- Amos 'n' Andy
"Amos 'n' Andy" was a situation comedy based on
stereotypes of African-Americans and popular in the United Statesfrom the 1920s through the 1950s. The show began as one of the first radio comedy serials, written and voiced by Freeman Gosdenand Charles Correlland originating from station WMAQ in Chicago, Illinois. After the series was first broadcast in 1928, it grew in popularity and became a huge influence on the radio serials that followed. The program ran on radio as a nightly serial from 1928 until 1943, as a weekly situation comedy from 1943 until 1955, and as a nightly disc-jockey program from 1954 until 1960. A television adaptation ran on CBS-TV from 1951 until 1953, and continued in syndicated reruns from 1954 until 1966.
"Amos 'n' Andy" creators Gosden and Correll were white actors familiar with
minstreltraditions. They met in Durham, North Carolina, in 1920, and by the fall of 1925, they were performing nightly song-and-patter routines on the " Chicago Tribune"'s station WGN. Since the "Tribune" syndicated Sidney Smith's popular comic strip " The Gumps", which had successfully introduced the concept of daily continuity, WGN executive Ben McCanna thought the notion of a serialized drama could also work on radio. He suggested to Gosden and Correll that they adapt "The Gumps" to radio. They instead proposed a series about "a couple of colored characters" and borrowed certain elements of "The Gumps". Their new series, " Sam 'n' Henry", began January 12, 1926, fascinating radio listeners throughout the Midwest. That series became popular enough that in late 1927 Gosden and Correll requested that it be distributed to other stations on phonograph records in a "chainless chain" concept that would have been the first use of radio syndicationas we know it today. When WGN rejected the idea, Gosden and Correll quit the show and the station that December. Contractually, their characters belonged to WGN, so when Gosden and Correll left WGN, they performed in personal appearances but could not use the character names from the radio show.
When WMAQ, the "
Chicago Daily News" station, hired the team and their WGN announcer, Bill Hay, to create a series similar to "Sam 'n' Henry", they offered higher salaries than WGN and the rights to pursue the "chainless chain" syndication concept. The creators later told an anecdote that they named the new characters Amos and Andy after hearing two elderly African-Americans greet each other by those names in a Chicago elevator. "Amos 'n' Andy" began March 19, 1928, on WMAQ, and prior to airing each program they recorded their show on 78 rpm disks at Marsh Laboratories, operated by electrical recording pioneer Orlando R. Marsh.
For the program's entire run as a nightly serial, Gosden and Correll portrayed all the male roles, performing over 170 distinct voice characterizations in the show's first decade. With the episodic drama and suspense heightened by cliffhanger endings, "Amos 'n' Andy" reached an ever-expanding radio audience. It was the first radio program to be distributed by syndication in the United States, and by the end of the syndicated run in August 1929, at least 70 stations besides WMAQ carried the program by means of recordings.
Early storylines and characters
Amos Jones and Andy Brown worked on a farm near
Atlanta, Georgia, and during the episodes of the first week, they made plans to find a better life in Chicago, despite warnings from a friend. With four ham and cheese sandwiches and $24, they bought train tickets and headed for Chicago, where they lived in a State Street rooming house and experienced some rough times before launching their own business, the Fresh Air Taxi Company. With the listening audience increasing in the spring and summer of 1928, the show's success prompted the PepsodentCompany to bring it to the NBC Blue Networkon August 19, 1929. At this time the Blue Network was not heard on stations in the West. Western listeners complained to NBC that they wanted to hear the show. Under special arrangements "Amos 'n' Andy" debuted coast-to-coast November 28, 1929, on NBC's Pacific "Orange" Network and continued on the "Blue". At the same time, the serial's central characters -- Amos, Andy and George "The Kingfish" Stevens -- relocated from Chicago to New York City's Harlem.
Amos was naïve but honest, hard-working and (after his 1935 marriage to Ruby Taylor) a dedicated family man. Andy was more blustering, with overinflated self-confidence. Andy, being a dreamer, tended to let Amos do most of the work. Their lodge leader, George "the Kingfish" Stevens, was always trying to lure the two into get-rich-quick schemes, especially the gullible Andy. Other characters included John Augustus "Brother" Crawford, an industrious but long-suffering family man; Henry Van Porter, a social-climbing real estate and insurance salesman; Frederick Montgomery Gwindell, a hard-charging newspaperman; William Lewis Taylor, the well-spoken, college-educated father of Amos's fiancee; and "Lightning", a slow-moving
Stepin Fetchit-type character. The Kingfish's catch phrase"Holy mackerel!" soon entered the American lexicon.
