When I was growing up, I watched way too much TV. I realize now that what I was seeing were the fading careers of once great actors/actresses, singers, dancers, comedy hams, and the like, many of whom first got their start in vaudeville. As a child, I was a bit confused about why these people seemed to be special or important — there was a sense of some kind of great past there, but what that past might be completely escaped me. Now that I’ve begun watching and listening to these performers in their prime, and learning something about the history of the period, I understand in a very different way what led them to be who they were on my television screen. For some of them, it was quite a fall — though they were probably happy enough for the money and the attention. (My favorite example of this is Barbara Stanwyck who is so wonderful — so daring, tough, dignified — in so many old movies, and who ends up as a stiff old bat on The Big Valley. Sigh.)
One of those people who made the rounds of talk shows, variety shows, the occasional dramatic shows, sit-coms, and even religious revivals was Ethel Waters. I had no clue until fairly recently who Ethel Waters really was. I thought she was just like a nice old grandma in a mammy scarf, because this was nearly always the way she was presented. (This was the 60’s & 70’s, by the way — I’m not THAT old.) Here’s a picture of that Ethel:
Even at that, though, she seemed more interesting than Pearl Bailey, another TV staple. Ethel Waters was…blunt. Funny. A little bit strange. She was one of the ones I didn’t understand. (There were a slew of such people — performers who seemed to be hiding something, something darker and more complicated than I was allowed to know, like those double entendre jokes so popular in sanitized TV land.)
I know now that Ethel Waters was an artist. A real blues singer who evolved into a musical theater performer and later into a movie actress. Maybe her voice wasn’t as great as so many I could name (Ma Rainey, Billie, Bessie, others), but there is a certain quality to it that is arresting. She’s a storyteller who compels the listener to pay attention, as if she’s sitting there across from you telling you a truth. She’s also plain fun. If it’s on record, it’s easy to imagine the whole act — the costume, the dance, the wide eyes and the sly wink, the wide and beautiful smile. She had style. Her earliest work, which is what interests me most, is light, sprightly, lilting, and, well, almost sweet. Sweet from a woman who was by most accounts not exactly sugar and sun, and for good reason. Ethel Waters was a survivor, a fighter who grew up the red-light district in Chester, Pennsylvania and did whatever it took to escape.
It’s hard for me to see her playing maids, mammies, cotton pickers, and, again, maids. It had to have been far harder for her to do it. No wonder she was pissed off. Luckily, she still has a few special moments on film that transcend these roles and give me a sense of what Ethel must have been like when she wasn’t having to kowtow. (And even stuck in a horrible role, she still was lovely, transcendent.) One of my favorites is from 1929, Birmingham Bertha. More to come.