The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon
Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

Marla Gibbs

Television actress Marla Gibbs was born on June 14, 1931 to Douglas Bradley and Ophelia Kemp in Chicago, Illinois. After graduating from Wendell Phillips High School in 1949, Gibbs attended secretarial school and went to work at Service Bindery in Chicago. She then was hired, at Gotham Hotel in Detroit, Michigan, and later worked for Detroit Street Railways (DSR). Gibbs worked for United Airlines as a receptionist. After being transferred to Detroit and later Los Angeles, she took acting classes at the Mafundi Institute and the Watts Writers’ Workshop. In the early 1970s, Gibbs was cast in theatrical roles at the Zodiac Theater and small roles in “made for TV” movies. In 1973, Gibbs had a major supporting role in the 1973 movie Sweet Jesus, Preacher Man.

Gibbs’ big break came in 1975 at the age of forty-four when she was hired for a bit part as a household domestic named “Florence” in the CBS show The Jeffersons, a spin-off of All In The Family. Her character was a hit, and the writers decided to keep her on full-time. Gibbs quit her job at United Airlines only after the show gained widespread popularity, and she appeared in the television program as one of the main characters for all eleven seasons. The Jeffersons was one of the top ten rated television shows for four different years (1975, 1980, 1981 and 1982). Gibbs was nominated for prime-time Emmy Awards four times for Best Supporting Actress in a comedy series, for her role on The Jeffersons. After the show ended, Gibbs bought the rights to a play that was produced by her daughter, Angela Gibbs, called 227 and sold the show to NBC, where she played the lead role (“Mary Jenkins”) for five successful seasons.

Gibbs owned and operated Marla’s Memory Lane, a jazz club and restaurant. Her daughter, Angela, founded the Cross Roads Theater Company in Leimart Park, Los Angeles, and Gibbs owned and operated the Vision Theater Complex. She continues to play guest roles on television and is still involved in the theater. Gibbs has performed dinner theater in Overland Park, Kansas at the New Theatre Company where she was showcased in Neil Simon’s play, Proposals.

Marla Gibbs was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on July 8, 2007.

Accession Number

A2007.199

Sex

Female

Interview Date

7/8/2007

Last Name

Gibbs

Maker Category
Occupation
Schools

Wendell Phillips Academy High School

Corpus Christi Elementary School

St. Elizabeth Catholic School

Northern High School

Cortez Peters Business College

First Name

Marla

Birth City, State, Country

Chicago

HM ID

GIB07

Favorite Season

Summer

Sponsor

Carol H. Williams Advertising

State

Illinois

Favorite Vacation Destination

Maui, Hawaii, Nassau, Bahamas

Favorite Quote

Stay In The Now.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

California

Birth Date

6/14/1931

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Los Angeles

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Salmon

Short Description

Television actress Marla Gibbs (1931 - ) was best known for her role as "Florence" on The Jeffersons. She also starred in her own sitcom, 227.

Employment

Gotham Hotel

Detroit. Dept. of Street Railways

United Airlines

Marla's Memory Lane

Jeffersons (Television program)

Moneychangers

Cross Roads Theater

227 (Television Program)

Vision Theater Complex

New Theater Company

Main Sponsor
Favorite Color

Beige, Black, Green, Pink, Purple, Red, White

Timing Pairs
219,0:1971,39:2336,45:3212,59:4015,70:6570,146:10731,219:11242,228:11753,240:13067,281:25070,430:27930,457:36325,656:36617,661:36982,667:37347,673:38515,700:39026,708:39537,717:48560,915:55940,971:62298,1059:63195,1074:63885,1093:72502,1231:82310,1361:82610,1366:85790,1417:106364,1706:107417,1725:114636,1879:121608,1982:124864,2050:145372,2300:148646,2313:149390,2328:152738,2414:153482,2450:155342,2488:155652,2494:165116,2607:167789,2814:195680,2997$0,0:11124,159:13460,201:20249,388:20614,397:28276,473:29680,499:56805,947:57315,955:59940,980:60390,987:61890,1072:63690,1113:71060,1166:72644,1212:73436,1230:74228,1245:81841,1310:82303,1318:87154,1430:100572,1619:105828,1767:106260,1774:106548,1779:106980,1788:115472,1857:139197,2234:149374,2326:160848,2429:170280,2619
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Marla Gibbs' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Marla Gibbs lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Marla Gibbs describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Marla Gibbs describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Marla Gibbs describes her mother's occupations

