A Year: Day to Day Men: 31st of October, Solar Year 2018

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

October 31, 1896 was the birthdate of American actress and singer Ethel Walters.

Ethel Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, growing up in extreme poverty. At the age of thirteen in 1909, she was already working as a chambermaid in a Philadelphia hotel. Later that year, Waters sang in public for the first time at a local Philadelphia night club. She started singing professionally in 1913, billing herself as “Sweet Mama Stringbean”, in Baltimore, Maryland, clubs. It was in Baltimore that she became the first woman to sing W.C Hardy’s classic “Saint Louis Blues”.

Ethel Waters professional career as a singer rose rapidly; so she decided to move to New York City. In 1925, she appeared at the Plantation Club in Harlem, where the response to her voice led to performances on Broadway. She appeared in the all-black revue “Africana”, and started dividing her time between the stage, nightclubs, and eventually movies. In 1930 Waters was on the Broadway stage again in the revival of the popular 1924 musical “Blackbirds”, followed by a starring role in the 1925 “Rhapsody in Black”.

In 1933 Waters appeared with Marilyn Miller, one of the most popular American musical comedy actress of the 1920s, in Irving Berlin’s musical “As Thousands Cheer”. This was Waters’s first departure from shows with all-black casts. Her rendition of “Heat Wave” in that show linked the song permanently to her. Considered one of the great blues singers, Ethel Waters also performed and recorded with such jazz greats as Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Several composers wrote songs especially for her, and she was particularly identified with the songs “Dinah” and “Stormy Weather.”

Waters’s first straight dramatic role was in the 1939 production of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s “Mamba’s Daughters” which the Heywards wrote specifically for her. The show ran initially for 162 performances and again in 1940 for 17 more performances at the Broadway Theater. Later in 1940, Waters spent a season on Broadway in the hit musical “Cabin in the Sky”; she also appeared in the 1943 film version with lyrics by John Latouche.

Probably Waters’s greatest dramatic success was in the 1950 stage version of Carson McCullers’s “The Member of the Wedding”, a performance for which she won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. She also starred in the 1952 movie version with Julie Harris and Brandon De Wilde. Among Waters’s other films are the 1942 musical comedy “Cairo”; “Pinky”, a 1949 race-drama film; and the 1959 drama film“The Sound and the Fury”.

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