From Gold Hill To Sesame Street And Then The Silver Screen

Published 4:43 pm Thursday, June 23, 2011

BUCKINGHAM – An email from Dillwyn Town Hall sent by Peggy Johnson, town clerk and treasurer, carried the news that Clarice Taylor, of The Cosby Show, died on May 30, at the age of 93. Peggy noted, “She was born in Buckingham County.”

I did a quick search on the web and pulled up an obit that told me about an actress and comedian best know for her role as a grandmother-not only on The Cosby Show, where she was Anna Huxtable, but also on Sesame Street where she played David's grandmother.

However, the obituary did not include any mention of Buckingham County. So, rather than searching further I went back to work on several Buckingham-related articles stacked on my desk.

Several days later, my editor forwarded an email from the husband of a relative of Ms. Taylor. In his email, the man shared that Clarice was born in Buckingham, near Gold Hill, but was raised in New York City where she started working in the theatre at a time when there were few opportunities for African American actors.

Okay, I thought, this could be good stuff. Not only did it appear to be newsworthy because of the Buckingham connection but it also seemed to offer insight into the past. And so I began searching for information about Clarice Taylor.

After reading several more on-line obituaries, I decided to contact Buckingham native Tommy Garrett who is a Hollywood publicist, agent, columnist, author, and actor.

An email to Garrett drew a quick response. Not only did he know Clarice Taylor but he featured her in a chapter of his second book, So, You Want To Be In Pictures, The Making of Hollywood Idols.

Garrett responded that he would work up some information about her and get it to me ASAP. And, he did.

“Clarice died from congestive heart failure at her home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey,” he advised, noting that she was best known as Bill Cosby's mother on The Cosby Show.

He added that she received an OBIE Award for her performance in the off-Broadway show Moms. Written by Alice Childress, the play was about Jackie “Moms” Mabley, one of the most successful African American vaudeville performers and comedians-and one of Clarice's longtime favorites.

Garrett shared, “As a teenager growing up in Harlem, Ms. Taylor sometimes skipped school to see Moms Mabley perform at the Apollo Theater.”

He explained that Moms paid tribute to a woman renowned for sexual humor that relied on innuendo rather than obscenity.

Garrett wrote that in addition to her recurring role as Anna Huxtable, Taylor also played Cousin Emma on Sanford and Son. He added that Clarice is probably most widely for her appearances on Sesame Street.

According to Garrett, Clarice told him that her role on Sesame Street meant a great deal to her because it offered her an opportunity to teach children about country living.

Garrett went on to write that she began her acting career with the American Negro Theater in Harlem. He shared that Clarice told him that her parents urged her to continue her education rather than go into the theatre.

“However, she pursued her dream and she made it,” stated Garrett. “That was unheard of back in the 1920s and 30s.”

Garrett explained that Taylor began her acting career with Harlem's American Negro Theatre. He added that she was one of the founding members of the Negro Ensemble Company, which was formed in 1967.

“She inspired me over the years,” offered Garrett. He reminisced about being a first grader and watching Sesame Street with Dr. Annabelle Lee Warren, his principal at Arvonia Primary School.

“Mrs. Warren whispered to me, 'That lady is from Buckingham, Tommy. Just like you, she has that spark,'” he shared. “I never forgot that, and I'll never forget Clarice, who was a trailblazer in entertainment and on Broadway.”

After several rounds of emailing with Garrett, I remembered that local author and historian Charles White co-authored a book with E. Renee Ingram on Buckingham County in conjunction with the Black America Series. I suspected and kind of remembered that Clarice Taylor was in that book. Best part-I knew I had a copy; and, I actually knew where it was.

Sure enough, Clarice Taylor is featured in the book and is credited with providing her photographs for the publication.

As I'm writing this, the book is next to my keyboard and opened to the pages about Clarice.

My favorite photograph is one of her, in her role as Harriet, with Big Bird. The two are nestled together in a huge nest and Harriet is reading to her feathered friend.

According to the book's biographical sketch on Clarice, who is described as an actress, producer, and writer, she was born Claris T. Gibson on September 21, 1917, in Gold Hill, in the Marshall District of Buckingham County, to Leona (Booker) Gibson and Charles Gibson.

The information included that not only did Taylor receive the OBIE for Outstanding Achievement in off-Broadway and off-off Broadway Theatre but she also received the 1993 Living Legend Award from the National Black Theatre.

According to the article, Taylor appeared in many films including Five on the Black Hand Side, Play Misty for Me, Smoke, and Sommersby.

The section on Taylor also includes a photograph of her in costume as Addaperle in the 1975 original Broadway production of The Wiz.

The more I found out about Clarice Taylor, the more I longed to know her and the more I wished I could have interviewed her.

Unfortunately, that's now impossible, so I decided to call someone who knew her. I dialed the number listed on the email.

The woman clarified that she was a distant relative and that although she met Clarice, she didn't know her very well. She suggested I talk with another family member.

However, she shared that when she was a young teen, she went with an aunt to visit Clarice. “She had just finished the play, The Wiz. She was living in New York then.” The woman added, “She talked a lot about the theatre and different plays she was in.”

She also remembered Clarice visiting in Buckingham during the filming of the movie Sommersby.

“Anytime that she would be on TV or whatever, my family would call each other…and we would turn to the program to see her,” she said. “We were proud of her.”

A call to that other relative connected me with Clarice's cousin Celestine Turner. The voice on the other end of the phone line was pleasant and friendly.

Celestine explained that her mother and Clarice's mother were sisters. She added that one of her sisters, Ophelia Anderson Saunders, who is now deceased, was very close to Clarice.

Celestine told me that after retiring, she and her husband moved back to Buckingham in 1994. They built their home on property they purchased from Clarice.

According to Celestine, Clarice was a young child when she moved from Buckingham. She explained that Clarice's parents were going through a difficult time and so Celestine's mother took care of Clarice for a while. “That was way before I was born,” she shared.

Explaining that there were 13 children in her family and another child created more hardship, Celestine said that after a while her grandmother took Clarice up to New York to stay with another aunt.

Celestine noted that her grandmother lived right across the field from where she now resides, adding that the property is near Baptist Union Baptist Church.

The last time she saw Clarice was in the early 1990s, recalled Celestine, who was living in Maryland at that time and was recuperating from hip surgery. Clarice, in turn, was passing through Maryland on her way back to New York after being in Virginia for the filming of Sommersby. “She stopped at my sister's,” stated Celestine, who was able to visit with them because she was on sick leave.

“Other than just talking with her over the phone, I didn't have real close contact with her,” she shared.

“The last time I saw her on stage was when she was doing a remake of Moms Mabley in Washington, D. C.,” said Celestine. “It was awesome-very awesome,” she stated, adding that afterwards, she and Ophelia were able to go backstage. “It was great. She was great.”

According to information in those obituaries, Clarice Taylor, is survived by two sons and five grandchildren, although some obituaries reported four.

However, in actuality, considering her role on Sesame Street, she is survived by an entire generation of children and grandchildren-including mine and, maybe, yours.

An African American woman born in 1917 in rural Buckingham County followed her dreams and became an award-winning actor and entertainer.

Her amazing journey took her from Gold Hill to Sesame Street with stops at the Huxtable home. And, she made it all the way to Broadway and the Silver Screen.

Rest in peace dear Clarice. I truly wish I could've known you.