Of the three central characters, Correll voiced Andy Brown while Gosden voiced both Amos and the Kingfish. The majority of the scenes were dialogues between either Andy and Amos or Andy and Kingfish. Amos and Kingfish, both voiced by Gosden, only rarely appeared together. Since Correll and Gosden voiced virtually all of the parts, the female characters, such as Ruby Taylor, Kingfish's wife Sapphire, and Andy's various girlfriends, did not appear as voiced characters in the original serial, but entered the plots only as discussed by the male characters. When the series switched to a weekly situation comedy in 1943, actresses began voicing the female characters and other actors were recruited for some of the male supporting parts. However, Correll and Gosden continued to voice the three central characters on radio until the series ended in 1960.
The story arc of Andy's romance (and subsequent problems) with the Harlem beautician Madame Queen entranced some 40,000,000 listeners during 1930 and 1931, becoming a national phenomenon. Many of the program's plotlines in this period leaned far more to straight drama than comedy, including the near-death of Amos's fiancee Ruby from pneumonia in the spring of 1931, and Amos's brutal interrogation by police following the murder of the cheap hoodlum Jack Dixon that December. Following official protests by the National Association of Chiefs of Police, Correll and Gosden were forced to abandon that storyline -- turning the entire sequence into a bad dream, from which Amos gratefully awoke on Christmas Eve.
The innovations introduced by Gosden and Correll made their creation a turning point for radio drama, as noted by broadcast historian
Elizabeth McLeod: [McLeod, Elizabeth. "The Original Amos ’n’ Andy: Freeman Gosden, Charles Correll and the 1928–1943 Radio Serial". Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2005. ISBN 0-7864-2045-6] :As a result of its extraordinary popularity, "Amos 'n' Andy" profoundly influenced the development of dramatic radio. Working alone in a small studio, Correll and Gosden created an intimate, understated acting style that differed sharply from the broad manner of stage actors -- a technique requiring careful modulation of the voice, especially in the portrayal of multiple characters. The performers pioneered the technique of varying both the distance and the angle of their approach to the microphone to create the illusion of a group of characters. Listeners could easily imagine that that they were actually in the taxicab office, listening in on the conversation of close friends. The result was a uniquely absorbing experience for listeners who in radio's short history had never heard anything quite like "Amos 'n' Andy".
:While minstrel-style wordplay humor was common in the formative years of the program, it was used less often as the series developed, giving way to a more sophisticated approach to characterization. Correll and Gosden were fascinated by human nature, and their approach to both comedy and drama drew from their observations of the traits and motivations that drive the actions of all people: while often overlapping popular stereotypes of African-Americans, there was at the same time a universality to their characters which transcended race.... Beneath the dialect and racial imagery, the series celebrated the virtues of friendship, persistence, hard work, and common sense, and as the years passed and the characterizations were refined, "Amos 'n' Andy" achieved an emotional depth rivaled by few other radio programs of the 1930s.
:Above all, Correll and Gosden were gifted dramatists. Their plots flowed gradually from one into the next, with minor subplots building in importance until they took over the narrative, before receding to give way to the next major sequence, and seeds for future storylines were often planted months in advance. It was this complex method of story construction that kept the program fresh, and enabled Correll and Gosden to keep their audience in a constant state of suspense. The technique they developed for radio from that of the narrative comic strip endures to the present day as the standard method of storytelling in serial drama.
Only a few dozen episodes of the original serial have survived in recorded form. However, a number of scripts from the original episodes have been discovered, and were utilized by
Elizabeth McLeodin preparing her 2005 book cited above.
"Amos 'n' Andy" was officially transferred by NBC from the
Blue Networkto the Red Network in 1935, although the vast majority of stations carrying the show remained the same. Several months later, Gosden and Correll moved production of the show from NBC's Merchandise Martstudios in Chicago to Hollywood. After a long and successful run with Pepsodent, the program changed sponsors in 1938 to Campbell's Soup; because of Campbell's closer relationship with CBS, the series switched to that network on April 3, 1939.
In 1943, after 4,091 episodes, the radio program went from a 15-minute CBS weekday dramatic serial to an NBC half-hour weekly comedy. While the five-a-week show often had a quiet, easygoing feeling, the new version was a full-fledged sitcom in the
Hollywoodsense, with a regular studio audience (for the first time in the show's history) and an orchestra. More outside actors, including many African-American comedy professionals, were brought in to fill out the cast. Many of the half-hour programs were written by Joe Connellyand Bob Mosher, later the writing team behind " Leave It to Beaver" and " The Munsters". In the new version, Amos became a peripheral character to the more dominant Andy and Kingfish duo, although Amos was still featured in the traditional Christmasshow, where he explains the Lord's Prayerto his daughter.
