Season One – Episode Three: Too Old Blues (February 8, 1974)

James and Florida search the want ads for “equal opportunity”

In this episode, James has just received word that he has passed the written aptitude test for a union apprentice training program and is scheduled for an interview. If he’s accepted, he’ll earn $2.50 an hour as an apprentice, and upon completion of the program, he’ll receive $4.25 an hour. Before leaving for his interview, James tells Florida to use their rent money for a party to celebrate his new job. During the interview, while going over James’s application, the interviewer discovers a computer error; the application states that James is 31 years old, but he’s actually 41. Because the government-funded apprentice program is for men ages 18 to 35, James is too old to be accepted. When James arrives home, the party he requested is in full swing, complete with guests. He looks sheepish as he’s serenaded by the group’s rendition of “He’s a Jolly Good Dude,” and his discomfort grows as Thelma and J.J. talk about all the things they’d like to buy with James’s new salary. He finally shares that he didn’t get the job, but Florida offers words of support and encouragement, leading James to philosophically conclude: “So I missed out. What’s the big deal? What would it have meant anyhow? Some more spending money, fancy clothes, nicer place to live? What do I need with a union job for when I have you and these kids?” He and Florida embrace, but James rather plaintively adds, “But it sure would’ve been nice.”

James isn’t pleased to learn that he’s “too old.”

Between the laughs, and the surfeit of pop culture references (see below), this episode serves to underscore the close-knit, caring nature of the Evans family. There’s the excitement and pride over James’s new employment prospects but, more importantly, it’s the family’s reaction when they learn that he didn’t get the job. After James shares his disappointing news with the partygoers, he leaves the room with Florida, and the three children commiserate in their own little group. “Whoever said he was too old don’t know Daddy,” J.J. offers, and Michael adds, “I’d like to see the dude who called him too old. I’d tell him about some of those not-too-old whippings he’s laid on me.” Thelma has the last word: “Daddy ain’t too old. He could do that job at the union. He could do anything anybody gave him a chance to.” And even though James expresses concern that he has disappointed Florida, she bolsters his spirits with her uplifting response: “James, you always see this family through,” she tells him. “You can do it.” The episode sees the family experience a hopeful start only to plummet back to earth in worse shape than they’d been before, but the message is that together, they will always find a way.

Pop Culture Connections

Energy Crisis

While hugging Florida (more on this below under “Other Stuff”), James states that he doesn’t have to worry about “that energy crisis” because he has his “own personal heating system” (meaning Florida.) The energy crisis James is referring to was caused by the action taken by the Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, who imposed an embargo against the United States. This was in retaliation for the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military and to gain leverage in the post-war peace negotiations. Embargoes were also enacted against other countries who supported the Israelis, including the Netherlands and South Africa. As a result of the embargo, the U.S. saw skyrocketing prices for gasoline and fuel oil. The embargo, which started in October 1973, ended in March 1974, about a month after the episode aired.

Wilt Chamberlain

Before joining the NBA, Chamberlain played for the Harlem Globetrotters.

After the “personal heating system” comment, Florida observes that a good looking man like James could have married any woman in Chicago, and he responds, “True. But I married you.” Florida rejoins, “If that’s a compliment, I’m Wilt Chamberlain.” Chamberlain was a seven-foot, one-inch basketball star who joined the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1959, when he signed on with the Philadelphia Warriors (which later relocated to California to become the San Francisco Warriors). During his career, he would also play for the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers and would play on two NBA championship teams. Chamberlain retired from basketball in 1973.

Meat Shortage

At breakfast, Thelma complains about the family eating oatmeal again, and Florida tells her that she should be grateful for the oatmeal or any other food on the table. “Remember,” she adds, “this family got through the meat shortage without even knowing there was one.” The term “meat shortage,” while commonly used at the time, is a misnomer. In the early 1970s, there was a blight in corn crops that started in Florida and spread north and west, resulting in an increase in corn prices. Concomitantly, livestock producers began to cut back on their herds, leading to a reduction in beef production and a spike in beef prices. This led to price gouging and even a meat boycott; there was no shortage, per se, but meat was inordinately expensive. After a few years, the blight faded, corn prices fell, livestock was rebuilt, and prices returned to normal.

Ozzie and Harriet

This ain’t the Evans family.

When Thelma and J.J. argue about the amount of time she spends in the bathroom, James complains about the frequency of the arguments between the siblings and Florida remarks, “Let’s face it, James – this family ain’t Ozzie and Harriet.” The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was an ABC-TV sitcom that aired from 1952 to 1966 and starred the real-life family of actor/bandleader Ozzie Nelson, his wife, singer Harriet Nelson, and their sons, David and Ricky. The series was typified by the family’s wholesome relationship and homespun lifestyle.

Aristotle Onassis

For his celebration party, James tell Florida that he wants barbecued chicken and ribs, champagne, and music, and jokes that she can hire The Temptations. “Hold on there, Onassis,” Florida says. “What do I use for money for this orgy?” Florida was referring to Aristotle Socrates Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate who was, at that time, one of the wealthiest men in the world. In 1968, he married Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of President John F. Kennedy. Onassis died in 1975 at the age of 69.