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Marla Gibbs recalls her mother's numbers operation

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Marla Gibbs describes her father

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Marla Gibbs describes her stepfather and stepsister

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Marla Gibbs recalls her summers in Racine, Wisconsin

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Marla Gibbs recalls marrying Jordan Gibbs, Sr.

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Marla Gibbs lists her children

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Marla Gibbs lists her grandchildren and great-grandchildren

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Marla Gibbs describes her family's celebrations

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Marla Gibbs lists her high schools

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Marla Gibbs describes her early personality

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Marla Gibbs describes her activities in high school

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Marla Gibbs talks about her non-profit organizational activities

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Marla Gibbs describes her spirituality

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Marla Gibbs talks about her health

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Marla Gibbs describes her jazz album, 'It's Never Too Late'

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Marla Gibbs talks about her interest in tennis

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Marla Gibbs remembers the alumni of Wendell Phillips High School

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Marla Gibbs describes her early work experiences

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Marla Gibbs recalls working for United Airlines in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Marla Gibbs recalls her early acting career

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Marla Gibbs recalls auditioning for film roles

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Marla Gibbs recalls buying the Memory Lane jazz club in Los Angeles, California

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Marla Gibbs recalls opening Marla's Memory Lane Supper Club in Los Angeles, California

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Marla Gibbs describes her two non-profit organizations

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Marla Gibbs describes her character, Florence Johnston, on 'The Jeffersons'

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Marla Gibbs recalls acting with Sherman Hemsley on 'The Jeffersons'

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Marla Gibbs describes the cast of 'The Jeffersons,' pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Marla Gibbs describes the cast of 'The Jeffersons,' pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Marla Gibbs reflects upon the social impact of 'The Jeffersons'

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Marla Gibbs reflects upon the universal appeal of 'The Jeffersons'

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Marla Gibbs recalls meeting actor Billy Dee Williams

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Marla Gibbs talks about the Emmy Awards

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Marla Gibbs describes the popularity of her character, Florence Johnston

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Marla Gibbs recalls creating the television show '227'

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Marla Gibbs remembers an episode of '227' about homelessness

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Marla Gibbs describes the cast of '227'

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Marla Gibbs reflects upon the success of '227'

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Marla Gibbs talks about The Vision Theatre in Los Angeles, California

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Marla Gibbs describes her plans for the future

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Marla Gibbs remembers her stepsister, Susie Garrett

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Marla Gibbs talks about her brain aneurysm

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Marla Gibbs remembers recovering from a brain aneurysm, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Marla Gibbs remembers recovering from her brain aneurysm, pt. 2

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Marla Gibbs remembers her birthday celebration in Overland Park, Kansas

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Marla Gibbs talks about her celebrity acquaintances

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Marla Gibbs describes her plan to write her autobiography

