Tess Gardella

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Tess Gardella
Therese Gardella

(1894-12-19)December 19, 1894
DiedJanuary 3, 1950(1950-01-03) (aged 55)
Other names"Aunt Jemima"
Occupationsinger, dancer, actress
Known forblackface; 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. Tess was born in Glen Lyon, Pennsylvania, to John and Louisa Gardella[1]. She came to New York City in 1918, singing in dances and nightclubs and also political rallies.[2]

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


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.[4]

For her final performance, she returned to vaudeville, playing the Palace once more in 1949.[2]


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.[5] Jules Bledsoe, who originated the role of Joe in the same production and sang Ol' Man River, was also African-American. She played the entire original run of the show, which ended in May of 1929, and even returned for a 1932 Broadway revival which reunited most of the original 1927 cast. After Show Boat, she returned to the vaudeville stage.[2]


During the 1930s, Gardella appeared in occasional movie shorts filmed in New York, including the Vitaphone series Rambling 'Round Radio Row (1932–34). She appeared in the film that made Shirley Temple a star, Stand Up and Cheer! (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. ^ Gardella, Tess. "'Aunt Jemima' Dies, Age 52". The Mountain Echo (Shickshinny, Pennsylvania) (6 Jan 1950, p. 1). Newspapers.com. Retrieved 29 September 2019.
  2. ^ a b c Slide, Anthony (1994). Encyclopedia of Vaudeville. Greenwood Press. pp. 15–16. ISBN 978-0-313-28027-6.
  3. ^ obituary, VarietyJan. 11,1950
  4. ^ "Ibee", Variety, October 30, 1922: "a place in big-time vaudeville"
  5. ^ John McWhorter (2001-07-31). Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. HarperCollins. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-06-093593-1.
  6. ^ Billboard, March 21, 1931

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