Rodney Allen Rippy

Everybody knew who this kid was, back in the day.

In an allusion to J.J.’s penchant for thievery, Willona refers to him as “Rodney Allen Ripoff.” This is a takeoff of the name of a child actor who became popular in the 1970s for his appearances in commercials for fast-food chain Jack-in-the-Box. (Jack-in-the-Box was the first fast-food restaurant to popularize drive-thru ordering via a two-way intercom system. These restaurants featured a clown head on top of an intercom, with a sign that read, “Pull forward. Jack will speak to you.”) Rippy would later guest on numerous television shows, present with Michael Jackson and Donny Osmond at the American Music Awards, and sing “Take Life a Little Easier,” a record released by Bell Records in 1973 based on one of Rippy’s Jack-in-the-Box commercials.

Diana Ross

While joking about the type of party he wants for his celebration, James tells Florida not to book The Temptations but, instead to hire “The Supremes – and WITH Diana Ross!” The Supremes was an all-girl musical group that was popular during the 1960s, comprised originally of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard. (Ballard was fired from the group in 1967 and replaced by Cyndy Birdsong.) Almost from the beginning, Ross emerged as the main singer, and in 1970, she left the group to pursue a solo – and wildly successful – career.

Soul Train

Soul Train was a product of Chicago.

Thelma is responsible for providing the music for the party that her father requested – she explains to Florida that she;s gotten albums by Isaac Hayes, The Jackson Five, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Florida quips, “When he said ‘music,’ he didn’t expect you to hijack Soul Train.” Soul Train was a popular musical variety show that premiered on WCIU-TV in Chicago in 1970, created by Don Cornelius, who was also the show’s executive producer and host. Airing live on weekday afternoons and sponsored by local Chicago-based retailer Sears, Roebuck and Company, the show featured acts by popular R&B and soul acts, and local teens and young adults were shown dancing to the music – the first episode on August 17, 1970, featured Jerry Butler, The Chi-Lites and The Emotions as guests. The program was an immediate hit, attracting the notice of another Chicago company, the Johnson Products Company, which co-sponsored the show’s expansion into syndication. Seven other cities purchased the program: Atlanta, Birmingham, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, and by the end of its first season, the show was airing in 18 additional markets. In October 1971, when the program moved into syndication, it began airing weekly and its home base moved to Los Angeles. Cornelius moved west as well, but for a while, a local version of Soul Train continued to air in Chicago, with Cornelius briefly hosting both programs before focusing solely on the Los Angeles show. The show’s Chicago version continued to air every weekday afternoon until June 1976, hosted by dancer Clinton Ghent, who’d been a part of the show since its inception, and reruns were shown every Friday until 1979. The show was known for two long-running elements: the Soul Train scramble board, where two contestants would unscramble letters to spell out a famous group or singer, and the Soul Train line, a take-off of the 1950s dance, The Stroll. Here, dancers would line up in two lines opposite each other, and dance two at a time down the center of the makeshift aisle. Don Cornelius stopped hosting the syndicated version in 1993, and the show was cancelled after the 2005-2006 season.

Ambassador East

Willona likened the Evans’s decor to the grand ballroom at the Ambassador East.

Willona commends Florida on the decorations for the party, telling her that it looks like the Grand Ballroom at the Ambassador East. This was a popular hotel in Chicago that opened in 1926 in the Gold Coast area, near the city’s Magnificent Mile district. It was featured in the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock film North by Northwest, starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, and the hotel’s Pump Room was a magnet for stars including Frank Sinatral, Elizabeth Taylor, and Natalie Wood. It was purchased in 2010 by Ian Schrager, an entrepreneur best-known for being co-founder and co-owner of New York’s Studio 54 nightclub. Schrager renamed the hotel the Public Chicago. The hotel changed hands a few more times and is now known as the Ambassador Chicago, under the Hyatt brand.

What You See is What You Get

Willona also has complimentary words for Michael’s outfit for the party, and jokes that he’ll have to fight off the girls. Michael rejoins, “Well, what they see is what they gonna get,” accompanied by a little swaying type of dance movement and a snap of his fingers. This is reminiscent of a catchphrase and movement used by comedian Flip Wilson in drag as “Geraldine Jones,” a sassy, independent, sexy, and feisty female character that he popularized on his NBC television show in the early 1970s. Also, in 1971, the R&B group The Dramatics released a hit song, “Whatcha See is Whatcha Get.”

Guest Stars

Interviewer: Woodrow Parfrey

Parfrey played the man who interviewed James for the apprentice program. Born Sydney Woodrow Parfrey on October 5, 1922, this prolific actor of stage, screen, and TV was orphaned in his teenage years and worked as a car mechanic before entering the military. He was captured by the Germans in World War II, and upon his release from the Army following the war, he took an aptitude test which indicated that he would be proficient in the acting field. He performed in a variety of stage productions during the 1940s and 1950s, including the Broadway production of Room Service, which closed after only 16 performances despite a cast that included Jack Lemmon and Everett Sloane.

