In 1969, trailblazing comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley stood onstage in her trademark floppy hat and flowered housedress and told the audience her slogan for the week.
“Quit it if you can’t get it,” she told the crowd to raucous laughter. “If you can do something with it, get it!”
The African-American vaudeville-circuit fixture turned Broadway stage and film star was the first female comedian featured at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem in the late 1930s. Mabley, born Loretta Mary Aiken, appeared on its stage more times than any other performer. Now she, along with fellow comedians Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor, is being inducted into the theater’s Walk of Fame Thursday at 5 p.m. in a special ceremony. After that, the Apollo will kick off its new Comedy Club at 9 p.m. on its Soundstage, featuring up-and-coming comedic talent.
“It’s about time someone other than a musical act has been inducted,” says Bob Sumner, Apollo Comedy Club curator and former producer of Def Comedy Jam. “It’s time for them and it’s beautiful because, when you think of comedy, that’s who you think of in so many different ways.”
Sumner sees this as the Apollo’s return to its comedic roots. He remembers going to Amateur Night at the Apollo with his parents as a child in the 1970s, or to the Sunday matinee show. He says that there would be a movie, then you could look through the curtain and see Reuben Phillips and his band prepping for the show.
“And there was always that comedian that would open up the show,” Sumner says, adding that Mabley was the first comedian he ever saw. He also remembers hearing stories about the so-called party records that Redd Foxx had in the 1950s. “He could bring those to a live stage, no different than a music act would, and he would headline at the Apollo.”
Foxx, of course, was best-known as Fred Sanford from the 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son, about a grumpy junk dealer in California. It was one of the few TV shows featuring an African-American family and was groundbreaking at the time. Foxx—born John Elroy Sanford—rose from the black vaudeville circuit in the 1940s to become a sly stand-up comedian willing to take on controversial topics. One of his funnier records was 1976’s You Gotta Wash Your Ass, in which he addressed love and hygiene simultaneously.
Onstage a few years later, cigarette in hand, Foxx confided to the audience, “You can let your armpits go a couple of days, but not your ass!”
And then, of course, there was Pryor, who would make the trek to Harlem after playing the clubs in Greenwich Village.
“It is fitting and it is right,” Rain Pryor, Pryor’s actress-comedian middle daughter, told The Root. She, and her entertainer big brother, Richard Pryor Jr., will be making remarks at the induction ceremony.
“It is deep for us,” Rain Pryor says. “For my brother and I to be there is a big deal, especially because my brother is his namesake. So I think Dad would be proud now that the eldest child of the family is there to represent him, and the crazy middle one, which is me.”
Rain Pryor says that her father would feel proud of the honor, but he sometimes wasn’t really aware of his genius. She adds that he was surprised that people thought he was funny. Even though Richard Pryor had his demons—from his stormy relationships to the substance abuse that nearly killed him in 1980, when he set himself on fire after several days of freebasing cocaine—his talent was unstoppable. He made more than 40 feature films, ranging from Lady Sings the Blues to Stir Crazy and Harlem Nights, not to mention many Grammy-winning comedy recordings, including 1982’s Live on the Sunset Strip.
Rain Pryor says that someone at the Apollo asked her what items they should use to represent her father, and she responded with a wit as sharp and introspective as his own: “My brother was like, what about Marlboro Reds? And I said Courvoisier … [and] if you don’t have that, maybe you can find some hookers, some white women and some cocaine.”
The Apollo says that there will be items to represent each comic: a hat for Mabley, a red jacket for Richard Pryor, and a scotch glass and cigar for Foxx.
Rain Pryor thinks it’s important that the induction ceremony for her father, Foxx and Mabley is happening the same night the Apollo is kicking off its Comedy Club.
“These are people who paved the way for people who are doing it now,” Rain Pryor says, “and for people like my dad who people still talk about … it all fits together well. It’s a nice glove. Not an O.J. Simpson glove—but it’s a glove.”