Marla Gibbs, the flippant, back-talking maid on the TV series "The Jeffersons," the Norman Lear show about a newly affluent black family that "moves on up" to the fashionable East Side of New York City, looks up at the young woman who has brought the room-service order. Gibbs asks if she can leave her a tip.
The woman smiles and says no thank you.
"Well, what's you name?" asks Gibbs, and the woman answers, "Stella."
"Now, I have Stella to remember," Marla Gibbs says thoughtfully as she writes down the name.
There is no doubt that Gibbs is concerned about waitresses and maids and domestic workers. Her character Florence and "The Jeffersons" is an upstart amalgam of all of them.
I hope I've been instrumental in bringing up the positin of Florence to where it should be," says Gibbs, who speaks carefully, falling back into Florence's black slang only when she wants to make a point about the character.
Gibbs was in Washington to receive an award at a banquet Saturday from the National Committee on Household Employment during the group's sixth annual convention.
"A domestic worker," she says, using the term frequently, "is like a lawyer or a doctor. Cleaning is a profession. Keeping house is a talent and an art that not all of us can do. In Europe it's an honorable profession. It's something you take pride in. But we placed a stigma on it," she said, referring to the black community. "With us it was the only thing we could do. But now, children come up to me and say 'my mother is a domestic' and they're proud of it."
Gibbs sits upright, perched in the corner of a sofa of her room at the Harambee House Hotel, one leg tucked neatly under, hardly resembling the pouty, glare-eyed Florence, who wears a plain work dress. Gibbs is wearing a shimmery, pale peach silk dress with matching jacket and brown high-heeled sandals. Her hair is combed into a soft Afro.
Gibbs' way of portraying Florence is based on the bits and pieces of people's personalities that she remembers from her growing-up days in Chicago and afterwards, from living in Detroit. "You can find Florences in every black church, for instance," she says. "They always tell people what to do and they take no stuff from anybody. My grandmother and my aunt (both of whom were domestics at one time) were like that. She's our heritage in this country. We made it on the backs of our Florences. If she hadn't worked, her children couldn't have gotten the education to do something else."
Gibbs has analyzed the Florence role carefully, and she easily enumerates the different qualities that Florence illustrates. "You don't need a formal educatin to outwit people," she says. "Florence's outwitting George Jefferson (the head of the Jefferson family and Florence's employer) comes from common sense. George thinks money gives him knowledge and depth, butFlorence comes right back at him with common sense.
"She doesn't do something if it isn't intelligent," Gibbs says, then, changing to Florence, she puts her hand on her hip, pulls back, eyebrows raised, and, addressing an imaginery George Jefferson says, "Don't stand by the door and ask me to answer it if I'm way across the room."
Althughh "The Jeffersons" is the only example of a black middle-class family on TV, blacks have criticized the show's negative image of high-strung George Jefferson, who is portrayed as conniving, bad-mouthing and prejudiced. But Florence, Gibbs says, "is a positive image for blacks. I know George Jefferson is not positive," she adds, looking down soberly, "and I'm sorry there is no positive black male image."
Within the confines of the script, which Gibbs can memorize quickly, she tries to keep Florence realistic and above all clean. "If they give me drinking lines belting down drinks - I say something," she says. "This is all our black children see - always the same role. I'll say to the writers, 'You have me drinking again. What will I do next? So they try to give me less drinking lines."
"There was one script where my boyfriend had come over and spent the night. Originally in the script, the boyfriend would stay in my room," she recalls. "I said, 'No. Florence wouldn't do that.' The writers were sensitive and saw how I felt.We inserted a line saying he slept in my bedroom and I slept on the sofa."
Gibbs, who says she enjoys both the role of Florence and the cast of the show, says the role is still "not challenging - I don't have to stretch myself."
Gibbs speak at many grammar and high schools, and is constantly recognized and stopped on the street, particularly in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles where she lives. "People feel no compunction about asking me to stop what I'm doing and go over to the car to meet their husband," she says with a grin. "But I'll go over to the car. I love it. I love meeting people. I love what they give me."
Gibbs refused to tell her age. "It's not vanity," she says. "They let you play whatever you can get away with.' She looks like she can get awat with late 30s, anyway.
Gibbs first acted in local Los Angeles black theater before landing the role of Florence four years ago. She wasn't even an actress until she came to Los Angeles 15 years ago to recuperate from an ulcer and decided to take acting and dancing lessons, which she had always been interested in. The role of Florence has grown to its current prominence on the series over the past four years. Until last year, Gibbs still held onto her job as a United Airlines reservations clerk. When the series was being taped she would leave the studio at 5:30 and then go to United, where she worked until 11 that night.
Now, she spends much of her free time and money on plans for a black cultural center and theater in Los Angeles. She also has formed a corporation to raise money for the center through such projects as a "Marla Gibbs" doll, which will be sold through organizations and groups.
"I want to do the show for another year, so I will have the money to invest in the center," says Gibbs. "I would like to be doing several things - more challenging dramatic roles, even horror films. Lady Dracula! I loved 'Blacula.' I saw it three times."