He focused primarily on TV and film beginning in the 1960s; his television credits included appearances on a wide variety of popular shows including Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, Hazel, Quincy, and the pilot for The Waltons, titled The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. On the big screen, he was in such hits as Planet of the Apes (1968), Dirty Harry (1971), Papillion (1973), and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Sadly, Parfrey suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 61 – the same age his father was when he died.

Monty: Stymie Beard

Beard played one of the guests at James’s “celebration” party; he had one line: “Florida, I couldn’t be happier if it was MY wife who got a job!” You can read more about Beard in the post on the first episode of the series.

Other stuff:

Although this was the third episode filmed, it was actually the first one to air.

This is the first episode that makes a reference to Florida’s weight (a running gag that lasted for too long, in my opinion). James gives Florida a hug from behind and remarks, “Gorgeous hunk o’ woman here.” Florida laughingly replies, “I don’t know about the gorgeous, but I’m sure a lot o’ hunk.”

There isn’t an overabundance of lines or situations in Good Times that are cringe-worthy to me, but they do exist and this episode contains the first. James says that he married Florida because she was pregnant but adds that he’s only joking. Michael and J.J. are seated at the dining table nearby and J.J. says, “You mean y’all waited for the preacher to say the word before y’all had me? Don’t spread it around – my friends will never stop jiving me!” So, in other words, most of the families in the community are single-parent households, with an absentee father and children born, as they say, out of wedlock – and this is so much the norm that J.J.’s friends would make fun of him if they knew that his parents were married before he was born. This is patently insulting – and not the last time this type of characterization will come up in the series.

This episode contains numerous references to J.J. being a thief, which was first mentioned in the pilot. J.J. is heading downstairs to get the family’s mail, and Florida warns him not to take any mail that doesn’t belong to them. “I don’t take things, Mama,” J.J. says, “I find them.” Florida admonishes him, saying that God didn’t intend for man to steal, and J.J. asks, “Then how come he gave us more pockets than hands?” Later, when James learns how much he’ll make if he’s accepted into the apprentice program, J.J. remarks, “We gonna be so rich and have so much money, I won’t have to find my art supplies no more!” Before the party begins, Florida sends .J.J. and Thelma to buy potato chips from the local store, and when Thelma asks why she has to go along, Florida explains: “I want the potato chips bought, not found.” And upon his return with the chips, J.J. remarks that he’d been in the store numerous times, but “that’s the first time I’ve ever been involved with a cash transaction.” (Ugh. Talk about overkill!)

We learn in this episode that James dropped out of school after the sixth grade, and that he served in the Korean War. We also learn the name of Willona’s ex-husband: Alvin. That name would change later in the series, though.

Florida is back to conversing with God in this episode – after James leaves for his interview, she looks heavenward and expresses her thanks to the Lord, adding, “In my heart I always knew you was the biggest equal opportunity employer of them all!”

The next episode: God’s Business is Good Business . . .

Season One, Episode Two: Black Jesus (February 15, 1974)

“This is what the brothers need.”

The first season’s second episode opens with J.J. painting a picture of a street hustler, Sweet Daddy Williams. When Michael finds a painting in the closet that J.J. calls “Black Jesus,” he suggests that J.J. enter it in a local art show, but J.J. insists on entering the Sweet Daddy painting. Undaunted, and thrilled to have unearthed something that “the brothers need,” Michael replaces his mother’s portrait of the more traditional depiction of Jesus. Florida wants to take the painting down when she learns that J.J. used the neighborhood wino as his model, but the family suddenly experiences a streak of good luck, which James attributes to the presence of Black Jesus. When J.J. returns from the art show with the news that eight other artists had also painted Sweet Daddy Williams, Michael again stresses that he should submit Black Jesus as his entry. James strenuously objects, citing the luck he has received because of the painting, but he reverses his stance after ribbing from Thelma causes J.J. to doubt his talent. Instead, James removes the painting from the wall and, despite his own reluctance, insists that J.J. enter it in the show.

“B.J. is on a roll!”

With this, only the show’s second episode, Good Times turned out a well-rounded installment that managed to be both funny and heartwarming. An especially amusing run comes when James arrives home after receiving an unexpected refund from the Internal Revenue Service. Florida grows more and more frustrated as one person after another enters the apartment with sudden good news, from Thelma excitedly sharing the news that “THE” Larry Williams has invited her to an Issac Hayes concert, to a local numbers runner showing up to tell James that his number hit. Even Willona bursts in because she’s just learned that her annoying date from the previous night owns a gas station. (“Now I can say those three little words,” she gloats. “Fill ‘er up!”) Later, when Thelma belittles J.J. for his lack of ability, Michael defends him at every turn – his hero worship for his big brother is touching and sweet.

Pop Culture Connections

Black History Week

Carter G. Woodson: The Father of Black History Month.

Michael reminds J.J. about the beginning of Black History Week. This event was first created in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, designated for the second week of February. At that time, it was called “Negro History Week.” Nearly 50 years later, Black educators and the Black United Students organization at Kent State University proposed that the event be expanded to the entire month of February; the first Black History Month celebration took place at Kent State in 1970. In 1976, President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month during the commemoration of the U.S. Bicentennial. At the time that this episode was filmed, in 1974, the celebration was still Black History Week.

