Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Through the Generations

The actress Marguerite Ray, who originated the role of Mamie Johnson on the long-running soap opera The Young and the Restless, died last month at the age of 89. Initially, I was just going to write a short remembrance in her honor on the Facebook page, but then I got sentimental and began reminiscing about my childhood--back to when my grandmother took care of me on sick days and half-days off from school. Back when there were only six channels, one working television in the kitchen, and the only shows airing were game shows and soap operas.

Those were the days of eating food that my Dad wouldn't buy like Saltine crackers, Cool Whip, and Steakumms. Those were the days of having one rotary phone that sat on a lace doily and plastic-covered furniture that stood on paws. Those were the days when every closet and drawer smelled of cedar and mothballs. Those were the days when all of the neighbors spoke to each other and all of the neighborhood kids went to the same school and played together. 

If I was home due to illness, Grandma would serve me soup (Campbell's chicken and stars was my favorite) in a coffee mug and promise me Graham crackers if I ate it all. Then at 12:30pm, once the noonday news was done, she would send me to the adjacent bedroom for my nap. If we were released from school early, Granddaddy waited outside for us in his station wagon, parked in the same spot that no one dared to invade. After driving the two blocks to the house, he sometimes stuck around to make us lunch, and maybe took us with him on whatever errands he had to run for the day.

Technically, I wasn't allowed to watch the soap operas, but I never napped (so there is something my Kid inherited honestly). I would sneak back into the kitchen to watch the soaps 'with' Grandma, then hurry back to bed and pretend to sleep whenever the phone rang (because it was in that same bedroom). I'm sure that she knew I was lurking in the background, which explains why she eventually allowed me to stay in the kitchen with her. That's how I can remember the exact lineup of shows from the retro black and white sitcoms, to Betty White on half of the daytime game shows, to the noonday news followed by a three hour block of soap operas, and finally The People's Court with Judge Wapner. Only rarely did we get to watch something different, perhaps the occasional Merrie Melodies cartoon if Grandma had something to do in another part of the house.

Those were the days...of barely seeing anyone who looked like us on most television shows unless it was on a current sitcom, the news, some special guest appearance or random cameo, or on Roots.

Seeing a rather short obituary for Marguerite Ray earlier reminded me that for many Black actors in that transitional era of television in the 70s and 80s, their best remembered role might end up being some kind of stereotype. Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch. JJ from Good Times. Mama from That's My Mama or What's Happening. Many of those actors made the rounds on the various popular sitcoms as well as the obligatory appearance in Roots, but other than that, their TV and movie roles were small and often uncredited. Other than Y&R, Ray's other major credit was on a rebooted Sanford as Redd Foxx's girlfriend. A quick study of her IMDB listing confirms that she worked regularly, but then after she left Y&R, not much at all. Sadly, unless someone else writes a more comprehensive biography, there isn't much else, so she is best remembered for an anachronistic character, not quite a stereotype, but close enough. Her character's name was Mamie for goodness sakes...

If I were a regular contributor to woke, Black, and angry Twitter, I would feel some kind of way about her sparse obituary as some kind of final insult--best remembered for playing the maid on a soap opera 30 years ago, before many in Generation Z were born. And obviously, I do feel some kind of way about that, but it isn't anger, nor is it the resigned shrug of acknowledgement that things were much different then. I would like to know what happened to her career all of those years between her departure from Y&R to her last listed acting credit in 2001. But I know that life happens, so instead of dwelling on the what ifs or assuming the worst, I think it is more appropriate to asses her role as pivotal to changes that came not just to that particular show, but to other shows in that genre as well. 

Marguerite Ray originated a role that would contribute to the changing complexion of soap operas in the 80s and 90s. She certainly was not the first maid on television, nor was she the first Black character on the soaps. That honor goes to Rex Ingraham, who appeared as a preacher on a show in 1962. I don't remember when Mamie Johnson first showed up in Genoa City, nor did I see any of the previous storylines on other shows that featured Black characters. However, I do remember the emergence of the first Black supercouple, Jessie and Angie, on All My Children in the mid 80s. As such, I recall how perplexing it was to see Ray in a subservient role, until it became clear that she was supposed to be regarded as more than a maid.

Now, these aren't researched facts, just my observations, but whenever a character is given a name on a soap opera or in a film, the intention is for us to take note of them for some specific reason. Otherwise, who cares which extra on set that day was tapped to bring Mrs. Chancellor her fancy rotary phone on a silver tray or who brought Nikki Newman her afternoon scotch? And we know that having maids/housekeepers/butlers around serve as useful plot support. Someone overheard that conversation about the hostile corporate takeover and surely someone observed who shed those discarded clothes that led from the living room to the bedroom. The other noteworthy maid on the same show, Esther Valentine, figured prominently in various storylines (as did Miguel, the hot Latinx manservant at the Newman Ranch). However, Esther was treated as a comic foil and Miguel was under used eye candy; whereas Mamie was the surrogate mother to the motherless Abbott children and confidante to their hen-pecked father, John, who always fell for the wrong women. 

