WATERS, ETHEL

U.S. Actor

Ethel Waters, one of the most influential jazz and blues singers of her time, popularised many song classics including "Stormy Weather". Waters was also the first African-American woman to be given equal billing with white stars in Broadway shows, and to play leading roles in Hollywood films. Once she had established herself as one of America's highest paid entertainers she demanded, and won, dramatic roles. Single-handedly Waters shattered the myth that African-American women could perform only as singers. In the early 1950s, for example, she played a leading role in the stage and screen versions of Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding. Ethel played a Southern mammy, but demonstrated with a complex and moving performance that it was possible to destroy the one-dimensional Aunt Jemima image of African American women in American theater and cinema.

In a career that spanned almost sixty years, there were few openings for an African-American woman of her class, talent and ability. She appeared on television as early as 1939 when she made two experimental programmes for NBC: The Ethel Waters Show and Mamba's Daughters. But it was her regular role as the devoted, cheerful maid in ABC's popular situation comedy Beulah (1950-52) that established her as one of the first African-American stars of the small screen.

Waters' dramatic roles on television were also stereotyped. Throughout the 1950s she made appearances in such series as Favorite Playhouse, Climax, General Electric Theater, Playwrights '56 and Matinee Theater. Without exception, Waters was typecast as a faithful mammy or suffering mother. In 1961 she gave a memorable performance in a Route 66 episode, "Good Night, Sweet Blues," as a dying blues singer whose last wish is to be reunited with her old jazz band. Consequently Ethel became the first black actress nominated for an Emmy award. She later appeared in The Great Adventure ("Go Down Moses"), with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee in 1963; Daniel Boone ("Mamma Cooper") in 1970; and Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law ("Run, Carol, Run") in 1972. But, says African-American film and television historian Donald Bogle in Blacks in American Films and Television (1988): "Waters' later TV appearances lack the vitality of her great performances (she has little to work with in these programs and must rely on her inner resources and sense of self to get by), but they are part of her evolving image: now she's the weathered, ailing, grand old woman of film, whose talents are greater than the projects with which she's involved."

In the late 1950s ill-health forced Waters into semi- retirement. A deeply religious woman, most of her public appearances were restricted to Billy Graham's rallies. She died in 1977 at the age of 80.

-Stephen Bourne


Ethel Waters

ETHEL WATERS. Born 31 October 1896 in Chester, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. Married: 1) Merritt Pernsley, c.1910; 2) Clyde Matthews, c.1928. Worked numerous maid, dishwasher, and waitressing jobs, 1903-1917; sang and toured vaudeville circuit, 1917-1930s; appeared in numerous theatrical productions, 1919-56; appeared in numerous films, 1929-63; appeared in numerous television programs, including the series Beulah, 1950-52; worked for Billy Graham Crusade from the late 1950s. Recipient: New York Drama Critics Award for Performance in A Member of the Wedding, 1950; U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp, 1994. Died in Chatsworth, California, 1 September 1977.

TELEVISION SERIES

1950-52 Beulah

TELEVISION SPECIALS (selection)

14 June 1939 The Ethel Waters Show

FILMS

On With the Show, 1929; Rufus Jones for President, 1933; Bubblin Over, 1934; Tales of Manhattan, 1941; Cairo, 1942; Stage Door Canteen, 1943; Cabin in the Sky, 1943; Pinky, 1950; Member of the Wedding, 1952; Carib Gold, 1955; The Sound and the Fury, 1959

STAGE

Rhapsody in Black, 1931; As Thousands Cheer, 1933; At Home Abroad, 1935; Mamba's Daughters, 1939; Cabin in the Sky, 1940-41

PUBLICATIONS

His Eye is on the Sparrow, With Charles Samuels. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1951.

FURTHER READING

Bogle, Donald. Brown Sugar--Eighty Years of America's Black Female Superstars. Prospect, Kentucky: Harmony Books, 1980.

MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1983.

 

See also Beulah; Racism, Ethnicity, and Television