Marla Gibbs: More than just a T.V. Maid
By Len "Muddy" Mardeusz
Marla Gibbs was born in Chicago on June 14, 1931. Her parents divorced when she was 4 years old. Marla graduated from high school in 1949. Her mother left to pursue her own dreams. Shortly after that Marla moved to Detroit where she attended Peter Business school. In Detroit she worked as a reservations agent for United Airlines. In 1955 she married her high school boy friend Jordan Gibbs.
It was in Detroit where where she encountered an ex-teacher who was conducting surveys with a tape recorder. Marla voiced
her opinion which led her to land a part on “Juvenile Court.” She nailed the part of the mother, but did not consider any further
Marla and Jordan had three children when they decided to move to Los Angeles. Marla remained working with United Airlines.
However, she also studied acting under renowned veteran Lillian Randolph. She found it exciting to leave her day job and go to
the Performing Arts theater to and watch unknown actors practicing the art of acting. But Marla still kept her job with United.
Through Lillian Randolph, Marla met black agent Lill Cumberland, who decided to represent her.
While still employed with United Marla auditioned for various acting jobs over a course of several years. Unfortunately, Marla
and Jordan divored in 1973. In early 1970 she landed a role In a blaxploitation movie, “Sweet Jesus, Preacher Man”, this was
followed by “Black Belt Jones.” Though the movies were low budget Marla Gibbs learned so much about more than just acting.
In a 1975, her agent secured Marla an audition for the part of the maid on The Jeffersons. In a rare Hollywood move, Marla
stayed with United Airlines for two years after receiving the part. She perceived that as being loyal. The producers asked her to
leave United. She acquiest to stay “0nly for 90 days”, to see if if acting was a real opportunity. The producers agreed. In the end
Marla became the maid, “Florence Henderson.”
Marla Gibbs continued on “The Jeffersons” series for 11 seasons. “I loved every minute of it”, she has often remarked. During
this time she was nominated five times for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy series. Marla also won 7 NAACP Image awards.
Even while acting on the Jeffersons series Marla was developing her ideas for a series. She was interviewed on Broadway Biz
if she knew any real person like “Florence the maid.” Marla said, “Oh yes, my Grandmother and Aunt were just like Florence.
Quick with kwips and sarcastic remarks, I just immulated them”.
Once The Jefferson’s were cancelled, Marla produced and starred in NBC’s sitcom 227 featuring Jacked Harry and Hal Williams.
Meanwhile with an increased income Marla opened a Supper/Jazz club restaurant called, “Marla’s Memory Lane. Soon after,
she founded the Vision Theater in the Crenshaw district of L.A. Marla played the legendary singer Billie Holiday. She also appeared
in feature films such as “The Brothers”. Using the Vision Theater as a training venue Marla Gibbs tries to encourage young
African-Americans to try acting. She says, “I say they need to recognize that they can with effort and training, to step out and
go forward. But prepare yourself. Maybe you don’t like acting but it will build your confidence for other opportunities.”
Marla Gibbs noted, “That The Jefferson’s utilized some black humor but over all it showed blacks in a new manner. Jefferson
did not scam to get his money — he earned it. Louise, the wife, used to work as a maid. 253 episodes were aired and was picked
up for syndication. But she is really proud of 227. The sitcom about African-American women in the 50’s, living in an apartment
building dealing with life. It aired for 5 years. Some people stay Marla Gibbs is a trail blazer for African-American women. Marla said,
“If you stretch one leg you can’t go far. you have to stretch both legs to go forward. Today, at 87, she says she looks 40, Marla lives comfortably in her Los Angeles home. But Marla says, “I am always ready to stretch both legs,”
Old Roving entertainment reporter