Amos 'n' Andy is a sitcom set in a stereotypically dysfunctional black community, performed by white actors in black makeup or "blackface"; the use of black makeup was a popular practice at the time but is now viewed as racially disrespectful. The show was very popular in the United Statesfrom the 1920s through the 1950s on both radio and television.
Amos 'n' Andy began as one of the first radio comedy series, written and voiced by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll and originating from station WMAQ in Chicago. After the program was first broadcast in 1928, it grew and became a hugely popular radio series. Early episodes were broadcast from the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs, California. The show ran as a nightly radio 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.
Freeman Gosden ('Amos') and Charles Correll ('Andy') in 1929.
Amos 'n' Andy creators Gosden and Correll were white actors familiar with minstrel traditions. They met in Durham, North Carolina, in 1920. Both men had some scattered experience in radio, but it was not until 1925 that the two appeared on Chicago's WQJ. Their appearances soon led to a regular schedule on another Chicago radio station, WEBH, where their only compensation was a free meal. The pair's hopes were that the radio exposure would lead to stage work; they were able to sell some of their works to local bandleader Paul Ash which brought them enough name recognition to be offered jobs at the Chicago Tribune's station WGN in 1925. The offer was steady and lucrative enough to allow them to now become full-time broadcasters. The Victor Talking Machine Company was also interested enough to offer them a recording contract.
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 a serialized version would work on radio. He suggested that Gosden and Correll adapt The Gumpsfor radio. The idea seemed to involve more risk than either Gosden or Correll was willing to take; neither was adept at imitating female voices, which would have been necessary for The Gumps. They were also conscious of having made names for themselves with their previous act. By playing the roles of characters doing dialect, they would be able to conceal their identities enough to be able to return to their old pattern of entertaining if the radio show was a failure.
Instead, they proposed a series about "a couple of colored characters" but borrowing certain elements of The Gumps. Their new show, called Sam 'n' Henry, began on January 12, 1926, and fascinated radio listeners throughout the Midwest. It became so popular that in 1927 Gosden and Correll requested it be distributed to other stations on phonograph records in a "chainless chain" concept that would have been the first radio syndication. When WGN rejected the proposal, Gosden and Correll quit the show and the station (their last musical program for WGN was announced in the Chicago Daily Tribune of January 29, 1928). Episodes of Sam 'n' Henry continued to be aired until July 14, 1928. Contractually, Correll and Gosden's characters belonged to WGN, so when they left WGN, they performed in personal appearances but could not use the character names from the radio show.
WMAQ, the Chicago Daily News station, hired Gosden and Correll and their former WGN announcer, Bill Hay, to create a series similar to Sam 'n' Henry. They offered higher salaries than WGN and the right to pursue the "chainless chain" syndication idea. The creators later said they named the characters Amos and Andy after hearing two elderly African-Americans greet each other by those names in a Chicago elevator. Amos 'n' Andy began on 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. Early 1930s broadcasts of the show were done from the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs, California.
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. (The first car they acquired had no roof; the pair turned it into a selling point.) By 1930, the noted toy maker Louis Marx and Company offered a tin wind-up version of the auto, with Amos and Andy inside. The toy company produced a special autographed version of the toy as gifts for American leaders, includingHerbert Hoover. There was also a book, All About Amos 'n' Andy and Their Creators, in 1929 by Correll and Gosden (reprinted in 2007 and 2008), and a comic strip in the Chicago Daily News.
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 Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge leader, George "the Kingfish" Stevens, was always either trying to lure the two into get-rich-quick schemes, especially the gullible Andy, or else tricking Andy into some kind of trouble. 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; Algonquin J. Calhoun, a somewhat crooked lawyer added to the series in 1949, six years after its conversion to a half-hour situation comedy; William Lewis Taylor, the well-spoken, college-educated father of Amos's fiancée; and "Lightning" (Willie Jefferson), a slow-moving Stepin Fetchit–type character. The Kingfish's catchphrase "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 initially appear as voiced characters, but entered the plots only as discussed by the male characters. Prior to 1931, when Madame Queen (then voiced by Gosden) took the witness stand in her breach-of-promise lawsuit against Andy, a female-sounding voice was heard only once. Beginning in 1935, actresses began voicing the female characters and after the program's conversion to a weekly situation-comedy format in 1943 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.
With the listening audience increasing in the spring and summer of 1928, the show's success prompted the Pepsodent Company to bring it to the NBC Blue Network on 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. WMAQ was then an affiliate of CBS and its general manager tried to interest that network in picking up the show to no avail. 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. The program was so popular by 1930, that NBC's orders were to interrupt the broadcast of it only for matters of national importance and SOS calls. Correll and Gosden were making a total of $100,000 a year as the stars of the show, which they split three ways, including their announcer, Bill Hay, as he was with them when they started doing radio.
The story arc of Andy's romance (and subsequent problems) with the Harlem beautician Madame Queen entranced some 40 million 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:
- 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 McLeod in preparing her 2005 book cited above.
Gosden and Correll celebrate the tenth anniversary of the show on NBC in March 1938.
Publicity photo of the pair while at CBS, circa early 1940s.
