Thursday, August 27, 2015

Ethel Waters: Her eye was on the sparrow and on the prize

Only 300 pages into Heat Wave, Donald Bogle's engrossing (500-page) portrait of Ethel Waters (1896 -- 1977), the Chester-born star of stage (As Thousands Cheer, Mamba's Daughters, The Member of the Wedding) and screen (Cabin in the Sky, Pinky) and disc ("Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe," "Am I Blue?"), and I have to say, whether your interest is show business or Philadelphia history, read this book about the entertainer Lena Horne called "the mother of us all."

Ethel Waters: Her eye was on the sparrow and on the prize

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Only 300 pages into Heat Wave, Donald Bogle's engrossing (500-page) portrait of Ethel Waters (1896 -- 1977),  the Chester-born star of stage (As Thousands Cheer, Mamba's Daughters, The Member of the Wedding) and screen (Cabin in the Sky, Pinky) and disc ("Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe," "Am I Blue?"), and I have to say, whether your interest is show business or Philadelphia history, read this book about the entertainer Lena Horne called "the mother of us all."

It was Waters who first recorded "Stormy Weather," Horne's signature song. It was Waters who was the first African-American to have her own TV show, Beulah (1950. (For many black viewers this was a dubious milestone as she played a subservient maid who cheerfully solves the problems of a white family.

I was taken by the descriptions of Waters' nomadic life in Camden, Chester and Philadelphia. For about 15 months, Bogle writes, she and her family lived in a back alley on South Philadelphia's Clifton Street, then in a red-light district where the young Ethel earned pennies by running errands for prostitutes and pimps. Bogle writes that she briefly attended an unspecified Friends School in Philadelphia and a multiracial Catholic school.

In vaudeville she memorably sang -- and danced -- "Shake That Thing" and also shared the bill with Bessie Smith. Josephine Baker was her understudy during the early 1920s at New York's Plantation Club. Miss Ethel Waters, as she called herself, liked to say, even when she watched divas of a later age, that she could still show those b-----s."

I am immoderately fond of Waters. My favorite moment of her on film is singing "Taking a Chance on Love" in Cabin in the Sky, starry-eyed when Eddie "Rochester" Anderson gives her a wringer washer. You?

 

  

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Carrie Rickey Film Critic
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