The changing image of blacks on TV

MEDIA MONITOR

June 15, 1992|By Steve McKerrow

Trivia test: What was the first television series to star a black performer?

No, not "Julia" (1968-71, with Diahann Carroll), nor "I Spy" (1965-68, with Bill Cosby), nor even "Amos 'n Andy" (1951-53, with Tim Moore and Spencer Williams).

It was "Beulah," on ABC from 1950-53 -- which viewers can learn tonight from the film "Color Adjustment," the first installment of the fifth season of the PBS series "P.O.V." (at 10 o'clock on Maryland Public Television).

Highlighting the work of independent filmmakers, the series opens with this documentary from Marlon Riggs, whose earlier "P.O.V." entry "Tongues Untied" stirred controversy for its subject matter: black homosexuality. (Many PBS stations did not air the film, although MPT did.)

"Color Adjustment" is not likely to be as controversial, as it charts the changing images of people of color on TV, from "Beulah" to "The Cosby Show."

And the film suggests that, despite the apparent mainstreaming of minorities in series such as "The Cosby Show," TV has not really been an agent of cultural understanding.

Researching beyond the film, Media Monitor finds that, like "Amos 'n Andy," "Beulah" began on radio with the character of a good-hearted maid voiced by a white person -- and not only that, but a male white person, too. According to Alex McNeil's "Total Television," actor Marlin Hurt created the role and was replaced by Bob Corley before black female Hattie McDaniel took the role.

On TV, "Beulah" was played first by singer Ethel Waters, and in the second season and onward by Louise Beavers. A couple other notable cast members included Dooley Wilson, the piano player of "Casablanca," as Beulah's boyfriend and Butterfly McQueen, maid Prissy from "Gone With the Wind," as her confidante.

*

Also notable tonight:

* More trivia: Who was TV's first flying squirrel?

Rocket J. Squirrel, of course, as seen in "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle," which cable's Nick at Nite added today to its nightly lineup of nostalgia fare. The show can be seen at 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday on the basic service.

Did you know that, like "Beulah," there was a gender reversal in the voicing of the animated character? Rocky was male, but his voice was provided by actress June Foray.

* Although comprising tiny minorities even within their respective faiths, religious fundamentalists exercise powerful influence around the world, as explored in "The Glory & the Power," a three-part PBS series premiering at 9 p.m. on MPT.

* CBS launches a summer series. In "Grapevine" (at 9:30, Channel 11), Jonathan Penner, Lynn Clark and Steven Eckholdt are friends who share romantic gossip in each show.

The network calls it "sexy and innovative," but we've heard that line before, haven't we?

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