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Growing up at 227 E. 48th St., Christine Houston says she never wanted to be a journalist. She wanted to be an actress, but when people asked, she told them that she was a journalism major because she was afraid to admit her passion for being on the stage.
“When I was a little girl, they didn’t have television until I was about 15. 1948, my family was the first family to get a television in the building at 227 E. 48th St.” She says growing up in Chicago, she had a great childhood.
Upon graduating from high school, Houston enlisted into the Air Force, where she says there weren’t many black women at all.
“Out of my squadron there we 75 women and there were 5 black. At that time we called ourselves black.”
It was there that Houston had her first encounter of racism, as many of the white enlisted personnel had never been around blacks.
“They made racial slurs and remarks and they just didn’t realize that black people were human just like everybody else.”
But, she says that she never, at any point, was going to give up.
Houston says that she has been a student all of her life. In 1973 she enrolled at Kennedy-King College and was destined to prove to her three sons that you are never too old to learn.
As a wife, mother and holding down a full-time job, she knew it wouldn’t be easy. But, she also knew that nothing in life was. This move proved to be one of the most rewarding of the many decisions she has made affecting her future.
As a student at Kennedy-King College, Houston was then challenged to enter a playwriting contest. There hailed “Two Twenty-Seven”, a play about her childhood growing up at 227 E. 48th St.
“I remember an instructor telling me if you wanna be successful in the first thing you ever write, write about something you know about.”
Houston knew all too well about growing up in Chicago. The play won that initial contest and went on to win several others, including the coveted Norman Lear Playwriting award.
The prize from Norman Lear was an all expenses paid trip to Los Angeles and an opportunity to write a television episode for one of his six running sitcoms. Ms. Houston chose to write an episode for “The Jeffersons”.
Norman Lear also sponsored Houston in a five-week writer’s workshop retreat held on the campus of the Mary Baldwin College in Stanton, Virginia. Following the workshop, there were readings of the writer’s plays.
Houston says that all of the writers, actors and even the audience were all white, with the exception of herself, one other writer and four black actors.
“I couldn’t believe four black and sixteen white actors would perform my staged reading,” she says.
Upon Houston’s return to Chicago, “Two Twenty-Seven” had gained tons of notoriety and continued to sweep up awards. Although her family was in Chicago, she knew that L.A. was where she needed to be. She reached out to Norman Lear and back to L.A. she went.
“Norman provided me with a six-week contract writing story ideas for several of his hit television shows including, “All In The Family”, “Different Strokes” and “Sanford and Son”.”
Eventually, Houston submitted her story ideas to the executive producers of the various shows and realized that there was a reason she wasn’t getting the positive feedback that she had hoped for.
“These shows had won Emmy Awards and were highly rated without using the talents of a black, migrant inexperienced, wife and mother from Chicago.” But, again, she never thought of giving up.
After years of setbacks, negotiations, trials and tribulations, in 1985 “Two Twenty-Seven” was adapted to TV and became NBC’s hit television series “227”.
Houston received a check for the purchase of the TV and film rights. Her close friend, Marla Gibbs, the feisty maid from “The Jeffersons,” would also star in the series.
They began to hire writers, some that Houston had been in a black writer’s organization with. But, she says they also hired young Caucasian editors, fresh out of college, who knew nothing about black lifestyles.
When asked were the black writers treated differently? Houston says yes and not only were they treated differently, but that the whites also made more money than the other, more experienced, black writers.
“I thought it was very unnerving for me to see that they could have a black show and they could not resist putting white people in it. But there were several white shows with no black people.”
Black writers started to complain and only then did studios start to sprinkle blacks into white shows.
Today, Houston writes with a universal spin and tries to write about things that all races and nationalities have to deal with. This is exactly what she teaches as a screenwriting professor at Chicago State University.
Houston knows one thing for sure, “I am going to stay involved in other young people’s lives to help them reach their goals in the field. All the things I know, I will share with students. You’re never too late and you’re never too old. It isn’t over til’ it’s over.”