DASession

1$1

DATape

5$5

DAStory

2$6

DATitle
Marla Gibbs describes the popularity of her character, Florence Johnston
Marla Gibbs reflects upon the success of '227'
Transcript
When you played Florence Johnston, the black community was just alive with that show--the white community and all communities were alive, but the black community was alive. How were you received by the black community when you played that role?$$With a lot of love, with a lot of love from everybody, really, but in the black community in particular. People were, youngsters were--I was concerned that they would think it was a stereotype, but youngsters were trying to find somebody in their family who had been a maid, or was a maid. "Well, you know, my mama was a maid, or I had an aunt who was a maid." They wanted to identify, you know, and I was very happy about that, that they saw her as someone close to them. And today, they still do it. There was a white girl coming down to the office. I was coming out of, what do you call it, a commercial interview. And before I could get to the car, she was coming up to me, and she just said, "I just love you, I just love your work." People come up to me with love all the time, and that's been the most rewarding thing. I was in a Korean bathhouse, and the girl that was working for me came. She said, "I'm going to take you over there." So, you know, they scrub you down, then they massage you. So, we were in there, and nobody spoke English. And I was sitting in the front waiting for them to come back, and these ladies started pointing at me, and coming up, and I said, "What are they doing?" Then one of them said, "Jefferson," and I got so tickled. You'd be surprised. And I said, how do they know?$$If I may give you a compliment, you say the love they give you--but every time I see you, every time I've always seen you, there's always love coming back from you to other people. And we thank you (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) Well, that's what we are. We know we are loved, and like, I like to hug people, primarily because the young man, Horace Tapscott, always felt like touching was important, and that came to me. So, people always say to me, "I want a hug, can I have a hug?" And I'd say, "Yes." A lot of people want an autograph, but a lot of people want a hug. We went to the island of Sardinia [Italy], (pronunciation) Sardania they call it, we call it (pronunciation) Sardinia. And when we arrived at the airport, I'm walking in the airport and these people start rushing towards me, and I said, "Oh, there's something that I don't know, because I'm in a strange country." I mean, here's all these people running at me, and they got close and they started saying, "Florence, Florence," and the show was running then, in Italian. And I got a chance to see it, and the dubbing was so flawless, I couldn't realize what I was really saying there, in English. But, it was so good, and it was a big hit over there.$$Well, that was an experience a lot of us will never ever forget, 'The Jeffersons.' As they said, "We're moving on up to the East Side," (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) Yeah.$$Moving on up.$But the show, '227,' to get that kind of an ensemble cast together, it furthered your career.$$The show is the star. When you treat the show like a star, you come out on top every time. But when one person wants to be star, and everything revolves around them, there's a problem. So, I told them, "Jackee [HistoryMaker Jackee Harry] is good. You can give her the A show, but I got to have the family." They wanted the show to be me and Jackee, and I said, "It doesn't work, our rhythms are too different." I said, "Jackee can do what she does with a rabbit, with a mirror, by herself, she does not need me, you know." I said, "That works for her, I don't want to change it, it works for her. It doesn't work for me." I said, "I have to have something--you have to hit me the ball and I'll hit it back, and you got to hit back again. If I hit the ball to Jackee, she may not hit it back." (Laughter) Because Jackee was more interested in being a star, and that's the way people thought coming up in New York [New York], you know. Who was the star? Who was this, that and the other, and I wasn't used to that. I was used to being number nine on a hit show that I worked up to be number three on, but I never forgot that number one and number two were the stars. And it worked. I said, "You got the best of both worlds. You can give her the A story if you want, and give us the B story, but as long as you give me the family, I'm fine." And that's what kept the show. I said, "Besides, people would not believe that I would let Jackee in my house. Why would I let her in?" I said, "I let her in because Rose [Rose Lee Holloway] is knocking on the door." I said, "And when she gets on my nerves, I can't hit her because Rose gets in between us." So, that's what makes it real.$$I see Nia Long was in the original production that you worked with. You had some great artists at Crossroads [Crossroads Arts Academy and Theater, Los Angeles, California]. You had some great artists.$$Nia Long was in which production?$$Nia Long starred in the original production of '227' [Christine Houston] at Crossroads? Was she an original in it?$$(Shakes head).$$Do you know a fellow by the name of Dasch Hadu?$$Sounds familiar.$$Glenn Towery?$$Yeah, oh yes.$$He is my dear friend.$$We wanted him for the play we did. He played the wolf boy, and he was perfect, but Ed Cambridge would not cast him in that role.$$He's doing some work here in town. Yes (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) We fought for him. Glen Towery.$$Glen Towery. Yeah, he changed his name. I think he goes by the name of Dasch Hadu.$$Yeah.$$Yes.