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.