Tess Gardella

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Tess Gardella
Born Therese Gardella
(1894-12-19)December 19, 1894
Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania
Died January 3, 1950(1950-01-03) (aged 55)
Brooklyn, New York
Nationality Italian-American
Other names "Aunt Jemima"
Occupation singer, dancer, actress
Known for blackface; original "Queenie" in Showboat

Therese Gardella (December 19, 1894 – January 3, 1950) was an Italian American performer on the stage and screen whose stage persona was "Aunt Jemima." She performed on both stage and screen, usually in blackface. A native of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Gardella came to New York City in 1918, singing in dances and nightclubs and also political rallies.[1]

She died of diabetes in Brooklyn, New York, on January 3, 1950.[2]


She was introduced to the vaudeville stage by Lew Leslie, who gave her the stage name of Aunt Jemima. She appeared at the Palace and the New York Hippodrome, and attracted very favorable reviews from Variety.[3]

For her final performance, she returned to vaudeville, playing the Palace once more in 1949.[1]


Her first performance in the legitimate theater was in the 1921 version of George White's Scandals. But she was best known for her role in the classic stage musical Show Boat in 1927, where she originated the role of Queenie. She was the only member of the original Broadway cast to appear in blackface; the show featured an African-American chorus.[4] Jules Bledsoe, who originated the role of Joe in the same production and sang Ol' Man River, was also African-American.[5] She left the cast in 1930, returning to the vaudeville stage.[1]


During the 1930s, Gardella appeared in occasional movie shorts filmed in New York, including the Vitaphone series Rambling 'Round Radio Row (1932–1934). She was usually billed as "Aunt Jemima." In 1938, the Vitaphone studio starred her as "Tess Gardella (Aunt Jemima)" in the two-reel musical short A Swing Opera. In this updated condensation of the famous operetta The Bohemian Girl, with special lyrics by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, Gardella was top-billed as the gypsy queen and does not wear blackface.

Billboard summed up her appeal as the personification of the "colored mammy." [6]


  1. ^ a b c Slide, Anthony (1994). Encyclopedia of Vaudeville. Greenwood Press. pp. 15–16. ISBN 978-0-313-28027-6. 
  2. ^ obituary, VarietyJan. 11,1950
  3. ^ "Ibee", Variety, Oct. 30, 1922 "a place in big-time vaudeville"
  4. ^ John McWhorter (2001-07-31). Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. HarperCollins. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-06-093593-1. 
  5. ^ Texas Escapes entry
  6. ^ Billboard, March 21, 1931

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