Space Lab

When Florida sees that Michael has replaced her portrait of Jesus with J.J.’s Black Jesus painting, she tells him, “I hope the space lab is out of the way, because I am just about to go into orbit!” She was likely referring to Skylab, the first U.S. space station, which was launched into orbit in May 1973 and returned to Earth in February 1974.

Muhammad Speaks

As part of his campaign to keep Black Jesus on display, Michael tells his mother that Jesus was Black, and that he read about it in Muhammad Speaks. Founded in 1960, Muhammad Speaks was the official publication of the Nation of Islam and contained both current events and news of interest to the Black community. The publication was renamed after Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975.

Fly Me

When Willona makes her entrance in the episode, she flings open the Evans’s front door and exclaims, “I’m Willona – fly me!” This is a reference to the popular Fly Me ad campaign by National Airlines, started in 1972. In TV spots and magazine ads, smiling, scantily clad stewardesses (as flight attendants were called back then) named Linda or Judy or Donna targeted their male travelers, inviting them to “fly them.” (Click here to check out one of the TV spots.) Although the campaign was hugely successful for the now-defunct airlines, it led to protests by stewardesses that eventually resulted in an improvement in workplace conditions.

Jet Magazine Centerfold

J.J. jokes that there were so many paintings of Sweet Daddy Williams at the art show that the hustler must be “this month’s Jet Magazine centerfold.” Jet was a weekly magazine published by Chicago’s John H. Johnson Publishing Company that focused on news, entertainment, sports, and politics related to the Black community. Billed as the “Weekly Negro News Magazine” and distinguished by its small 5 x 8 inch size, the magazine was also known for featuring a full-page feature known as “Beauty of the Week.” Also called the “Jet Centerfold,” this page featured a Black woman clad in a swimsuit, along with her name, profession, and interests. Jet has been published in a digital format only since 2014.

Guest Stars

Numbers Runner: Eric Monte

This episode featured only one guest star – the show’s co-creator Eric Monte. More about Monte in an upcoming post . . .

Other stuff:

When the episode opens, J.J. is not wearing his trademark blue demin hat. The hat doesn’t make its appearance until about halfway through the episode, when J.J. dons it to take his painting to the art show.

Eric Monte as the numbers runner.

Early in the episode, J.J. is looking for a tube of gold paint and blames Thelma for the missing item. Every time it’s missing, he tells her, she comes up with “a new pair of psychedelic dungarees.” I’m always struck by this line, because . . . who says “dungarees?” Unless you’re Tom Sawyer.

This episode contains the first references to Sweet Daddy Williams, a neighborhood loan shark, and Ned the Wino, the local drunk. These characters would both show up in the flesh later in the series, with Sweet Daddy played by Theodore Wilson and Ned the Wino played by Raymond Allen.

J.J. almost made it through the entire episode without uttering what would soon become his wildly popular trademark catchphrase – almost, but not quite. At the episode’s end, James tells J.J. to return his Black Jesus painting to the closet, and Florida allows it to stay on the wall: “This family can use all the help it can get,” she explains. And J.J.’s response? “Dy-no-mite!”

The next episode: Too Old Blues . . .

Good Times Trivia Trio No. 1

Marilyn and Alan Bergman, who wrote the lyrics for the Good Times theme song, were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1980.
Jimmie Walker’s denim hat was a mainstay in his wardrobe on the show for several seasons.
  • The theme song to Good Times was sung by Jim Gilstrap and Motown singer Blinky Williams with background vocals provided by a gospel choir. It was composed by Dave Grusin, with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The Bergmans were an acclaimed songwriting team who, during their careers, received four Emmys, three Oscars, and two Grammys, and were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In addition to Good Times, the Bergmans penned the lyrics for TV shows like Maude and Alice, and numerous films including The Way We Were, In The Heat of the Night and The Windmills of Your Mind, for the movie The Thomas Crown Affair. The Bergmans were married for more than 60 years, until Marilyn’s death in January 2022.
  • For several seasons of Good Times, beginning with the first episode, Jimmie Walker almost constantly wore a floppy denim hat. According to Walker’s memoir, he bought the hat before he auditioned for a role as a street hood in Badge 373, a 1974 film directed by Howard Koch and starring Robert Duvall. Walker purchased the hat thinking it would make him look “more urban, more street.” He got the part. (But his lines were dubbed by an actor who sounded “blacker!”)
Ralph Carter starred in Raisin with Joe Morton.
  • Laurence Fishburne was originally cast as the youngest Evans child, Michael, but the producers really wanted Ralph Carter, who had a contract committing him to Raisin on Broadway; for his role in the musical, Carter was nominated for the 1974 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. (Here’s a clip of Carter performing the number “Sidewalk Tree” at the 1974 Tony Awards, where he was introduced by Esther Rolle.) Fishburne had participated in two weeks of rehearsals with the Good Times cast when Norman Lear bought out Ralph Carter’s contract – which meant that Fishburne was out and Carter was in.

The Pilot: Getting Up the Rent (February 22, 1974)

The family’s foundation: Florida and James.

And so it begins . . .

