The Diva Debate: LaWanda Page (Aunt Esther) vs. Marla Gibbs (Florence)

 

The subjects of this week’s Diva Debate are considered anything but Divas by today’s standards. If you’re expecting low cut blouses and skin tight dresses, put your peepers on pause. Today it’s about aprons, hair nets and pill box hats with an occasional quote from the Good Book. What these two women lack in stop-you-in-your-tracks good looks, their wit and sassiness more than make up for it.

The characters of Esther Anderson  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 Anderson (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 (light years from Page’s stand up routines in St. Louis) was concerned about her loving nephew Lamont and the soul of her brother in law Fred —  a widower after the death of her sister Elizabeth. Esther had no problem setting Fred straight with a one-eyed jack 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 took in too much 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 Detroit 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 landed a spot on the Jeffersons as Florence Johnston, the Jefferson’s housekeeper.

As a spin-off from All in the Family, The Jeffersons was one of the first sitcoms that removed the Black family from the ghettos and into a more affluent lifestyle that had been recently scripted for whites. George and Louise Jefferson did not experience the financial struggles of James and Florida Evans. George owned a dry cleaning business and lived in an upscale apartment on the East Side of Manhattan. George and Weezy decided to bring in a housekeeper.

And that’s when things changed.

Florence Johnston wasn’t your cookie-cutter maid. In the Jefferson home, she was the voice of reason because headstrong George only listened to wife Louise to an extent. When George got to full of himself, Florence had no problem reminding George of who he was and where he came from — much to the delight of those who couldn’t stomach George’s grandstanding. Despite his repeated threats to fire Florence, George 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.

15 Responses to “The Diva Debate: LaWanda Page (Aunt Esther) vs. Marla Gibbs (Florence)”

  1. Miranda says:

    NO.

    U.

    Didn’t.

    BWA HAHAHAHAHAHA

  2. Ron Glover says:

    Do you like it Miranda? Mike and I talked long and had about how you and Michelle would receive this segment we didn’t want to cross any lines.

  3. Sylvia says:

    I LOVE it! LOL

  4. Temple3 says:

    For me, this one is a tie. The appearance of the sage in the garb of a beggar or servant is always confounding to those with some measure of power. Considering that the Jeffersons was a spin off of All in the Family, it is interesting to compare the role of FOIL played by Florence with that of Mike Stivick (sic) played by Rob Reiner. Like Florence and Esther, “Meathead” was imbued with a degree of certainty…his was based on education; theirs was based on life.

    But perhaps a more compelling comparison is with the character Edith on All in the Family. She usually had her husbands back, but every once in awhile, she would deliver the line to end all lines and take the side of Mike and Gloria. She wasn’t “smart.” Florence was smart. Esther was smart. Edith was like an idiot savant…nonsense mostly, genius occasionally.

    Thought provoking stuff…the Hollywood construction and reconstruction of image is a powerful thing. No matter how you slice it, Page and Gibbs held it down. Marla Gibbs’ behind-the-scenes work in Hollywood is also worth talking about. The was, as I recall, the Executive Producer of 227…and we know that show served as a launching pad for other careers including Regina King.

    Marla’s post-Florence influence is where it’s at.

  5. Temple3 says:

    Good write up by the way. I appreciate how you took the time to contextualize the characters. Gotta find LaWanda Page on vinyl!

  6. HarveyDent says:

    Great read and I give both ladies a tie even though I’m more a fan of Sanford & Son.

    I agree with T3 as well that Marla Gibbs has done a lot of behind the scenes work helping actors in Hollywood and should always be commended for her efforts.

    One nitpick though is that Aunt Esther’s and Woody’s last name was Anderson.

  7. Ron Glover says:

    Yeah I think Williams was her maiden name. Im thinking about the episode where dude said that he was Lamont’s dad and he was really creeping w/Esther.

  8. Miranda says:

    I like it Ron!

    I will neva forget Aunt Esther’s line to Grady once…”I’ll jump down your throat and stump yo liver”…….classic!

  9. GrandNubian says:

    I love them both but I gotta give it to Aunt Esther. Her quarrels with Fred were classic.

    @Miranda….how about this line?

    “You tell Woodrow that his behind is grass….and I AM THE LAWNMOWER!!!!”

    @RonG

    Esther’s maiden name was Winfield and the episode you’re referring to is the one featuring “Big Money Grip”.

  10. Temple3 says:

    GN:

    Straight diggin’ in the crates. Luv it!

  11. TheLastPoet says:

    I am in agreement with you all about the importance of these characters (and the actors who portrayed them) as Black cultural artifacts.

    The “Marse Jefferson” skit is particularly poignant in this regard, discussing, as it did, the intersecting questions of class and power relations, gender roles, and the history of servitude on the collective Black consciousness.

    One quibble I might raise, however, is my own sensation that, as I grew older, we laughed easily at Fred making fun of Esther in part because of her darker complexion. I’ve often wondered whether we would’ve laughed so easily had Denise Nicholas, Lola Falana, Diane Carroll, Pam Grier, or Vonetta McGee been forced to play the role (“forced” in terms of the limited access to starring roles for Black actors in Hollywood).

    For example, it may have been easier for us to laugh at Fred calling Esther a big bottom lipped go-rilla when his target was dark-skinned and costumed so as to appear larger, older, meaner, and uglier than Ms. Page actually was, since it speaks to our own psychological conditioning and its subconscious desire for the white male standard of beauty.

    Another quibble I might raise is why was it necessary for “Florence” and “Esther” to talk like Aunt Jemima (if Aunt Jemima could speak) or better yet (as the actor who played “Bentley” so affectively pointed out during the skit) Hattie McDaniel from Gone With The Wind?

    If they were indeed sages appearing as servants as my man the Master Temple states (and I do not disagree), then why was it necessary for them to speak like buffoons? This is a fate that the “idiot savant” from All In The Family was able to avoid, no? I would suggest that all of that “sassy Black female” talk carried these otherwise strong Black female leads into the realm of caricature (and no it is not lost upon me that the main characters of George jefferson and Fred Sanford, respectively, were themselves caricatures, as were the shows ).

    I think it is safe to say that neither Ms. Page, Ms. Gibbs, nor Hattie McDaniel herself actually spoke that way, nor do any intelligent people with whom I’m familiar (at least, not when they’re “being” intelligent). So, again, what was the point?

    But not to worry, these questions are rhetorical! Lol.

    And beside these “minor’ quibbles, yeah I laughed my Black ass off!

    :-D

  12. Julius says:

    Come on. Fred didn’t mock Esther because she had darker skin. It was because she was always scolding him and because she was damn ugly.

  13. Happy troll day Julius. Enjoy your weekend! :)

  14. HarveyDent says:

    I choose Aunt Esther just because I liked the more obvious edge that SANFORD & SON had compared to nearly all 70′s sitcoms. My brother and I used to wonder what it would have been like to see an uncut S&S because the network censors let a lot of stuff go then that would not fly even today on mainstream television.

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