Friday, January 07, 2011

The Horn Section Salutes: Butterfly McQueen (1911-1995)


Some sources give the date as today, while most print encyclopedias pre-dating the internet give it as tomorrow, January 8th.  Regardless of which is correct (I lean towards the latter, as does Stephen Bourne), it's time to celebrate the 100th birthday of the late, great Thelma "Butterfly" McQueen. 

Born in Tampa, Florida to Wallace and Mary MacQueen, she is best known for her portrayal of Prissy in 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND.  Unfortunately, her magnificent performance only led to more stereotypical 1940's film roles that were far beneath her talents in the unenlightened film industry of her day.  Butterfly McQueen was the antithesis of such characters offscreen.

Remembering one particularly insulting line she was asked to deliver in 1943's I DOOD IT, Ms. McQueen said it best: "I didn't mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business.  But after I did the same thing over and over, I began to resent it.  I didn't mind being funny, but I didn't like being stupid."


Unlike many in the same position, Butterfly McQueen announced she would no longer accept such parts in 1946 and then left Hollywood the following year. Although McQueen's career had (and would continue to) encompass radio, stage and television, it also led to some lean years for the actress.  At various times after her greatest screen success she would work as a tour guide, Macy's employee, dishwasher, waitress, dance teacher, community theatre manager and paid companion for an elderly woman.

Butterfly McQueen enjoyed a career resurgence in the late 1960's onstage with roles in CURLEY McDIMPLE and the Broadway productions THREE MEN ON A HORSE and THE FRONT PAGE, then resumed her film career with small roles in THE PHYNX (1970) and AMAZING GRACE (1974).  The year after her appearance in GRACE, McQueen earned her Bachelor's in Political Science from New York's City College---at age 64

More stage roles followed (notably, the national tour of SHOW BOAT in 1979-80) along with plum roles in the made for TV productions POLLY (1989) and SEVEN WISHES OF JOANNA PEABODY (1978), for which Butterfly McQueen won her first Emmy Award.  

There's a lot more to be said about Ms. McQueen, and as has been the case on other salutes, a mere blog post is insufficient space.  I  highly recommend Stephen Bourne's excellent book Butterfly McQueen Remembered to learn more about this talented and unique actress, singer, dancer and social activist.

Sadly, Butterfly McQueen was killed in a fire in her home on December 22, 1995 at age 84. 

Happy 100th Butterfly, and R.I.P.

Butterfly McQueen on Armed Forces Radio Service Jubilee, circa 1943 (?) with Ida James:


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