Butterfly McQueen Remembered,
By Stephen Bourne
Scarecrow Press, 2007
Did You Know She Was in the Original Cast of The Wiz?!
I did not know that.
Apparently, when The Wiz opened in Baltimore in 1974, Butterfly McQueen played the Queen of the Field Mice, a part that was cut when the show moved on to Broadway. Particularly crummy, since my sister and I saw that show in New York not long after it opened. How much cooler would it have been to see the much-parodied "Prissy" as a queen?
Neither did I know that Butterfly McQueen was a lifelong atheist. I've spent the morning wondering what it must have been like for her to navigate those rough stereotypes and trying to imagine her saying, in that iconic, sweet, high voice, "As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion." But not, sadly, of the limitations of trying to get a decent part as an African American actor in the 1930s and 40s.
"Butterfly" was born Thelma (a name she hated) McQueen in Tampa, Florida on January 7, 1911. After her parents separated, she and her mother moved to New York, where her mother got work as a cook in Harlem and Butterfly trained as a dancer and actress with Venezuela Jone's Harlem-based Youth Acting Group. Her first performance on Broadway was in George Abbott's production of "Brown Sugar" in 1936 and became a permanent member of the Abbott Acting Company. Her first film appearance was as an uncredited shop assistant in The Women, but her most famous role was as Scarlett O'Hara's maid in Gone With the Wind, the premiere of which she was not allowed to attend, because it was held in a whites-only theatre.*
God bless America.
McQueen quit the movies in 1947, frustrated and tired of playing the same maids and servants, and small wonder. She went back to the New York stage, but also appeared regularly on radio and occasionally on television, and performed in a one-woman show at Carnegie Hall. In leaner times, she worked as a personal companion and sold toys at Macy's. A lifelong student, she eventually earned a bachelor's degree in political science from New York City College at age 64.
Butterfly McQueen died December 22, 1995, of burns sustained when her clothes caught fire while she was lighting a kerosene heater in her home in Augusta, Georgia. She was 84 years old.
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* Butterfly McQueen and the other black actors in Gone With the Wind were also excluded from the film's souvenir program.