The first characters introduced in the series are Thelma (Bern Nadette Stanis), who is cooking breakfast in the kitchen, and Michael (Ralph Carter), who enters the apartment after playing with a friend. (Incidentally, during his first-scene argument with his never-seen pal, Michael tells him, “You make me sick sometimes.” This struck me as such an authentic line – it’s something that I used to say as a child.)

With Thelma and Michael’s first few lines, the show sets up two long-running character traits: Thelma is not exactly a culinary whiz, and Michael is a pro-black, anti-establishment militant. In fact, the show economically illustrates these two characteristics when Michael, peering into Thelma’s pot on the stove, comments, “Black is beautiful, Thelma, but not when it’s oatmeal.” And their older brother, J.J. (Jimmie Walker), before he is even seen, is established by Thelma as a loafer (“Where’s that big string-bean brother of yours? He was supposed to help me set the table, make the beds, and clean up!”). The matriarch of the family, Florida (Esther Rolle), is recovering from a recent operation to have her appendix removed, we meet her husband James (John Amos) when he comes home after working all night, and Florida’s best friend and neighbor Willona (Ja’ Net DuBois) pops in to share the news about her latest date.

J.J. offers to sell his first painting to help pay the rent.

Written by the show’s co-creator Eric Monte, and directed by Donald McKayle and Perry Rosemond, the episode’s plot centers around an eviction notice that the family received for non-payment of rent; two previous notices were received during Florida’s hospital stay, and with the movers arriving to remove the contents of the apartment, the family is desperate to raise the money they need. Each of the family members tries different means of getting the money – Florida tries to sign up for welfare benefits, the children hatch a “department store hustle,” and James (against Florida’s wishes) uses his skills in shooting pool. Ultimately, James’s method is successful, but he pretends that a friend gave him the money – and Florida pretends that she doesn’t know the truth.

“Getting Up the Rent” was the first episode taped and was the actual series pilot, but it wasn’t aired first – that distinction went to “Too Old Blues.” Instead, “Getting Up the Rent” was the third episode to be broadcast.

The pilot was full of promise, and did an admirable job of establishing the personas of each of the main characters: strong, faith-filled Florida; proud, dedicated, and no-nonsense James; streetwise, artistically gifted J.J.; family-focused but sharp-tongued Thelma; budding militant Michael; and loyal, quick-with-a-quip Willona. I was never pleased with the depiction of J.J. as a hustling, “light-fingered Louie” but, to their credit, the producers/writers pivoted from this characterization after the first few episodes.

The family that stays together.

The episode brought the Evans’s poverty into sharp focus – it can’t get much worse than getting evicted from your home, and it’s made clear that James had the choice of paying for their shelter or paying for his wife’s life-saving operation. With James working two jobs and bringing home just six dollars after working all night, and the family keeping their savings in a shoe box, there’s no question about the family’s financial situation. But the pilot also managed to showcase the close-knit nature of the Evans family and the deep love and respect that existed between Florida and James. There was James’s tender reaction to Florida apologizing for the cost of her recent operation. And the children’s willingness to chip in their meager contributions to help with the rent. And Michael vehemently refusing to allow J.J. to sell his first painting (“The only way anyone gets this painting is over my dead body!). They were small but effective touches which helped established a foundation that would last throughout the run of the series. Finally, the cast demonstrated a unique and instant chemistry – they felt like a real family and fostered a feeling of audience affection and recognition from the very start.

Pop Culture Connections

A little more than a year after Thelma was seen reading an Ebony magazine in the show’s pilot, the cast appeared on the magazine’s cover.

Ebony Magazine

As Thelma is preparing the oatmeal in the first scene, she’s reading Ebony, a monthly magazine which covers entertainment, politics, fashion, and beauty that pertain to the Black community. The magazine was founded in 1945, ceased publication of the print format in 2019, and relaunched in a digital format in 2021.

Detroit Automobile Recall

After J.J. makes a crack about Thelma’s looks, she counters by telling him, “If you were born in Detroit, you would have been recalled for being dangerously ugly.” In 1973, the year before the series started, more than 3.7 million vehicles were recalled by General Motors, which is headquartered in Detroit. The vehicles, from the Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac lines, were recalled because stones from unpaved or gravel roads could get caught in the engine compartment, which could affect the driver’s ability to steer. At the end of 1973, another 22,000 cars from these four lines were recalled due to safety defects that could cause the rear wheels to lock.

President Richard Nixon

The family is facing a possible eviction, but Michael tells his mother that Monty – a friend of James’s who works for the administration of the projects – has assured the family that “everything would be okay.” Florida responds, “That’s the same Monty that said Nixon was going to be poor folks’ best friend.” At the time that the episode aired, Richard Nixon was the president of the United States. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, he would resign from office later that year, on August 9, 1974.

Marshall Field’s

Downtown Chicago, at Randolph and State Streets. You can see the famed clock from Marshall Field’s on the right.

J.J. concocts a scheme for he and his siblings to get the rent money by going to Marshall Field’s; Thelma will pretend to faint from malnourishment in the hopes that passersby will donate the needed funds. Marshall Field’s was a large, upscale department retailer in Chicago whose flagship store was located in the city’s downtown area. The store was founded in the 1800s and remained a Chicago staple until 2006, when it was taken over by Macy’s and renamed.

