Feb 11, 2010
TV Pioneer Beulah
Beulah, a sitcom about a maid and the family she serves, was the first radio show to star an African American actress, but it didn’t start out that way. The character was created by comedian Marlin Hurt, who was not only white, but male. Hurt developed Beulah in several guest spots on the The Fibber McGee and Molly Show. That led to the spin-off that would be the first Beulah show (called the Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show), which lasted until Hurt’s death in 1946, just before the end of its debut season.
In 1947, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American actress to take on the role a change which boosted the show's ratings. Though the NAACP had its qualms about the mammy nature of Beulah’s role, the successful show was undeniably groundbreaking. Beulah may have been a maid, but she was also the star. The radio show ran until 1954, while a television version of the program ran in various incarnations from 1950 to 1953.
Throughout its run, the program employed several actresses as Beulah. When McDaniel became ill, sisters Lillian and Amanda Randolph each had a turn with the role on the radio. Ethel Waters debuted Beulah on television, though McDaniels did step into the role again briefly. The last Beulah was another famous screen maid, Louise Beavers.
There were also a few African American performers cast in supporting roles. Butterfly McQueen and Ruby (mother of Dorothy) Dandridge played Oriole—a maid who lived next door to Beulah, while Ernest Whitman and Dooley Wilson took turns playing Beulah’s boyfriend Bill.
Apparently, most of the eight-seven episodes of the television program are lost today, though there are a few available on DVD. I was able to find a 1952 episode of the program with McDaniel on YouTube. She would die of breast cancer soon after this episode was filmed. Note that this show was filmed before the birth of laugh tracks—the silence after the punchlines is almost unsettling!