sister Elizabeth. Esther had no problem setting Fred straight with a one-eyed jacks stare followed by a “Watch it Sucka” or a ”You ol’ fish-eyed fool” snap back. Esther was more than willing to take on the likes of Fred, his friends and even her husband Woodrow when he over indulged in the liquid courage. If things got too heavy, Esther didn’t hesitate calling on the sistas from the church for backup.
The verbal barbs between Fred and Esther were classic comedy that carried them both from the nightclubs of St. Louis to the bright lights of Hollywood. I never hesitate when I see Sanford and Son on the tube.
Marla Gibbs’ road to international fame took her from a job as a reservations agent for United Airlines in Detoit to California where she joined (PASLA) the Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles. After performing in several well-performed productions at the zodiac theater she would land the spot on the Jeffersons as Florence, the Jefferson’s housekeeper.
As a spinoff from All in the Family, The Jeffersons was one of the first sitcoms that removed the Black family from the ghettos of America and into a more affluent lifestyle that had been recently scripted for whites. George and Louise Jefferson were the anti-James and Florida Evans. George owned a dry cleaning business and lived in an upscale apartment on the East Side of Manhattan, they even employed a maid.
And that’s when things changed.
Florence Johnston wasn’t your cookie-cutter maid, in the Jefferson home she was the voice of reason where George would only listen to wife Louise but so much. When George’s got to full of himself with the feeling that he had “made it”, Florence had no problem reminding George of who he was and where he came from much to the delight of those that couldn’t take George’s grandstanding. And despite George’s threat to fire Florence he knew she was on point. Florence took no prisoners - even if it meant falling out with Louise from time to time. In time, George realized that Florence had his best interests at heart and considered her one of the family.