Black News and News Makers in History: Thelma "Butterfly" McQueen

Black news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History recognizes "Butterfly" McQueen this week in Black HistoryThelma McQueen was born on January 7, 1911 in Tampa, Florida. She was the only child to Walter, a stevedore at the port's phosphate elevators, and Stella. Shortly after her birth, her parents separated. In order to support herself and her daughter, Stella sought full-time employment in a number of cities up and down the East Coast, sending Thelma to live with an aunt in Augusta, Georgia, until she had settled on a job as a cook in Harlem.

Thelma McQueen attended public school in Augusta, Georgia and graduated from high school in Long Island, New York. After a brief stint in nursing school at the Lincoln Training School in the Bronx, McQueen pursued her acting career. She studied dance with Janet Collins, Geoffrey Holder, and Katherine Dunham. She performed with the dance troupe of Katherine Dunham.

In 1934, she joined Venezuela Jones's Harlem-based Youth Theatre Group to study dance, music, and drama on a professional level.

In 1935, she made her stage debut as part of the Butterfly Ballet in Jones's off-Broadway production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Upon seeing her dance, a friend nicknamed her "Butterfly." She immediately adopted the name as her own, and it remained with her throughout her career.

After performing in the "Butterfly Ballet" (in a 1935 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"), McQueen was dubbed "Butterfly".

Disliking her birth name, she later had her name legally changed to "Butterfly McQueen."

In 1936, she made her Broadway stage debut as Lucille, the maid, in George Abbot's "Brown Sugar" directed by George Abbott.

She appeared as Lulu, a shop girls' assistant, in "The Women." She became a permanent member of the Abbott Acting Company and was cast in several other George Abbott productions including "Brother Rat" (1937) and "What A Life" (1938). She earned her greatest stage recognition in "What a Life" and during its run was offered the role of Prissy in "Gone With the Wind." While the part verged on stereotype, McQueen brought a comic pathos to her portrayal. The role of Prissy, Miss Scarlett's squeaky-voiced maid, in "Gone with the Wind" would be her most famous.

McQueen could not attend Gone with the Wind's premiere as it was held in a 'white's only' theater, but she was a guest of honor at its 50th anniversary celebration in 1989.

Although Gone with the Wind went on to become a huge success, McQueen found it difficult finding work as an actress. Like many black actors in 1940s Hollywood, McQueen found few challenging roles and was usually relegated to playing domestics. She rebelled against Hollywood's rigid system of racial stereotyping and often insisted on altering scenes and dialogue that demeaned people of color. Frustrated with the stereotyping, she eventually returned to New York.

Among her better known films are Vincente Minnelli's "Cabin in the Sky" (1943), Michael Curtiz' "Mildred Pierce" (1945) and King Vidor's "Duel in the Sun" (1947). She also appeared in the musical comedy "I Dood It" and "Flame of Barbary Coast (1945).

From 1947 to 1951, she was a regular on the radio show "Beulah."

In 1951, she put on a one-woman show at Carnegie Hall, but she soon found she had to take on other jobs to support herself. During the 1950's, she worked as a companion for a woman in Long Island and sold toys at Macy's.

In the mid-1950s, she played the part of Queen Elizabeth Victoria in the all-black production, The World's My Oyster. This was followed by an appearance an adaptation of Molière's "School for Wives." In the mid-1960s, she appeared in "The Athenian Touch" In between she accepted a series of casual jobs, ranging from taxi dispatcher to seamstress to factory worker, in order to survive. At one point, she moved back to Augusta, Georgia, where she gave music lessons, appeared on her own radio show, opened a restaurant, and served as a hostess at the Stone Mountain Memorial Museum of Confederate Times.

In 1968, McQueen returned to the spotlight as Hattie in the off-Broadway musical "Curley McDimple" and one year later starred in her own musical revue entitled "Butterfly McQueen and Friends." This was followed by a powerful performance as Dora Lee, an elevator operator, in George Abbott's play "Three Men on a Horse."

Over the years she has also appeared in a number of dramatic television productions, including "The Green Pastures" (1957) and "Our World" (1987), and in the TV series "The Beulah Show" (1950-52)

In the 1975 stage musical "The Wiz," she was initially cast to play the Queen of the Field Mice until her scene was cut. She ended up understudying the role of Addapearle, the Good Witch of the North.

In 1975, at age 64, McQueen earned a bachelor's degree in political science from New York's City College. Throughout her life, she made education a top priority. As early as 1946 she began taking courses in political science, Spanish, drama, dance, and music, first at the City College of Los Angeles and then at the University of California at Los Angeles, Southern Illinois University, Queen's College, and New York University.

Her role in the 1979 children's special "The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody" earned her an Emmy Award. And, in 1986, McQueen returned to the large screen as Ma Kennywick in "Mosquito Coast". Three years later she appeared in the movies "Polly" and "Stiff". Then, in 1989, she played Prissy yet again, signing autographs and quoting her most famous line at the widely publicized celebrations commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Gone With the Wind.

She has also devoted much of her time and energy to community service work, helping out in the offices of city politicians and serving as a playground supervisor at an elementary school in Harlem. Fond of children, she also worked at the Mount Morris Park Recreation Center as a receptionist and tap dance and ballet lessons. She defined herself at the time through her commitment to the "black family," she said.

Compiled from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0574335/bio, http://www.tampapix.com/mcqueen.htm, and http://www.answers.com/topic/butterfly-mcqueen#ixzz1A5WC0txI.


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