Wednesday, May 8, 2019

You Ol' Fish-Eyed Fool!

Lawanda Page was born Alberta Peal on October 19, 1920 in Cleveland, Ohio.  She was raised in St. Louis, where she began her career in show business when she was just fifteen.  Billed as "The Bronze Goddess of Fire," her early nightclub act saw her stripping, eating fire and lighting cigarettes with her fingers.  A far cry from the comedy that would define her.

From the late 1930s to the early 1960s, Page was a regular on the nightclub circuit, where she often worked with notable comedians such as Richard Pryor. She was beginning to stretch her comedic wings and decided to hone her wit by moving to Los Angeles.  There around 1965, she joined the comedy group Skillet, Leroy and Company.  It's members included Ernest "Skillet" Mayhand, Wilbert "LeRoy" Daniel and an up and coming comedian who called himself Redd Foxx.  Page was no stranger to Foxx however, as the two had grown up together in St. Louis.

During her time with the group, Page honed her feisty approach to comedy, eventually earning a new billing - "The Black Queen of Comedy."  By the late 60s, she began recording comedy albums for Laff Records, which were incredibly raunchy.  Hear one of them here.  You've been warned.

In 1971, NBC offered Foxx his own sit-com, Sanford and Son, the show that would define both his and Page's careers.  Watch the intro here. It was based on a BBC program called Steptoe and Son, though the two bare little if any resemblance to one another.  Watch an episode of Steptoe here.

While the network was sold on Foxx, they had deep reservations about hiring Page.  Although she had made a name for herself on the comedy stage, she'd never performed in a sit-com before, prompting the network to show her the door.  Foxx dug his heels in however, threatening to walk off the show himself if Page wasn't signed.  The rest, as they say, is history.

As Aunt Esther, Page spent the next six years sparring with her brother-in-law Fred Sanford.  Their scenes together were a highlight of the series, and you can watch a compilation of them here.

In 1977, NBC canceled Sanford and Son, but attempted to keep some of the characters around in a new series entitled Sanford Arms.  While lacking either of the original title characters, the new series did resurrect Page's Aunt Esther as well as Don Bexley's Bubba.  You can watch a full episode here, if you want, but the thing only lasted eight episodes for a reason.  Four years later, Sanford would return to NBC, but Son was still nowhere to be seen.  Page however did return, and the revived series, appropriately titled Sanford, lasted two seasons.  Watch the intro here.

Page stayed active in television and films, often appearing on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts.  Watch her take down Jimmy Stewart in this classic clip. She later returned to her roots as a fire-eater on Circus of the Stars.  Man, I used to love that show.  She also resumed her stand-up career.  Watch one such engagement here.

By the late 1990s, Page was suffering from diabetes, which ultimately took her life on September 14, 2002.  She was 81 years old.  She was cremated, and her ashes were interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery outside Los Angeles.

Inglewood Park Cemetery
Capistrano Court
Memorial Panel 43
Row F-3

RIP Queen.

  • In the 1980s, Page did a number of commercials for Church's Fried Chicken.  Watch one here.  Here's another one.

  • Redd Foxx used to have an office building in downtown Los Angeles.  Long since torn down, the sidewalk out front still bares signatures and handprints of the original comedy group, Skillet, LeRoy and Company.  Read about it here.

  • While the plaque baring Peal's name appears above ground on a columbarium, her ashes are actually stored in an underground chamber, along with hundreds of others.  While the staff here at Six Feet Under Hollywood have yet to breach this hideaway of the dead, we remain vigilant in our efforts to do so.

  • When Sanford and Son began its third season in 1973, NBC moved it to a new time slot, Friday nights at 8:00, where it continued to see ratings success.  It is often cited as the nail in the coffin for its counterpart on ABC, this long-running sit-com that was canceled after five seasons.

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