I remember when Ray's Mamie reassured an insecure Traci Abbott (Beth Maitland) about her appearance; comforted Ashley Abbott (Eileen Davidson) through her various relationship entanglements; and how she scolded Jack Abbott (Terry Lester) for his rakish behavior. So when the role was recast, it was noticeable. The new actress, Veronica Redd, wasn't bad, it was the timing--just when Mamie was finally getting some action. In a lonely moment, John Abbott and Mamie shared an on-screen kiss, and we were intrigued to see if she would bring him more than his cup of coffee the next morning. Perhaps Ray's more grandmotherly Mamie wasn't young enough to entertain that possibility. Furthermore, a younger Mamie was a more plausible mother figure for her street-wise niece who arrived in Genoa City with a chip on her shoulder. The arrival of her other niece, along with a hot young junior executive at Jabot Cosmetics gave us a front-burner Black storyline that my college friends and I planned our afternoon classes around by the 90s.

Fast forward thirty years to the point where there are now three generations of a Black family in otherwise lily white Genoa City. Where an interracial love story between Mamie and Mr. Abbott had been hinted at and quickly abandoned, times sure have changed for her great niece Lily Winters...

Thirty years ago when it was novel to cast and craft stories for the Black actors in soap operas, the ground-breaking Generations debuted to much fanfare. At the time, the expectation had been that this new show would compete with Y&R by adding much needed diversity to the daytime landscape, but it fell into predictable patterns by centering the drama around the white characters. The show folded within two years. In hindsight, the backstory that established the premise for that soap--that the Black matriarch of Generations had been the maid for the white family was a too-convenient and unrealistic white fantasy of racial progress.

(For trivia lovers, the actress who portrayed the Black matriarch on Generations was Lynn Hamilton, who had appeared on the original Sanford & Son as Fred's recurring girlfriend Donna. Marguerite Ray  appeared on the subsequent Sanford show as Fred's recurring girlfriend Evelyn. Kristoff St. John, who also appeared on Generations, became the patriarch of the Winters family on Y&R. All three actors appeared in Roots.)

It seems that I've fallen down a rabbit hole of nostalgia, so allow me to climb back up to where this started, which began with me reminiscing about my grandparents and then shifting to memorialize a life that represented certain cultural changes. Something about remembering Marguerite Ray has evoked memories from my childhood despite not having thought about her in years. Nor had I indulged too many fond memories of my grandparents, so I began with the assumption that this piece would be a look back on a simpler time...

Which it was, from the uncomplicated perspective of a child. Forty years later, I see it all so differently and can fill in more details. I remember that my parents both worked, so we attended the elementary school closest to my retired paternal grandparents who cared for us. My maternal grandmother did not watch us during the day because she still worked well into her 70s. I remember that Grandma did not approve of me watching the soaps with her, but doing so kept me out of her things. I did not know that Granddaddy ran a shoe repair shop with his brothers during the day which is why he wasn't home (learned that from a cousin many years later after his death). 

It makes sense that Marguerite Ray and the other actors from that era made the rounds on Black sitcoms because that was regular work. I'm betting that working on-call for what was essentially a phone-in job gave Ray flexibility as well as visibility to book those other roles. Securing a steady gig on a soap opera or dramatic serial was a big deal for those actors as JET Magazine, the Black culture Bible, made it their business to remind us every week. It was appointment viewing whenever a Black actor crossed over to mainstream television, and in the 80s, that was akin to that Dorothy's iconic landing in Oz...

There were more incremental changes that I witnessed as I grew older. During the summers when my cousins kept us to give my grandparents a break, they watched All My Children, so that's how I got caught up in the cult of Angie and Jessie. As a middle school latch-key kid, I got to watch the soaps of my choice every Friday. By then, the hot show was As the World Turns which had a Black female lawyer and a major guest appearance by Whitney Houston. I remained loyal to Y&R and got hooked on the new show The Bold and the Beautiful in high school, but I was lured away by the promises made by Generations. I gave that show a few months before it became clear that there were more promotional pictures of the Black cast than actual plots that featured them. By the time I went away to college, Mamie's nieces, that hot young Jabot executive, and the other Black guy in town, a private detective, were entangled in the love quadrangle that would become one of the juiciest storylines on Y&R.

Now there are people of color on television all day. Where it was once unique or groundbreaking to see white collar Black professionals, that is now the standard. There is still plenty of room for improvement (for Latinx and Asian American actors in particular), but soap operas deserve some of the credit for the current level of diversity on television. Of course, all of the progress came as the broader landscape of television changed dramatically. Only three classic soaps still air. I stopped watching the soaps almost 15 years ago, but there was a month-long stretch this summer because CBS aired classic Y&R episodes during the production shutdown. That included an entire week devoted to the Winters family...descended directly from Mamie Johnson!

Times have changed, and as my Grandma would say, we have six in one hand and half a dozen in the other. Kids don't grow up on soap operas anymore because there are more kid-friendly programming options available during the day. And thankfully, those don't come with the racist/sexist baggage of those Merrie Melodies we used to watch. But we no longer live in close enough proximity to our retired relatives who could provide daily child care. Those of us who do might be caring for our elders and our children, a situation that was already stressful before the pandemic. Sadly, my parents never have been in a position to care for my daughter the way that my grandparents cared for us. 

In times like these, sometimes we need the comfort of nostalgia, even if the memories don't always tell the full story. It gives us a chance to revisit the past to fill in some of the gaps, which helps us to see how far we've come. Marguerite Ray was a pioneer whose impact extended far beyond the margins of the limited role she portrayed. And that is significant, given that this year many other veteran soap actors also passed away, she earned the right to be remembered as more than just a maid.

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