On this day in comedy on October 26, 1952 Comedienne, Actress, Songwriter, Singer, Radio Personality, Hattie McDaniel passed away.
The Wichita, Kansas native was born in 1895 and followed her brother, Sam into show business. He was a minstrel and she honed her songwriting skills on his show. Next she inadvertently became a pioneer when she landed a spot on the radio as Hi-Hat Hattie, the maid who often got out of line. This made McDaniel the first African-American female to perform on radio.
Historical achievements were fine, but the radio show paid so little McDaniel had to get a job as a real maid to pay the bills. Nevertheless, she didn’t let a little hard work stop her dream. She sang on the local radio station in Denver and recorded several records for Okeh Records and Paramount Records in Chicago. Then the stock market crash of ’29 hit and all that came to a screeching halt. McDaniel was forced to work as a bathroom attendant and waitress at Club Madrid in Milwaukee, where she was eventually allowed to take the stage and perform.
In 1931 McDaniel moved to Los Angeles where she found radio work and appeared in numbers of uncredited film parts. In 1934 she joined the Screen Actors Guild and got parts as maids. During this period the black community lashed out at McDaniel for taking maid roles. No matter how sassy the maids she played were, blacks didn’t like it. Then came the casting process for the much publicized “Gone with the Wind”. With help of friend Clark Gable (they’d worked on a film together previously and he wanted her for the part), McDaniel got the coveted role.
However, getting the role was one thing, being able to watch her work at the premiere was another. “Gone with the Wind” made its debut in Atlanta, Georgia. None of the black actors from the film were invited to attend. As a matter of fact, they were expressly told not to attend. Clark Gable heatedly refused to go under those circumstances. That is until McDaniel pulled him to the side, thanked him for his friendship and loyalty, but informed him that she wasn’t surprised and he needed to go to promote the film. She’d make the Hollywood premiere. Reluctantly Gable relented and made the journey to Georgia.
For her troubles, Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award and the first to win (for Best Supporting Actress). In her speech she graciously thanked the Academy for the honor and sporting pulled back hair laced in gardenias expressed her gratitude and thanked God. Many in attendance were moved to tears.
Following “Gone with the Wind”, McDaniel played other maid parts in films starring Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and working under the direction of John Huston. She always turned in fine performances and received glowing reviews. However, by the late 1940s the place for domestics on screen was becoming passé. Regardless, McDaniel stayed busy on radio and later in television starring in “Beulah” (both mediums), where she earned $2,000 per week. She’d taken over from Ethel Waters after the first season of the show, but after discovering she had breast cancer, McDaniel had to bow out and was herself replaced by Louise Beavers.
When Hattie McDaniel died from breast cancer at the age of 57 it was her wish was to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery, but that wish was denied by the owner, Jules Roth because black people were not allowed there. So she found a final resting home at Rosedale Cemetery. Then in 1999 the Hollywood Cemetery reversed its decision under new owner Tyler Cassity, but it was too late. The family refused to have her remains moved so to make amends Cassity built a memorial at the Hollywood Cemetery in McDaniel’s honor.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
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