LaWanda Page (October 19, 1920 – September 14, 2002), born Alberta Peal, was an American actress and comedienne best known for her portrayal of Aunt Esther in the 1970s TV sitcom Sanford and Son.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Page was raised in St. Louis, Missouri. She began her career in show business working small nightclubs, billed as "The Bronze Goddess of Fire," an act which included her eating fire and lighting cigarettes with her fingertips. She performed the cigarette feat on an episode of Sanford and Son, in which Fred held a circus in his front yard.
LaWanda Page and Redd Foxx were very close friends from the time they were pre-teen age. They attended school and grew up together in St. Louis. Later on, they both entered the field of comedy separately and performed stageacts. Page later recorded several live comedy albums for the Laff Records label in the late 1960s and early 1970s under the LaWanda stage name. One release, a gold-selling album called Watch it, Sucka!, was titled after one of her Aunt Esther character's catchphrases to capitalize on her newfound TV fame. During her tenure as a stand-up comic, which lasted all the way to the 1990s, she was often called The Queen of Comedy, or in some mainstream circles, The Black Queen of Comedy. Other than the expletive-free Sane Advice album, released two years after the run of Sanford and Son, most of Page's albums and stand-up material were raunchy in nature.
On Sanford and Son, the character Aunt Esther was the sister of Fred Sanford's late wife Elizabeth. Before getting the role, Page had already been performing her comedy routine in nightclubs in St. Louis and then Los Angeles for several years. She was beginning to get out of show business because she was moving back to St. Louis to take care of her ailing mother. Foxx, a stand-up comedian himself for several years, was offered a television sitcom back in L.A. When the show was being cast, he told one of the show's producers about Page. The producer had heard of her before as he himself had previously caught her act. Foxx telephoned Page in St. Louis and asked her to read for the role of Aunt Esther. Page came back and auditioned for the role and was offered the part. However, before any taping began, producers noticed during rehearsals that Page was unfamiliar with the ins-and-outs of producing a television sitcom; she had been more accustomed to performing in nightclubs. One of Sanford and Son's producers stated to Foxx that he will need to fire Page and hold auditions again for the Aunt Esther role so that taping may began. Foxx insisted Page play the part and he threatened to walk away from the show if she was let go. The producers stuck with Page, who would go on to become one of the most famous television personalities of the 1970s.
The Aunt Esther character was a combination of a devout churchgoer and a tough-as-nails realist. Esther would state whatever was on her mind, and she was very loving to her nephew Lamont. She often sparred with Fred over both the state of Fred's soul and the lack of his success, resulting in them trading barbs. Although the show was Foxx's vehicle, the strong portrayal of the Aunt Esther character by Page allowed her to hold her own against Sanford. The character of Esther was in direct contrast to the raunchy, expletive-filled material of Page's stand-up comedy act and record albums.
Page also appeared on several episodes of Dean Martin's "Celebrity Roasts," and over the next two decades occasionally guest-starred in episodes of other popular television shows, including Amen, Martin, 227, Family Matters, and Diff'rent Strokes. In the early 1990s she appeared on several tracks of the debut album by RuPaul entitled Supermodel of the World, most notably the hit song Supermodel (You Better Work). She also appeared in several music videos from the album. Shortly before her death she appeared in a series of comical Church's Chicken television commercials featuring the catchphrase "Gotta love it!" Among her movie credits are an appearance in the Steve Martin film My Blue Heaven; as an extremely foul-mouthed clown in Bobcat Goldthwait's 1991 comedy Shakes the Clown; a cameo appearance in the hit movie Friday, stealing the opening scene with a salty one-liner; and a role in the 'hood parody film Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood as the overbearing mother of aging gangsta "Old School."
Page died of complications from diabetes on September 14, 2002. She is interred in an outdoor crypt at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.
Her daughter, the evangelist Clara Estella Roberta Johnson, died on June 4, 2006, in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 69.