Amos 'n' Andy was officially transferred by NBC from the Blue Network to 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 Mart studios 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 Hollywood sense, with a regular studio audience (for the first time in the show's history) and an orchestra. More outside actors, including many black comedy professionals, were brought in to fill out the cast. Many of the half-hour programs were written by Joe Connelly and 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 Christmas show, where he explains the Lord's Prayer to his daughter, Arbadella, voiced by Elinor Harriot and later by the Asian American Barbara Jean Wong. The Christmas show also became a part of the later television series. The later radio program and the TV version were advanced for the time, depicting Blacks in a variety of roles including successful business owners and managers, professionals and public officials, in addition to the comic characters at show's core. It anticipated many later comedies featuring working class characters (both Black and White) including All in the Family, The Honeymooners and Sanford and Son.
By the fall of 1948, the show was back on CBS again. In that same year, Correll and Gosden sold all rights to Amos 'n' Andy to CBS for a reported 2.5 million dollars.
Advertising pioneer Albert Lasker often took credit for having created the show as a promotional vehicle. After the associations with Pepsodent toothpaste (1929–37) and Campbell's Soup (1937–43), primary sponsors included Lever Brothers' Rinso detergent (1943–50), the Rexall drugstore chain (1950–54) and CBS' ownColumbia brand of television sets (1954–55). The dental 6 month continuing care regimen of today was not based upon dental science, but on the fact that we are the children, grand children, great grand children and great-great grandchildren of the 40,000,000 Americans that listened to the show almost every weeknight. The Pepsodent ads told us to brush with Pepsodent every day and see our dentist twice a year. President Calvin Coolidge was said to be among the devoted listeners. Huey P. Long took 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. Some theaters attempted to attract patrons by noting the fact that they offered the broadcast in their advertisements. NBC sought to stop the practice by charging the theaters who did so with copyright infringement, claiming that charging admission for a free broadcast was not legal.
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. Walls of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church wrote an article sharply denouncing Amos 'n' Andy, singling out the lower-class characterizations and the "crude, repetitious, and moronic" dialogue. ThePittsburgh 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 NAACP national 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.
Broadcast historian Elizabeth McLeod argues that the characterizations on the daily serial version were actually much more sympathetic and rounded than those of other shows of the period,which perpetuated nineteenth century minstrel show stereotypes and did not equal the immense success of Amos 'n' Andy. Examples include the blackface act 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 Records in the late 1920s.
It can also be noted that Andy and Kingfish's use of malapropisms (i.e. misuse of vocabulary) had been a comedic staple for centuries and was employed by a number of white comedians of the day, including Chico Marx, Lou Costello, and Leo Gorcey.
In 1930, RKO Radio Pictures brought Gosden and Correll to Hollywood to do an Amos 'n' Andy feature film, Check and Double Check (a catchphrase from the radio show). The cast included a mix of white and black performers (the latter including Duke Ellington and his orchestra) with Gosden and Correll playing Amos 'n' Andy in blackface. The film pleased neither critics nor Gosden and Correll themselves, but briefly became RKO's biggest box-office hit prior to King Kong before falling off rapidly. Audiences were curious to see what their radio favorites looked like and were expecting to see African-Americans instead of white men in blackface. RKO ruled out any plans for a sequel. Gosden and Correll did lend their voices to a pair of Amos 'n' Andy cartoon shorts in 1934: The Rasslin' Match and The Lion Tamer. These were also not successful. 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. They were also part of The Big Broadcast of 1936 as Amos 'n' Andy.
Hired by CBS as producers of the television show, Gosden and Correll were ready to try bringing the show to television as early as 1946; the search for cast members went on for 4 years before filming began. According to a 1950 newspaper story, Gosden and Correll had initial aspirations of voicing the characters Amos, Andy and Kingfish for television, while the actors hired for these roles performed and apparently were to lip-sync the story lines. A year later, both spoke about how they realized they were visually unsuited to play the television roles, citing difficulties with making the Check and Double-Check film. No further mention was made about Gosden and Correll continuing to voice the key male roles in the television series. Corell and Gosden did record the lines of the main male characters for the television show to serve as a guideline for the television show dialogue at one point. In 1951, the men set a date of 1953 for their retirement from broadcasting; there was speculation that their radio roles might be turned over to African American actors at that time.
Adapted to television, The Amos 'n Andy Show was produced from June 1951 to April 1953 with 78 filmed episodes, sponsored by the Blatz Brewing Company. The television 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 Studios for 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 lighting cameraman (Director of Photography) was Robert de Grasse ASC. The operating cameramen (camera operators) were Robert de Grasse, Lucien Andriot ASC, and Benjamin Kline ASC. The classic theme song was "The Perfect Song." In the TV series, however, the theme became Gaetano Braga's "Angel's Serenade", which sounded similar to "The Perfect Song" (and because it was in the public domain), performed by The Jeff Alexander Chorus. The program went on the air June 28, 1951.
