One recent evening while surfing the television cable networks, I saw where “Sanford and Son” was scheduled show after show. As in the past when the show starring Redd Foxx was popular from the late ’70s to the early ’80s, the temptation to check them out again was too good to ignore, particularly when LaWanda Page, as Aunt Esther, appeared and exchanged insults with Foxx. When she didn’t excoriate the irascible Foxx, she at least held her own in verbal standoffs.
Page was born Alberta Peal on Oct. 19, 1920, in Cleveland, Ohio. From an early age Page’s ambition was to work in show business, and she claimed she was born “talented” and never had one singing, dancing or acting lesson. She nourished her dream to entertain at the Friendly Inn Settlement in Cleveland, a community center founded by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. When the family moved to St. Louis, she attended Banneker Elementary School and fortuitously met Redd Foxx who was two years her junior.
Both pursued their dreams of the stage on the Chitlin Circuit, and on occasion worked together in a variety of comedy skits and shows. At the beginning of her career, she was mainly a dancer and as a teenager performed as a fire dancer, where she walked over flames and often was scorched. She became so proficient that she was billed as “The Bronze Goddess of Fire” or “LaWanda, the Flame Goddess.” The clubs where she displayed her unique skills were often beset with dangerous shootouts and knife fights. She told a reporter that if you weren’t home by 9 o’clock at night “you can be declared legally dead.”
It wasn’t the best environment for an aspiring entertainer and at some point in the early ’50s she moved to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, she continued to earn a living as a fire dancer at clubs across the globe, from Canada to Japan. After the flames simmered down, she turned to stand-up comedy. This pursuit may have been a product of her early days on the Chitlin Circuit where she cultivated the performances in tandem with Foxx. Whatever the case, she was soon no longer dousing flames or walking on hot coals but dealing with hecklers as a comedian. After several years tossing barbs back and forth with loudmouthed members of the audiences, she joined the Skillet, Leroy & Company comedy troupe.
Soon, her nightly performances and several recordings earned her a new title—“The Queen of Standup Comedy.” It should be noted that many of her albums were classified as “blue” much in the manner of some of Redd Foxx’s initial ventures on vinyl. “Watch it, Sucker!” was the title of one of her albums, taking the name from one of her catchphrases often spewed on “Sanford and Son.” Her guest appearances on the television show spread her fame and popularity, and her snappy retorts were soon summoned on shows hosted by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Betty White. In many ways, her style and delivery were in the tradition of Moms Mabley—with a dash of color in her remarks.
So, from a phone call from Foxx in 1972, Page, who thought the call to appear on his show was a joke, auditioned and won the role hands down, and once again was back performing with her childhood friend. The two friends and actors were often in confrontation on the show, her churchgoing, bible-quoting, holier-than-thou demeanor was often in combat with Foxx’s whiskey-drinking, cussing, loutish behavior. During one episode that was a good example of their name-calling, Foxx compared her to a gorilla, and she countered with a series of comments we can’t print here.
At one time, the producers were opposed to Page being a regular on the show, but Foxx let it be known that if she wasn’t hired, he was no longer available. They won out, at least for a few years, before a contract dispute by the late ’70s put an end to the show.
There were a couple attempts to revise the show under different names but none of the spinoffs gained traction. When “Sanford,” the new show, was launched in 1981, with Page reunited with Foxx but without Demond Wilson, it didn’t last a year before it was canceled by NBC. No longer part of an ongoing series, Page made guest appearances and agreed to a number of commercial ads, including one with Church’s Chicken, spouting her “Gotta Live it” phrase.
She appeared in a number of films such as “My Blue Heaven” with Steve Martin as well as numerous cameo roles where her one liners often stole a scene. And stealing scenes were just a portion of her skills when it came to show business. She was an avowed fighter for the rights of actors and actresses, demanding equal pay and treatment.
Page was married and widowed three times but vowed that the third marriage was the last. She was a very religious woman, a trait consistent with her character of Aunt Esther, and later became an evangelist. Her daughter, Clara, was also an evangelist preacher.
The phenomenal actress died of a heart attack on Sept. 14, 2002, following complications of diabetes.