O.J. Simpson

James arrives home (and for some reason, knocks on the door instead of using his key), and grouses about the amount of time Florida takes to let him in. “If you wanted somebody fast,” Florida responds, “you should have married O.J. Simpson.” In December 1973, Simpson, a member of the Buffalo Bills football team, became the first National Football League (NFL) player to rush more than 2,000 yards in a single season. This would be the show’s first reference to Simpson, but not the last – which is always a bit jarring, given what would happen about 20 years hence.

Ain’t Got a Pot or a Window . . . “

Trying to help the family get the money for the rent, Willona takes Florida to the welfare office (that’s literally the sign on the door: WELFARE OFFICE), but James’s meager income is too high to qualify. Before they leave, they’re approached by a buffoon in a maroon velvet suit who tries to hit on them; Willona dismisses him by observing that he “ain’t got a pot or a window.” She’s referring to a popular saying that means a person is financially bereft; the entire expression is that the person doesn’t have “a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of.”

Running Jokes

I don’t take things – I FIND them . . .”

The pilot episode sets up J.J. as not only lazy, but also a thief. When Florida expresses concern about the overdue rent money, J.J. tells her that he has numerous ways of getting hold of the needed cash, and Florida insists that she doesn’t want him to steal. “I wouldn’t do that, Mama,” J.J. says. “I may just find seventy dollars.” This characterization would last only a few episodes.

“’Boy’ is a white racist word.”

“Don’t call me ‘boy.'”

The pilot also saw Michael’s first insistence that the word “boy” is a “white racist word.” He offers this nugget when Florida admonishes J.J. about stealing and adds, “I hope I’m coming through to you, boy.” Later in the episode, Michael gives the same rebuke to his father when James calls him a boy. This budding catchphrase for Michael didn’t last long, though. But there was a different catchphrase that was, well . . .

Dy-No-Mite!

J.J. used the exclamatory word in the first episode that would become his trademark and a popular catchphrase that would be forever associated with the show. He uses it to indicate his enthusiastic approval upon learning that his father plans to get the rent money by hustling pool games. J.J. would go on to use “Dy-No-Mite,” in one way or another, in every episode for the next few seasons. Every. Episode.

Guest Stars

Tom: Hal Williams

Halroy Candis Williams was born in Columbus, Ohio, on December 14, 1938, and started acting in local community theater. After working as a postal worker and a corrections officer, Williams moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s to pursue his acting career and signed on with the California Youth Authority to pay the bills while he went on auditions. Williams was able to devote his time to acting full time in 1970, when he landed roles in three TV productions: a TV movie and two series, Dan August and That Girl. Williams went on to play Officer “Smitty” Smith on the Sanford and Son TV series, Harley Foster on The Waltons, Sgt. Ted Ross on the film Private Benjamin (1980) and the subsequent TV series based on the movie, and Lester Jenkins on 227. As of this writing, he is still performing; his most recent appearance was earlier in 2022 in the TV series The Mayor. In this episode, Williams played Tom, one of the two men who arrive at the Evans apartment to remove their belongings.

Monty: Stymie Beard

Matthew “Stymie” Beard in his first of several Good Times appearances.

Matthew “Stymie” Beard played Monty, a friend of James’s. He was born in Los Angeles on New Year’s Day 1925, one of 14 children. After playing a few uncredited bit parts in movies like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927) and Showboat (1929), he was signed by Hal Roach at the age of five to appear in the Our Gang Comedies. Beard’s Our Gang name was originally Hercules, but director Robert McGowan changed it because Beard was known to “stymie” him by wandering around the lot. Beard reportedly was given his trademark bowler hat by comic actor Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame.

“Stymie” when he was in Our Gang.

He remained with Our Gang until, at age 10, he was too old, and he later appeared in small parts in such films as Captain Blood (1935), Jezebel (1938), and The Return of Frank James (1940). During his teen years, however, he developed a heroin habit and wound up spending a number of years in jail. He later got clean and sober and returned to acting in the 1970s on TV shows including Sanford and Son, Maude, and Different Strokes. Beard suffered a stroke a few days after his 56th birthday and died of pneumonia on January 8, 1981.

Eddie: Ernie Banks

Ernie Lee Banks played the other employee of the project who showed up to evict the Evans family. Banks was born in Franklin, Virginia, on April 3, 1935. His appearance on Good Times was his acting debut. Later that year, he was also seen in two blaxploitation movies from 1974: Black Godfather and Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes. He went on to appear in such films as Bulworth (1998); TV series including The Jeffersons, NYPD Blue, and ER; and the 1978 miniseries King, where he portrayed Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Banks also released a record in 1990 called Are You Ready to Be Loved? He died in his hometown of Franklin on August 13, 2006, at the age of 71.

