By Branden Hampton
Before there was a Shonda Rhimes or “Scandal,” there was someone in Hollywood that paved the way.
Christine Houston, a Chicago native, is the creator of the hit 1980s sitcom “227” that aired on NBC from 1985 until 1990. She is the first African-American woman to receive a “created by” credit in primetime television.
Houston now teaches screenwriting at Chicago State University and is also an alumni of the school. She enrolled at CSU to finish her bachelor’s degree in 2003 and graduated in 2006.
“I get up every morning knowing that I have an opportunity to affect someone and be an inspiration in at least one, hopefully more than one, of these students’ lives,” Houston said.
Marsha Johnson, a student in Houston’s screenwriting class, explained what inspired her to take Houston’s class.
“To be able to sit right here in class and learn so much from her because of her history and where she has been. Also, for her to take the time out and still be in her 70s..and still come to class everyday,” Johnson said. “It’s inspiring to me and she motivates me to want to be the best I can be and to write.”
Write what you know
Houston said that she really wanted to be an actress and once she enrolled at Kennedy-King College, she got involved with the theater department. During her first year at Kennedy-King, Houston auditioned and landed the lead role in a play called “Five on the Black Hand Side.”
Houston noted that when students asked what her major was, she lied and told them journalism — she didn’t want them to know she aspired to be an actress. The students encouraged her to write a play and enter it into the Norman Lear and Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting contests.
“My English teacher taught us, if you want to be successful with the first thing that you write, then write about something you know,” Houston said.
Houston wrote about the mother of one of her close friends, who lived in the same apartment building she lived in growing up: 227 E. 48th Street.
“You know, it came to me that my girlfriend’s mother was very funny. She sat down on a crate and talked about everybody in the building and she knew everybody’s business,” Houston said. “I don’t know about being a comedy writer, because I just think everything in life has its funny moments. Everything.”
Houston’s play, “Two Twenty Seven,” premiered at Kennedy-King College in 1977 and was a huge hit. The play went on to earn Houston first place in the Norman Lear Playwriting contest and second place in the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting contest. (Norman Lear is a renowned writer and television producer. Lorraine Hansberry was a renowned African-American playwright.)
The first place prize for the Norman Lear Playwriting contest took Houston to Hollywood for two weeks, where she was able to choose to write an episode on one of Norman Lear’s television shows. Houston chose “The Jeffersons” and was invited into a pitch meeting with the executive producer and was told to “go home back to Chicago, write the script and then send it to them.”
Obstacles in Hollywood
Houston wrote the episode entitled “George Who?” on “The Jeffersons,” which aired on television in 1978.
Even though the episode aired on TV, Houston said, “not one single thing in my script was in that show. I got credit for it, but all their writers rewrote everything I wrote. Everything.”
The sitcom “The Jeffersons” ran on television from 1975-1985.
Houston started working in Chicago afterwards, but wanted to come back to Hollywood. She called Norman Lear, who sent her a one-way ticket to Hollywood and hired Houston to write story ideas for one of his shows every six weeks.
“When they wouldn’t hire me on [one] show, he would switch me to another show. I loved ‘All in the Family,’ but their executive producer had won Emmys without a black writer on his show and especially a black woman,” Houston said. “Norman paid me a check every week I went to his office. Six weeks at a time.”
How “227” was picked up by Hollywood
In 1983, San Jose State University premiered the “Two Twenty Seven” play because the head of the Kennedy-King theater department sent the script all over the United States, according to Houston.
Houston said that eventually Marla Gibbs, one of the stars from the “The Jeffersons,” picked up Houston’s play and premiered it at her theater. The play was a huge success and Gibbs invited different networks to see it.
“NBC saw it first and jumped on it right away. She took out an option so that I wouldn’t take it anywhere while she shopped it around and she got the network interested and they bought it,” Houston said.
NBC adapted Houston’s play “Two Twenty Seven” into the hit television series “227.”
NAACP Image Award
Gibbs won an NAACP Image Award for Best Actress for “227,” while Houston received the NAACP Image Award for Playwriting, according to Houston. When asked to describe winning the award at the awards ceremony, Houston said, ”I wasn’t there. Marla accepted the award for me and I never got it. I don’t have it as of today.”
Houston mentioned that she wasn’t able to attend the awards ceremony because she had just left Los Angeles and couldn’t turn around to make it back.
When asked what’s one thing that people should remember her by, Houston said, “My blonde hair, because I tell [people] blondes have more fun. I want them to remember that I believe no matter what your age is, if you’re still on the planet, still able to walk, talk and breathe, you should do something with that gift.”