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Black History NJ: Flip Wilson

Clerow “Flip” Wilson, Jr. was born in Jersey City, NJ on December 8, 1933. His family frequently faced major financial difficulties, due to the combination of being raised in a big family during the Great Depression – Wilson was one of ten children – and his father’s difficulty maintaining a steady job. In 1941, Wilson’s mother walked out on the family, and his father was unable to take care of the children by himself, so he placed them all in foster homes.

When Wilson was 16, after spending time in several foster homes, he lied about his age and joined the United States Air Force. His fellow servicemen loved his humor and outgoing personality, and even asked him to tour various military bases to cheer up other servicemen. Wilson’s barracks mates were the ones who gave him the nickname “Flip,” saying he always “flipped out,” so he soon adopted it as his stage name. After Wilson was discharged from the U.S. Air Force in 1954, he began work as a bellhop at the Manor Plaza Hotel in San Francisco, California.

Early Success

Wilson’s first taste of stardom came from the drunk character he played at the Plaza’s nightclub. In fact, the act became so popular, he performed it throughout many of California’s clubs. You could find him throughout the 1960s at the Apollo Theater in Harlem; as well as on shows like Laugh-In, The Tonight Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show.

Flip WilsonIn February of 1970, Wilson released a comedy album titled The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress for which he won a Grammy Award that same year. But it was his “Columbus” routine from the Cowboys and Colored People album that got the attention of Hollywood executives; on September 17, 1970, The Flip Wilson Show aired for the first time on NBC. The hour-long variety show lasted four strong seasons, providing fans with original content and hilarious bits every week. The series even won two Emmy Awards. After it ended, Wilson made appearances on a number of other television series. Then, on November 25, 1998, the beloved comedian died of liver cancer at the age of 64.

A talented and adored comic, Flip Wilson loved entertaining his friends, acquaintances, and fans; as such, he became one of the most influential individuals from the state of New Jersey.

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