The main roles in the television series were played by the following African-American actors:
- Amos Jones – Alvin Childress
- Andrew Hogg Brown (Andy) – Spencer Williams
- George "Kingfish" Stevens – Tim Moore
- Sapphire Stevens – Ernestine Wade
- Ramona Smith (Sapphire's Mama) – Amanda Randolph
- Madame Queen – Lillian Randolph
- Algonquin J. Calhoun – Johnny Lee
- Lightnin' – Nick Stewart (aka, Nick O'Demus)
- Ruby Jones – Jane Adams
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 sponsor, Blatz Beer, was targeted as well, finally discontinuing their advertising support in June 1953). It has been suggested that CBS erred in its choice of having the program premiere during the NAACP national convention for that year, as the timing may have increased the objections to it. The show was widely repeated in syndicated reruns until 1966 when CBS acquiesced to pressure from the NAACP and the growing civil rights movement 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 bootleg DVD sets.
When the show was cancelled, 65 episodes had been produced. An additional 13 episodes were produced to be added to the syndicated rerun package. These episodes were focused on Kingfish, with little participation from Amos 'n' Andy. This is because these episodes were to be titled The Adventures of Kingfish, but they premiered under the Amos 'n' Andy title instead. The additional episodes first aired on CBS on January 4, 1955. Plans were made for a vaudeville act of the television program in August 1953, with Tim Moore, Alvin Childress and Spencer Williams playing the same roles. It is not known whether there were any performances. Still eager for television success, Gosden, Correll and CBS made initial efforts to give the series another try. The plan was to begin televising Amos 'n' Andy in the fall of 1956, with both of its creators appearing on television in a split screen with the proposed African-American cast.
A group of cast members began a "TV Stars of Amos 'n' Andy" cross-country tour in 1956, which was halted by CBS; the network considered it an infringement of their exclusive rights to the show and its characters. Following the threatened legal action which brought the 1956 tour to an end, Moore, Childress, Williams and Lee were able to perform like this for at least one night in 1957 in Windsor, Ontario.
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.
In 2012, Rejoice Network a small independent channel in Houston, TX started re-airing the show weeknights
Although the characters of Amos and Andy themselves are in the public domain, as well as the show's trademarks, title, format, basic premise, and all materials created prior to 1948 (Silverman vs CBS, 870 F.2d 40), the TV series itself is protected by copyright. CBS bought out Gosden & Correll's ownership of the program and characters in 1948 and the courts decided in the Silverman ruling that all post-1948 Amos 'n' Andy material was protected. All Amos 'n' Andy material created prior to 1948, such as episodes of the old radio show, is considered to be in the public domain. This does not include the TV series, which was produced much later and as such is protected under U.S. copyright law (per the Silverman decision). There are no official home video releases of Amos 'n' Andy as of this date; all are unlicensed bootlegs. In 1998, CBS initiated copyright infringement suits against three companies selling the videos and did issue a "cease and desist" order to a national mail-order outfit who offered various episodes on videocassettes, via late-night TV ads during the late '90s. Any official video/DVD release (if it ever does happen) will probably be handled via Paramount Home Entertainment/CBS DVD.
In 1955 the format of the radio show was changed from a weekly to a daily early evening half-hour to include playing recorded music between sketches (with occasional guests appearing), and the series 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 time animated cartoon, Calvin and the Colonel, featuring anthropomorphic animals whose voices and situations were almost exactly those of Andy and the Kingfish (and adapting several of the original "Amos 'n' Andy" radio scripts). 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.
Currently, the scripts of Amos 'n' Andy are performed on a shortwave station broadcasting from Maine, WBCQ on 7490 kHz and also on the internet at 12:00am, 8am and 8pm eastern by Ed Bolton, who performs all roles. The radio show still airs occasionally on various talk radio stations in Canada.
Later work by cast members
Comedian Tim Moore made numerous public appearances and was a guest on television on shows such as Jack Paar's Tonight Show and the Paul Coates Show. He also was a guest on radio'sJohnny Otis Show. And in 1958, he headlined a stand-up comedy act at the Mocambo Night Club in Hollywood. Ernestine Wade (Sapphire) and Lillian Randolph (Madame Queen) appeared together on an episode of That's My Mama called "Clifton's Sugar Mama" on October 2, 1974. They were friends of "Mama" played by Theresa Merritt who wanted to see Clifton played byClifton 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 Mama as "Wildcat" and on Amen as "Rolly Forbes." He was also quite prominent in a brief role as a butler in the racially charged film In the Heat of the Night.
Johnny Lee released a record (as "Johnnie Lee") in July 1949 called "You Can't Lose A Broken Heart" (Columbia Records #30172), with backup vocals by The Ebonaires. Lee also starred in an all-black musical comedy called "Sugar Hill" in 1949 at Las Palmas Theatre in California. Horace "Nick O'Demus" Stewart had a memorable cameo in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, as a hapless driver run off the highway. With all their belongings falling off their overloaded truck as he tries to retain control, Stewart finally looks at his wife and intones "I said it before and I'll say it again, I didn't want to move to California." Johnny Lee (Calhoun) and Nick Stewart (Lightnin') both provided voices in the Walt Disney film Song of the South in 1946. Johnny did the voice of Br'er Rabbit and Nick was heard as Br'er Bear.