Albert Laskeroften took credit for having created the show as a promotional vehicle. After the associations with Pepsodent toothpaste and Campbell's Soup, primary sponsors included Rinsodetergent, the Rexalldrugstore chain and CBS' own brand of television sets. President Calvin Coolidgewas said to be among the devoted listeners. Huey P. Longtook his nickname of "Kingfish" from the show. At the peak of the popularity, many movie theaters began the practice of stopping the films for the 15 minutes of the "Amos 'n' Andy" show and then playing the program through the theater's sound system or simply by placing a radio on the stage.
Controversy and the "Pittsburgh Courier" protest
The first sustained protest against the program found its inspiration in the December 1930 issue of "
Abbott's Monthly", when Bishop W.J. Wallsof the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churchwrote an article sharply denouncing "Amos 'n' Andy", singling out the lower-class characterizations and the "crude, repetitious, and moronic" dialogue. The " Pittsburgh Courier" was the nation's second largest African-American newspaper at the time, and publisher Robert Vann expanded Walls' criticism into a full-fledged crusade during a six-month period in 1931.
The paper, among other publicly stated efforts, published a petition to get the program pulled from the air, with a stated goal of one million signatures. While many prominent African-American newspapers refused to back the drive, the "Courier" found support from Bishop Walls, the National Association of Colored Waiters and Hotel Employees and several African-American fraternal orders. The
NAACPnational office declined to endorse the protest, although some of their local chapters stood behind the effort.
Before the campaign was dropped, the paper claimed to have 675,000 names on their petition, although the figure was never independently verified. Gosden and Correll never commented on the "Courier"'s efforts.
While the depiction of African-Americans in the sitcom version of the show is regarded by some as racially offensive by today's standards, the characterizations on the daily serial version were actually much more sympathetic and rounded than that of other shows of the periodFact|date=April 2008, which perpetuated 19th-century minstrel show stereotypes and did not equal the immense success of "Amos 'n' Andy". Examples include the
blackfaceact by the " Two Black Crows", who did two-man comedy routines in vaudeville, short subjects and comedy records, and minstrel headliner Emmett Miller, who recorded a series of popular songs for Okeh Recordsin the late 1920s.
RKO Radio Picturesbrought Gosden and Correll to Hollywoodto do an Amos 'n' Andy feature film, " Check and Double Check" (a catchphrasefrom the radio show). The cast included a mix of white and black performers (the latter including Duke Ellingtonand his orchestra) with Gosden and Correll playing Amos 'n' Andy in blackface. The film pleased neither critics nor Gosden and Correll themselves, but became RKO's biggest box-office hit prior to " King Kong"; audiences were curious to see what their radio favorites looked like. RKO offered Gosden and Correll a contract to do a sequel, which they declined (although they did lend their voices to a pair of "Amos 'n' Andy" cartoon shorts in 1934: " The Rasslin' Match" and " The Lion Tamer"). Years later, Gosden was quoted as calling "Check and Double Check" "just about the worst movie ever." Gosden and Correll also posed for publicity pictures in blackface.
Adapted to television, "The Amos 'n Andy Show" was produced from 1951 to 1953 with 78 filmed episodes. The TV series used African-American actors in the main roles, although the actors were instructed to keep their voices and speech patterns as close to Gosden and Correll's as possible. Produced at the
Hal Roach Studiosfor CBS, it was one of the first television series to be filmed with a multicamera setup, four months before the more famous " I Love Lucy" used the technique. The classic theme song was "The Perfect Song."
The main roles in the television series were played by the following African-American actors:
* "Amos Jones" -
* "Andrew Hogg Brown (Andy)" - Spencer Williams
* "George "Kingfish" Stevens" - Tim Moore
* "Sapphire Stevens" -
* "Ramona Smith (Sapphire's Mama)" -
* "Madame Queen" -
* "Algonquin J. Calhoun" - Johnny Lee
* "Lightnin' " -
Nick Stewart(aka, Nick O'Demus)
This time, the NAACP mounted a formal protest almost as soon as the television version began, and that pressure was considered a primary factor in the video version's cancellation. The show was repeated in syndicated reruns until 1966 when CBS acquiesced to pressure from the NAACP and the growing
civil rightsmovement and withdrew the program. Until recently, the television show had been released only on bootleg videotape versions, but by 2005, 72 of the 78 known TV episodes were available in DVD sets.
Many of the TV episodes were devoted to comedian
Tim Mooreas Kingfish, without the participation of Alvin Childressand Spencer Williamsas Amos 'n' Andy. This is because the Kingfish-only episodes were really a spin-offseries, "The Adventures of Kingfish", which first aired on CBS on January 4, 1955. When the "Amos 'n' Andy" half-hours went into syndication, the "Adventures of Kingfish" shows were added to the syndicated package, under the "Amos 'n' Andy" series title.Fact|date=May 2008
In 1978, a one-hour documentary film, "Amos 'n' Andy: Anatomy of a Controversy", aired in
television syndication(and in later years, on PBS). It told a brief history of the franchise from its radio days to the CBS series, and featured interviews with then-surviving cast members. The film also contained a select complete episode of the classic TV series that had not been seen since it was pulled from the air in 1966.
