This is the third installment of our collaboration with the "Back to School With The HistoryMakers" event on Friday, Sept. 23, when some 500 renowned African Americans — from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to Common — will speak at schools around the country.
Marla Gibbs is best-known as Florence, the sassy maid on The Jeffersons. But she also appeared as Mary Jenkins in more than 100 episodes of 227 and on dozens of other television programs.
Most of my early life was spent in Chicago and Detroit. When I was in Chicago, I was with my father, Douglas Bradley. He was the neighborhood mechanic. Our house, around 31st and Vernon, had about an eight-car garage. The house used to belong to Big Jim Colosimo — an Italian-American mafia boss in Chicago.
In Detroit I lived with my mother. She was a radio singer. Ophelia Birdie Kemp was elegant. She had long, beautiful legs, and she always wore Toujours Moi by Corday perfume. Then she was a numbers operator. And she was a preacher. She helped lots of churches get on the radio.
I went to Northern High School in Detroit for a while. They say Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson went there, too, but not at the same time. I graduated high school in Chicago — Phillips High School class of 1949, at 39th Street and Prairie.
Phillips has a rich history. It was named for Wendell Phillips, the abolitionist who criticized President Abraham Lincoln for delaying the emancipation of slaves. It's the oldest African-American high school in Chicago. But when it opened in 1905, it was predominantly white.
I wasn't someone you would know in high school. I guess you could say I was a recluse. I was shy. I would rather sit on the porch of my grandparents' house with a stray dog from the neighborhood.
After school I would often go to the Olivet Baptist Church, even though I was going to Catholic school at the time. It was just around the corner from our house on the South Side. They had a counselor there — Jim Brown. He ran the center, but he was more.
He would take us to his house and give us Cokes, cookies and sandwiches. Sometimes he'd take the boys on this big field to play baseball. We went to other areas of the city where they played other teams. If the boys won, we'd have to be prepared to run, because the girls would want to beat you up.
A Career Before Hollywood
After graduating from Phillips, I ended up going to business school. I wanted to learn to type and do stenography. I used those skills for a while. I even got a job as a receptionist at Gotham Hotel in Detroit. It was black-owned. Black millionaires would come there, black entrepreneurs. There was a gift shop with fancy jewelry.
The nine-story, 200-room hotel at 111 Orchestra Place was fancy. It was the pride of black Detroit and black America. It had beautiful archways, paintings on the walls and big windows adorned with fancy drapes. The millionaires would sit in the lobby. They wore suits, starched shirts and long, silk ties. Many of them had their pictures on the wall. They sat down for brunch in the fabulous Gotham dining room.
The job at Gotham was a good one. I got to see a lot of famous people, even stars like Sammy Davis Jr. But the job that carried me through until I made it in acting was with United Airlines. I worked for United a total of 11 years. I was a divorced mother of three. I held on to that job while I attended workshops, took on roles in plays and auditioned for television and the movies.
Acting was not my first job. I realized that's what I wanted to do and worked at it. But before then, back in Detroit, I helped my mother run the numbers. In those days I wore skirts with big pockets. I would stuff the numbers in those pockets until I made it back to the house.
I made money, too. I could make up to $35 a week, depending on the size of my clientele. And if one of my clients hit, I'd get 10 percent of what they got.
Even after I auditioned for The Jeffersons and was written into some episodes, I still worked at the airline. Working behind an airline counter prepares you for acting because you are dealing with people all the time. I was never off. When we were off for five months, I was still working [at the airline]. When we were off for the weekend, I was working, so I kept that up for two years.
Television Takes Off
Then the producers asked me if I still had that job. They asked me if I would take a leave. I said I'd do it if they paid me, and they did. I took a 90-day leave of absence, and then I decided to go on [and quit]. Of course I was never sorry, because the show went on and on and on. It's still going on.
Now, ain't that a blip. I used that phrase once in an exchange on The Jeffersons with Mrs. Willis — Roxie Roker. Back in those days, they didn't cuss. We couldn't say, "Ain't that a bitch."
Sometimes, as we worked through a script, I would throw in a line. The producers or directors would ask where it came from. Then they would tell me they liked it and we should keep it in.
We had some of the best actors and actresses on The Jeffersons. Sherman [Hemsley] was the most generous actor. He would always give me just the right setup so I could hit him. Once, he was telling [me] he didn't know his lines. I told him to keep moving his lips and it would come out. I was standing there on the set chewing, and he said, "What you looking at?" I told him, "I was just thinking I could bring my neighbor's kids over here, because this place is better than a zoo."
Isabel [Sanford] was really the comedian. She could have been Florence on another show. Roxie, that's my girl. She was so classy. Isabel was a great actress. She was the first African American to win a lead Emmy Award. Since that time, others have won them, too. But I don't worry about that. I just do the work I enjoy doing.
I think about that poem — if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs. You have to keep your faith when everybody around you seems to be losing theirs. So you can't worry about what other people are doing. You really have to stay on your journey.
It's Never Too Late
I had an aneurysm in October 2006, and two brain surgeries and a stroke, and I came out walking and talking. They said I took pretty good care of myself, and that's why I survived so well. Doctors did surgery to force me into a small stroke so that I could avoid a massive stroke. I didn't learn about that until later. I really didn't know about a lot of things until later.
I constantly tried to get out of that hospital bed. They had to tie me down. I had spent weeks just figuring out who I was, and how I would get moving again. After a while I looked in the mirror. I didn't know who that lady was. I said, "Maybe it's time. I don't know." My daughter didn't let all of this get out. Rumors start. They say that you've died.
It was two days before Christmas 2006 when I left Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and headed to rehab for the next four months. I had lived most of my life onstage, on television, in front of an audience. But now I was down — physically.
My family was really there for me. My grandchildren have been remarkable. It was worth getting sick just to see them step to the plate like that. My daughter, Angela, is in the performing arts. My sons — Jordan and Dorian — went into various areas of real estate when they grew up.
God has been good to me. He had more for me to do. It's never too late. It's never too late to learn, to dream and to live. That's the title of my CD, It's Never Too Late. It's jazzy and brassy at some points. We released it independently in 2006 — 10 songs in a total of about 35 minutes. It's even on iTunes.
There are so many people who get to a certain age, and they feel like if they didn't do it, it's too late. They think they don't have any more time, but that's not true. I was born in 1931, but I am forever 30. Since I've been going around speaking about "I'm 30 and it's never too late," women come up to me and say, "I'm glad you said that. You know, I've been wanting to do something, and I'm going to do that." And I say, "Good for you."
A lot of young people think it's too late because either they've been in jail or they've done something wrong, and now it's too late to turn it around, or they failed in school and it's too late to go back. Anybody who thinks it's too late for anything — it's not.