LaWanda Page was born on October 19, 1920 in Cleveland, Ohio, but was raised in St. Louis, Missouri. She began her show business career working small nightclubs billed as "The Bronze Goddess of Fire," an act which included Page eating fire and lighting cigarettes with her fingertips. She performed the cigarette feat on an episode of Sanford and Son titled "The Greatest Show in Watts" in Season 5 of the series, in which Fred Sanford held a circus in his front yard. On "Sanford and Son," she played Esther Anderson—better known to audiences as Aunt Esther—the older sister of Elisabeth Sanford, the mother of her nephew Lamont Sanford and the late wife of Lamont's father Fred G. Sanford.
After paying dues on the club circuit, where she shared stages with noted comedians such as Foxx and Richard Pryor, Page moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s where she became a member of the comedy group Skillet, Leroy & Co. (Skillet was Ernest "Skillet" Mayhand, born March 1, 1916 in Ohio, died May 12, 2007; Leroy was Leroy Daniels, born Wilbert LeRoy Daniel, November 28, 1928 in Oklahoma, died December 11, 1993.) In Los Angeles, Page started honing the feisty approach to comedy that would make her famous.
LaWanda Page and Redd Foxx, who portrayed Fred Sanford, were very close friends from the time they were pre-teens, having attended school and growing up together in St. Louis. Eventually, both entered the field of comedy separately and performed their own stage acts. During her tenure as a stand-up comic, a career she continued into the 1990s, she was often billed as "The Queen of Comedy" or "The Black Queen of Comedy".
Page recorded several live comedy albums for the Laff Records label in the late 1960s and early 1970s under her LaWanda Page stage name. Other than the relatively clean Sane Advice album, released two years after the run of Sanford and Son, Page's albums and stand-up material was raunchy blue comedy in nature. She was one of the few women who performed extended spoken word pieces in the black signifying or toasting tradition.
One release, a gold-selling album called Watch It, Sucker!, was titled after one of her Aunt Esther character's catchphrases in order to capitalize on her newfound television fame.
On Sanford and Son, Aunt Esther was the sister of Fred Sanford's late wife Elizabeth. Page had been performing her comedy routine in nightclubs in St. Louis and then Los Angeles for several years, but had planned to leave show business to move back to St. Louis to take care of her ailing mother. When Redd Foxx was offered a sitcom in Los Angeles, he brought his childhood friend Page to the attention to one of the show's producers, who was already familiar with Page and her act. Foxx subsequently asked Page to read for the role of Aunt Esther; she auditioned and was offered the role. However, prior to taping, producers became concerned when Page, whose experience was limited primarily to nightclub stages, seemed to have difficulty working in a sitcom format. Eventually, one of Sanford and Son's producers told Foxx that Page would need to be fired and that another actor would need to be cast before the show could begin taping. Foxx responded by insisting that Page keep the part, even threatening to walk away from the show if Page were fired. The producers relented, and Page's Aunt Esther went on to become one of the most popular TV sitcom characters of the 1970s.
Page's Aunt Esther was a combination of devout churchgoer and tough-as-nails realist, unafraid to state whatever was on her mind. While her relationship with Foxx's character Fred Sanford was usually confrontational, she betrayed a tender side through her love of her nephew Lamont. Common issues between brother- and sister-in-law were his lack of business success and his lukewarm religious faith. Sometimes, primarily because of their shared love for Lamont and the late Elizabeth, the two adversaries managed to find common ground. Although "Sanford and Son" was clearly Foxx's vehicle, Page's Aunt Esther could hold her own against the show's star. (Ironically, the church-going Esther was a great contrast to the raunchy, expletive-filled material of Page's live act and records.)
In 1977 Page appeared in an episode of The Love Boat entitled "Oh Dale", alongside Sherman Hemsley. Page also appeared on several episodes of The Dean Martin 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. She appeared on Circus Of The Stars as a fire eater.
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 appearances in Zapped! (1982), Good-bye, Cruel World (1983), Mausoleum (1983), the Steve Martin film My Blue Heaven (1990), as an extremely foul-mouthed clown in Bobcat Goldthwait's 1991 comedy Shakes the Clown, CB4 (1993), a cameo appearance in the 1995 movie Friday, stealing the opening scene with a one-liner, Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996), and a recurring role on the 1990s TV sitcom Martin.
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.Mutha Is Half a Word (1971)
Watch It, Sucker! (1972)
Back Door Daddy (1972; featuring Skillet & Leroy)
Preach On Sister, Preach On! (1973)
Pipe Layin' Dan (1973)
Sane Advice (1979)