While the introduction of three new voices to talk TV–all African-American and all women–is historically significant, what is equally relevant is the relative ease with which they’ve been acknowledged and accepted by viewers across the demographic spectrum.
Whether it is the shoot-from-the-hip style of Mo’Nique, the bawdy comedy of Wanda Sykes (pictured below), or the girlfriend-next-door gossip of former on-air radio personality Wendy Williams, television networks now offer audiences a choice of Black female hosts, marking a real milestone in the medium’s history.
While Tyra Banks maintains a firm footing among ‘tweens, teens and young adult women, and the doyenne of daytime talk, Oprah Winfrey, will continue to hold sway over the airwaves worldwide until her scheduled farewell in 2011, the cultural and historical purport of this viable handful of Black women hosts goes beyond sheer numbers and their ability to engage a niche audience. It speaks volumes about the freedom with which each is able to fashion her own distinctive image and message, a freedom that is, for the most part, taken for granted today, making it difficult, especially for younger generations, to fathom a time when there were scarce few Black faces on television of any kind, whether actors or entertainers, journalists or news anchors, much less a Black woman hosting her own show. Nevertheless, a quick glance back puts progress in perspective.
FLASHBACK TO 1950 …
When the DuMont network (owned by DuMont Laboratories, maker of televisions) set out to compete with broadcasting giants NBC and CBS, they had to be innovative in their operations and programming. Unlike most networks, which had a single sponsor for each show, DuMont was one of the first to sell advertising to multiple sponsors, which gave producers greater freedom and creative control over their programming. When they approached jazz/concert pianist Hazel Scott with the idea of her own show in 1950, she had already achieved international renown as a star of stage and screen, performing with major orchestras all over the world and having made a name for herself as the premier headliner at New York’s Café Society. She welcomed the opportunity, becoming the first Black star to host her own show–solo, without variety acts, a sidekick, or a studio audience.
The Hazel Scott Show aired on July 3, 1950 as a standard fifteen-minute show that ran locally on DuMont’s New York affiliate, WABD, every Friday night. Each live broadcast opened with a performance of her theme song, “Tea for Two,” as the camera panned over a cityscape before focusing on the set, which was designed to resemble a penthouse terrace. Always costumed in gorgeous gowns, diamonds and neatly coifed hair, Hazel, seated at the grand piano, played and sang jazz standards and popular show tunes. Variety wrote, “Hazel Scott has a neat little show in this modest package. Most engaging element in the air is the Scott personality, which is dignified, yet relaxed, and versatile.”
Contrary to the producers’ concerns, white viewers did not object to Hazel’s image, which was in stark contrast to the prevailing image of Black women on television at the time (think: the subservient Negro maid or the nervous, giggling incompetent). Audiences across the country appeared willing to tune in to the elegant pianist, whose confidence and beauty were a stunning addition to her brilliant piano playing. The show garnered such great ratings that DuMont expanded the show from a local once-a-week broadcast to a national broadcast that aired three times a week.
BUT BEFORE SHE COULD ENJOY HER TREMENDOUS BREAKTHROUGH …
Hazel Scott’s name appeared in Red Channels, the unofficial guide of Communists and Communist sympathizers issued by the right-wing journal Counterattack, which specifically targeted the entertainment community. It was used regularly by the U.S. government during the McCarthy Era to rout out suspected subversives. Despite the fact that Hazel Scott was not a member of the Communist Party, guilt by association was enough to warrant her name on the blacklist. And even though her husband was Harlem’s own Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) showed no mercy when she appeared voluntarily to clear her name. Immediately following the HUAC trial, sponsors pulled their support from her show. The Hazel Scott Show was promptly cancelled that September, just a few short months after its premiere. Hazel Scott would eventually be forced to join the Black expatriate community in Paris.
Though her time on the tube was short-lived, and her name is lesser known today than many of her contemporaries like Ethel Waters, who did a test pilot of The Ethel Waters Show in 1939 for one night only on NBC, and legendary vocalist/pianist Nat King Cole whose variety show aired in 1956 and lasted for 13 months, Hazel Scott’s contribution as one of the pioneers in the industry is undeniable, an inspiring and instructive example for all the women who now tread the trail she blazed.
Karen Chilton is author of Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist from Café Society to Hollywood to HUAC.