Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, August 11, 2020


 There's a reason why Amos 'n' Andy is no longer shown on television and if you can't figure out the reason, where the hell have you been for the last fifty years or so?

The show started on the radio in 1928 and ran thought 1960.  It was created by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two white actors who grew up in the minstrel show tradition; Gosden played Amos and Correll played Andy.  The two had proposed a radio series in 1926 about "a couple of colored characters" named Sam 'n' Henry to station WGN in Chicago; Gosden and Correll used stereotypical Negro dialect on the show, in part so their voices might not be recognized in case the show failed.  The show was a hit but WGn refused to syndicate the program so the two actors quit.  In 1928 they were back with a new show, Amos 'n' Andy, on Chicago's WMAQ.  The show was a fifteen-minute daily drama, complete with cliffhangers.  It became the first radio show to be syndicated in the United States, reaching at least 70 stations.  Gosden and Correll also voiced the show's male incidental characters (they sucked at female characters) -- over 170 in the show's first decade.  In 1943, after 4,091 episodes, the show transformed from a daily drama to a weekly half-hour comedy.  The show expanded to television in 1951, using black actors in the leads.  (Gosden and Correll considered having the actors lip-synch so they could dub in their own voices but that was just too impractical; instead, the actors were instructed to copy Gosden and Correll's speech patterns as much as possible.

The title characters were Amos Jones, a hard-working, honest but naive Georgia farmer who moved to Chicago with his friend, the somewhat lazy, often dreamy and gullible, Andy Brown, who managed to let Amos do most of the work.  In Chicago, they joined The Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge, whose leader was George "Kingfish" Stevens -- a man who always had a get-rich-quick scheme.  By 1929 they had moved to Harlem where Amos married Ruby Taylor in 1935.

In the television version Amos was played by Alvin Childress, Andy by Spencer Williams, and The Kingfish by Tim Moore.  In other main roles, Ruby Jones was portrayed by Jane Adams, Sapphire Stevens by Ernestine Wade, Ramona Smith (Sapphire's mother) by Amanda Randolph, lawyer Algonquin J. Calhoun by Johnny Lee, and slow-moving Lightnin' by "Nick O'Demus" (Nick Stewart).

The show -- both radio and television versions -- were immensely popular but began to gain criticism.  Late in 1930, Bishop W. J. Walls of the AME Zion Church denounced the show for its characterizations and its crude, repetitious and moronic" dialogue.  His voice was soon was back by others.  the second largest Black newspaper at the time organized a full-fledged six-month protest in 1931.  More than 700,000 African-Americans wrote to the Federal Radio Commission to complain about racial stereotyping.  (On the other side, Calvin Coolidge was one of the show's most ardent listeners, Huey P. Long adopted the nickname 'Kingfish" from the show, and movie theaters would interrupt their showings for fifteen minutes to broadcast the daily shows over their loudspeakers before returning back to the film.)

The NAACP protested the television show from the beginning, leading to the show's eventual cancellation.  (It did not help that CBS aired the first episode of Amos 'n' Andy the same time as the 1951 NAACP national convention.  The burgeoning civil rights movement gave additional pressure on CBS and it eventually stopped syndicating old episodes.

All in all the show became an embarrassment.  The stereotypical dialect and characterization would have doomed the program from the start if someone tried to air it today.

Underneath the racial bigotry and mockery were pretty standard plots that could fit into almost any standard sitcom of the time, butu, truth to tell, I found the show boring as a child.  Our eight-days-older-than-Jesus baby sitter at the time, Minnie Brown, loved the show (along with Dragnet and Beat the Clock) so we got to watch a lot of it.  Our six-, seven-, and ten-year-old kid review of the show could be summed up in just one word:  meh.

Amos 'n' Andy, rightly or wrongly, is an important part of our cultural past.  For purely technical reasons alone it changed radio drama.  And its popularity says a lot about where our country was during a great part of the last century.  The show makes me uncomfortable.

This episode, titled "The Kingfish Teaches Andy How to Fly," is from the first season.


  1. So popular at its height, the Time Life THIS FABULOUS CENTURY coffee-table books that introduced me to the series just after the turn of the century noted, that theaters would pipe it in from 8-8:15p rather than lose their clientele for that quarter hour. They were on NBC Red, when NBC had two major radio networks, and THE EASY ACES was the sacrificial lamb counter-programming NBC Blue put up against it around that time...I think I would've been more likely to go with the ACES, a rather clever sitcom. Actor Marla Gibbs, most famous for THE JEFFERSONS, noted that she was a fan of the tv version, and it was one of the primary sources for employment for black actors in 1950s tv, but I suspect I wouldn't've been too frequent a viewer of that, either. The weekly radio version, in the latter '50s, was one of he series CBS Radio had "raided" from NBC, and ran after THE WORLD TONIGHT, the loooong-running CBS Radio newscast on (I think it was) Tuesday the same hour that NBC Radio (down to one network after Blue was forcibly sold by FCC order to become ABC) ran sf anthology X MINUS ONE and horror dramatic reading anthology SLEEP NO MORE. At least for one season...I think I know which station would've got my patronage those nights as well.

  2. Hah. I meant to write just after the turn of the '70s...when I was first reading them as a kid, and A&A had pretty much vanished from pop culture.