Trivial Stuff

  • The Evans family lives on the 17th floor. (J.J. distributes the mail to his siblings and tells them he’s just been down 17 floors to get it.)
  • We learn that Michael plans to be a lawyer. He offers to give his father the two dollars he’s been saving for law school.
  • In order to get the money for the rent, James wins it by playing pool. He has his own pool cue, and it’s made clear that he used to “hustle” pool for money in the past. This is never referenced again in the series.
Florida talks to Jesus. (More on Jesus in the next episode. . .)
  • This episode contains a heavy emphasis on Florida’s spirituality, including Florida praying aloud, more than once, to her picture of Jesus on the wall.
  • J.J. is referred to as “James Junior” by both Thelma and Florida throughout the episode. After the pilot, he would be known only as J.J.
  • At the start of the episode, J.J.’s head was bare. But with about six minutes remaining, he was seen sporting the blue jean cap that would become a staple in his wardrobe over the next few seasons.

The next episode: Black Jesus . . .

The Cast: Esther Rolle

Periodically, I will shine the spotlight on each of the principal cast members of Good Times. Fittingly, I’m starting out with the matriarch of the family, played by Esther Rolle. The top-billed actress portrayed Florida Evans, wife of James (John Amos) and mother to James, Jr. (Jimmie Walker), Thelma (Bernadette Stanis), and Michael (Ralph Carter). She was on the show for five of its six seasons.

The actress of stage, screen, and TV was born Esther Elizabeth Rolle on November 8, 1920, in Pompano Beach, Florida, the 10th of 18 children of Bahamian immigrants Jonathan Rolle, a vegetable farmer, and his homemaker wife, Elizabeth. Jonathan’s talent for telling stories may have served as the inspiration for Rolle and her older siblings to start their own drama troupe, which performed around the state during the 1930s.

After Esther’s graduation from high school, she attended Spelman College (my alma mater!) in Atlanta for a year, then moved to New York, where her two older sisters were working to get their acting careers off the ground. (One of her sisters, Estelle Evans, would later appear as the housekeeper in To Kill a Mockingbird [1962], and the other, Rosanna Carter, would be seen in films like The Brother From Another Planet [1984] and She-Devil [1987]. Carter would also play a featured role in the first episode of Good Times’ second season, and Evans would play a small role in the seventh episode of season three.)

In New York, Rolle attended Hunter College, then transferred to The New School and, later, to Yale University in nearby New Haven. Although Rolle was more interested in writing than acting, one of her teachers suggested that she take drama classes and turn her talents toward the stage. To pay for her education and make ends meet, Rolle worked in the New York City garment district. She also joined the dance troupe run by African musician Asadata Dafora, remaining with the group for more than 10 years. (While she wasn’t performing, Rolle found time for a private life; in 1955, she married Oscar Robertson who, according to Internet sources, “pressed slacks in a dry cleaner.” They remained married until 1975.)

Rolle performed with the Shogola Oloba dance group for more than a decade.

In the 1960s, Rolle appeared in numerous stage productions as one of the original members of the Negro Ensemble Company; others in the company included Rosalind Cash, Moses Gunn, Denise Nicholas, and Clarice Taylor. Also during this period, Rolle made her big screen debut in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and later appeared in films including Nothing But a Man (1964), The Learning Tree (1969), and Cleopatra Jones (1973). She also continued her stage work, and in 1970, she was singled out in the Boston College newspaper, The Heights, as “especially striking” in a play by Jean Genet called The Blacks. The following year, she landed her first TV gig, on the ABC soaper One Life to Live, and in 1972, while appearing in Melvin Van Peebles’s play Don’t Play Us Cheap, she was asked to audition for the role of a maid, Florida Evans, on the CBS-TV show Maude. Rolle won the part, and a successful year later, she took on the starring role in the spinoff of Maude, Good Times. According to all sources, Lear originally wanted the character of Florida Evans to be the single mother of three children, but Rolle refused to sign on with the series unless her character had a husband. “I only took my part with provisions that Good Times would have a complete Black family – with a father image,” Rolle told Ebony magazine in 1978. “I had a good father. I wanted the characters to portray a family as mine did.”

Rolle in a Negro Ensemble production.

During the run of Good Times from 1974 to 1979, Rolle released an album called The Garden of My Mind (1975), on which she performed spoken word backed by gospel singers; portrayed Lady Macbeth in an off-Broadway version of Macbeth (1977); played a housekeeper in the TV movie Summer of My German Soldier (1978), earning an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie; and was featured in the made-for-TV movie I Know Where the Caged Bird Sings (1979). After Good Times ended, she continued dividing her performance time between stage, film, and TV, most notably the Bill Duke-directed TV adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun (1989), in which she played the family matriarch Lena Younger; Driving Miss Daisy (1989), where she was seen as a maid; Rosewood (1997), directed by John Singleton; the TV miniseries Scarlett (1994); and the Broadway production of Horowitz and Mrs. Washington, where she starred opposite Sam Levene.