In 2004, the now-defunct Trio network brought "Amos 'n' Andy" back to television for one night in an effort to re-introduce the series to 21st century audiences. Its festival featured the "Anatomy of a Controversy" documentary, followed by the 1930 "Check and Double Check" film.
Although the series is suggested to be in the public domain, the trademarks and copyrights to "Amos 'n' Andy" are controlled by CBS. Any official video/DVD release, if it ever does happen, will be handled via Paramount Home Entertainment/
In 1955 the format of the radio show was changed to include playing recorded music between sketches, and the show was renamed "The Amos 'n' Andy Music Hall". The final "Amos 'n' Andy" radio show was broadcast
November 25, 1960. Although by the 1950s the popularity of the show was well below its peak of the 1930s, Gosden and Correll had managed to outlast most of the radio shows that came in their wake.
In 1961, Gosden and Correll attempted one last televised effort, albeit in a "disguised" version. They were the voices in a
prime timeanimated cartoon, " Calvin and the Colonel", featuring anthropomorphic animals whose voices and situations were almost exactly those of Andy and the Kingfish. This effort at reviving the series in a way that was intended to be less racially offensive ended after one season on ABC, although it remained quite popular in syndicated reruns in Australia for several years afterwards.
In 1988, the "Amos 'n' Andy" program was inducted into the
Radio Hall of Fame. A pair of parallel, one-block streets in south Dallas, Texas are named Amos Street and Andy Street in honor of these performers.
Radio historian Elizabeth McLeod examined thousands of radio script pages in order to write her authoritative 223-page study, "The Original Amos ’n’ Andy: Freeman Gosden, Charles Correll and the 1928–1943 Radio Serial", published by McFarland in 2005. Currently, the scripts of "Amos 'n' Andy" are performed on a shortwave station broadcasting from Maine,
WBCQon 7415 kHz, at midnight Eastern Time, six nights per week, by Ed Bolton, who performs all roles.
The radio show still airs occasionally on various
talk radiostations in Canada.
Cast work after the show
Ernestine Wade(Sapphire) and Lillian Randolph(Madame Queen) appeared together on an episode of That's My Mamacalled "Clifton's Sugar Mama" on October 2, 1974. They were friends of "Mama" played by Theresa Merrittwho wanted to see Clifton played by Clifton Davis(later of TV show Amen) at the beginning of the episode. Ernestine played Augusta and Lillian played Mrs. Birdie. Jester Hairston(who played Henry Van Porter and Leroy Smith on "Amos 'n' Andy") was a regular on both That's My Mamaas "Wildcat" and on Amen as "Rolly Forbes."
Johnny Lee recorded a record that was released in July 1949 called "You Can't Lose A Broken Heart" (
Columbia Records#30172). It was released as "Johnnie Lee" and backup vocals were by The Ebonaires. Johnny also starred in an all black musical comedy called "Sugar Hill" in 1949 at Las Palmas Theatre in California. [Propes, Steve & Gart, Galen. "L. A. R&B Vocal Groups 1945-1965". Milford, New Hampshire: Big Nickel Publications, 2001. ISBN 0-936433-18-3]
Johnny Lee (Calhoun) and Horace Stewart (Lightnin') both provided voices in the
Walt Disneyfilm Song of the Southin 1946. Johnny provided the voice of Br'er Rabbit and Horace provided the voice of Br'er Bear.
* [http://www.oldtimeradiofans.com/template.php?show_name=Amos%20and%20Andy OTR Fans: "Amos and Andy" (23 episodes)]
* [http://www.freeotrshows.com/otr/a/Amos_and_Andy.html Amos 'n' Andy - OTR - Old Time Radio (108 episodes)]
* [http://www.otr.net/?p=amnd OTR Network Library: "Amos 'n' Andy" (219 episodes)]
* [http://www.midcoast.com/~lizmcl/aa.html Elizabeth McLeod: "Amos 'n' Andy" -- In Person]
* [http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~mfreeman/resources.php?content_id=27 "Amos 'n' Andy": Past as Prologue?]
* [http://xroads.virginia.edu/~1930s/RADIO/amos/meet/meet.html Meet Amos 'n' Andy]
* [http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/2587/ Original "Amos 'n' Andy" web page]
* [http://xroads.virginia.edu/~1930s/RADIO/amos/film/film.html Rechecking "Check and Double Check"]
* [http://www.richsamuels.com/nbcmm/amosandy.html Rich Samuels' Broadcasting in Chicago: 1921-1989]
* [http://www.thevintageplayhouse.com/Articles.asp?ID=132 "Amos 'n' Andy" History of the 1950s TV Show]
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