Born October 31, 1896 in Chester, Pennsylvania as the result of the rape of her 15-year-mother Louise Anderson by her 18-year-old father, pianist John Waters, Ethel Waters was raised in poverty by her grandmother, Sally Anderson who worked as a housemaid, along with two aunts and an uncle, her mother having married another man shortly after her birth.
Waters grew to almost 5 feet 10 inches in her teens. She married at the age of 13, but her husband was abusive, and she soon left the marriage and became a maid in a Philadelphia hotel, working for $4.75 per week. On her 17th birthday, she attended a costume party at a nightclub on Juniper Street. Persuaded to sing two songs, she impressed the audience to the point of being offered professional work at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore. She earned ten dollars per week, but her managers cheated her out of the tips her admirers threw on the stage.
After that, Waters toured the black vaudeville circuit. Despite her early success, she fell on hard times and joined a carnival, traveling in freight cars, and eventually reaching Chicago. She then found herself in Atlanta, where she worked in the same club as Bessie Smith who demanded that Waters not compete in singing blues opposite her. Waters conceded and sang ballads and popular songs, moving to Harlem in 1919. She joined the Harlem Renaissance and bean recording in 1921. Her 1925 recording of “Dinah” made her a star.
Waters made her Broadway debut in the 1927 musical, Africana and her film debut in the 1929 musical, On with the Show! starring Betty Compson and Arthur Lake. In 1933, she starred with seven-year-old Sammy Davis, Jr. in the short, Rufus Jones for President in which she played his mother. That same year she recorded “Stormy Weather” and appeared with Clifton Webb, Marilyn Miller and Helen Broderick in Irving Berlin’s Broadway musical, As Thousands Cheer. Subsequent Broadway productions included the 1935 Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz musical, At Home Abroad and the 1940 Vernon Duke, John La Touche musical, Cabin in the Sky in which she introduced “Taking a Chance on Love”.
Hollywood beckoned in earnest in 1942 with Cairo in which she was third billed behind Jeanette MacDonald and Robert Young and Tales of Manhattan in which she was given equal billing with Charles Boyer, Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Robeson and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. In 1943, she starred in the film version of Cabin in the Sky with Anderson and Lena Horne, directed by Vincente Minnelli with additional songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. The song “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe”, which she introduced, was nominated for an Oscar. That same year she played herself in the all-star Stage Door Canteen.
Waters next appeared on screen as Jeanne Crain’s grandmother in 1949’s Pinky for which she was nominated for an Oscar as were Crain and Ethel Barrymore. In 1950, she won a New York Drama Critics award for her performance in Broadway’s The Member of the Wedding. She then took over as the star of TV’s Beulah from Hattie McDaniel who had to withdraw due to a prognosis of terminal cancer. She subsequently repeated her stage role in the 1952 film version of The Member of the Wedding.
Ethel Waters’ last appearance on film was in 1959’s The Sound and the Fury, but she was a frequent visitor to TV variety shows through 1976. She died on September 1, 1977 at 80.
CABIN IN THE SKY (1943), directed by Vincent Minnelli
Minnelli made his illustrious film debut with this film version of the 1940 Broadway musical by Vernon Duke and John La Touche with additional songs by Duke and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, the lyricist of The Wizard of Oz and later Finian’s Rainbow. Waters was heavenly to listen to, especially when singing “Taking a Chance on Love” which she introduced on Broadway and the newly composed “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe” which received and Oscar nomination for Best Song. Bill Bailey, who joins Waters and Rochester on “Taking a Chance on Love” was Pearl Bailey’s then more famous brother.
PINKY (1949), directed by Elia Kazan
John Ford was the original director of Pinky. He quit the production largely because of disagreements with Waters. Daryl F. Zanuck said Ford “hated that old woman.” Kazan, who replaced Ford, said she was a “truly odd combination of old-fashioned religiosity and free-flowing hatred.” Nevertheless, she was brilliant in the part of the illiterate laundress and grandmother of the light-skinned nurse who returns home after passing for white in the North. Ethel Barrymore as Waters’ white friend and neighbor is equally brilliant. All three actresses were nominated for Oscars with the two Ethels nominated in support.
BEULAH (1950-1951), directed by Various Artists
The long-running radio program that starred Hattie McDaniel as the black maid who dispenses wisdom to the family who employs her was supposed to have been a TV series with McDaniel who had to quit, due to failing health after filming six episodes. Those episodes were replaced with ones with Waters who wonderful in the role for the first year of the series. She quit after the first season because she found the series demeaning to black people. She was replaced by Louise Beavers who had no such compunction. The McDaniel episodes as well as the ones with Waters and Beavers were later shown when the series went into syndication.
THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING (1952), directed by Fred Zinnemann
Waters was top-billed in the 1950 Broadway play over Julie Harris and Brandon de Wilde as the housekeeper who provides companionship and counsel to a 12-year-old tomboy and the precocious younger boy next door. She received a New York Drama Critics award for her performance. When the film was made two years later, rising star Harris, 26 at the time of filming, was the one singled out for awards recognition receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Actress even though she was not very believable as a 12-year-old. Waters and de Wilde were and are much more memorable in the film.
THE SOUND AND THE FURY (1959), directed by Martin Ritt
William Faulkner was a Nobel prize-winning author turned acclaimed screenwriter whose novels often proved difficult to adapt. This one, despite a screenplay by the usually competent Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. and direction by Martin Ritt, was among the worst of them. Yul Brynner and Joanne Woodward are totally miscast in the leads, but Margaret Leighton as Woodward’s mother and Waters as the family housekeeper bring a measure of dignity to their roles. The cast includes Stuart Whitman, Jack Warden, Francoise Rosay, John Beal and Albert Dekker. It was Waters’ last film.
ETHEL WATERS AND OSCAR
- Pinky (1949) – nominated – Best Supporting Actress