In 1981, Rolle starred in the pilot for an NBC crime drama called Momma the Detective (also known as See China and Die, for some reason), where she played a housekeeper with a penchant for crime solving. Unfortunately, the series never materialized. (It’s a shame, too. I think this could have been another good part for Rolle – check out the pilot for yourself and see what you think.) She was even featured in a series of psychic hotline commercials during the late 1990s, which ended with her signature directive, “Tell them Esther sent you.” (That last one wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of her career, but hey – you do what you gotta do.) Off-screen, Rolle became the first woman to win the NAACP chairman’s Civil Rights Leadership Award in 1990, honored for raising the image of blacks through her work on the stage and in TV and movies. And the following year, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

One of Rolle’s last performances was in Down in the Delta (1998), directed by Maya Angelou. By now, her health had started to fail, and on November 17, 1998, Rolle died of complications from diabetes; she was buried at the Westview Community Cemetery in Pompano Beach. Even years after her death, however, she continues to be remembered and honored. In 2017, her life and career were spotlighted in an exhibit in her hometown of Pompano Beach, Florida, and in March 2022, the Broward County (Florida) African American Research Library and Cultural Center presented a stage production titled Head Above Water: The Life of Esther Rolle. (When Rolle died, she left her career memorabilia, including her Good Times scripts, to the library.) She may be gone, but she’ll never be forgotten.

Incidentally, Rolle had her share of conflicts with the producers and writers of Good Times (more on that in a later post), but near the end of her life, she still maintained positive memories of her experience and the impact of the series. “I loved Good Times,” she said in 1997. “Later it got to be not so much fun, but I loved what it did for others as much as for me. . . . I’m proud of that.”

My ‘Good Times’ Journey Begins . . .

I watch Good Times every day. Every single day. I’ve done it for years. I laugh at the same jokes in the same places, I make the same mental observations, I say the same dialogue along with the characters. I’m not claiming to be the biggest Good Times fan in the world – but I’ll wager that I’m up there in the top 10. So it was almost inevitable for me to devote a blog to this unforgettable show.

A situation comedy set in my hometown of Chicago, Illinois, Good Times premiered on February 8, 1974, and ran for six years on CBS-TV. I can’t say with certainty what it is about this show that captured and kept my fascination over all these decades – there are so many reasons. It shines a light on real-life issues, from teen pregnancy to drug use to crime. It showcases a variety of up-and-coming performers, including Debbie Allen, Rosalind Cash, Lou Gossett, and Philip Michael Thomas. It incorporates the pop culture of the day. And it’s well-written and legitimately funny. Beyond these tangible features, Good Times simply feels like family; these were people I knew.

The beginning: All in the Family.

Before Good Times, there were only a handful of television shows that featured black people. The 1950s gave us The Amos and Andy Show, Beulah, and The Jack Benny Program, and in the 1960s and early 1970s, there was Room 222, Julia, I Spy, Roll Out, The Flip Wilson Show, Sanford and Son, and The Bill Cosby Show (the one from the late 1960s where he played a physical education teacher named Chet Kincaid).

In 1971, television producer Norman Lear created All in the Family. Previously, Lear (a former writer for The Martin and Lewis Show, and director of two feature films) had created only one television show – a western called The Deputy featuring Henry Fonda that ran from 1959 to 1961. All in the Family starred Carroll O’Connor as rabid bigot Archie Bunker, and Jean Stapleton as Archie’s long-suffering wife. When it aired in January as a mid-season replacement show on CBS, it took a while for it to find its audience, but by the 1971-1972 season, it was a solid hit a near-instant hit. In September 1972, All in the Family saw its first-spinoff, Maude, starring Bea Arthur as Archie’s outspoken, liberal cousin-in-law. On Maude’s third episode, she hired a maid: Florida Evans (Esther Rolle). The popularity of this intelligent, fearless, slightly imperious, and often impertinent black character earned Rolle her own spinoff, Good Times, in 1974.

Maude hires Florida.

There were a few tweaks between Florida on Maude and Florida on Good Times. On Maude, Florida lived in New York with her husband, Henry (John Amos), who worked as a fireman, while the Evans family on Good Times lived in a housing project in Chicago, Florida’s husband’s name was James, and James often worked several jobs to make ends meet. On Florida’s first episode on Maude, there’s a reference to the two of them drinking a few martinis at lunch, but on Good Times, Florida doesn’t drink alcohol. And on Maude, Florida and Henry have been married for 24 years, but on Good Times, they celebrate their 20th anniversary.

Good Times was created by writer Eric Monte, who also wrote for such series as The Jeffersons and What’s Happening, as well as the screenplay for the film Cooley High (another production set in Chicago – Monte’s hometown), and Michael Evans, best known for portraying Lionel on All in the Family and, for several years, on another spinoff, The Jeffersons. Originally, the show was slated to be called The Black Family, with the family’s last name being Black. (Get it?) Later, the creators decided to change the last name of the family to Evans and they renamed the show Good Times.

Florida and the former Henry, now James.

The show was a hit from the start, and in its second season, it trounced its main competition, ABC’s Happy Days, knocking it out of the top 30 shows. In that season, Good Times climbed to number seven in the ratings. After the second season, though, ratings started to dip, and after Amos’s character was killed off at the end of the third season, things would never be the same.

This blog, Ain’t We Lucky We Got ‘Em’, is my love letter to Good Times. I will provide a look at each of the show’s 133 episodes, as well as delve into the pop culture of the 1970s, which is significantly interwoven throughout so many of the episodes. I’ll also periodically offer other features, including trivia quizzes, my favorite episodes, and more.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey.