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
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."
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.
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.
June 1939 The Ethel Waters Show
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
in Black, 1931; As Thousands Cheer, 1933; At Home
Abroad, 1935; Mamba's Daughters, 1939; Cabin in the
Eye is on the Sparrow, With Charles Samuels. Garden City, New
York: Doubleday, 1951.
Bogle, Donald. Brown Sugar--Eighty Years of America's Black Female
Superstars. Prospect, Kentucky: Harmony Books, 1980.
J. Fred. Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since
Ethnicity, and Television