From poverty and marriage at age 13, Ethel Waters was to go on to earn one of the highest salaries in vaudeville ($3000-4000 a week), becoming a huge star of stage and screen.
Waters got her feet wet on the TOBA circuit, debuting at Baltimore’s Lincoln Theatre at age 17. By the mid-twenties, she was a star of black vaudeville, and other opportunities started to open up. In 1925 she had a double breakthrough, inking a contract to record for Columbia Records, and securing a booking to succeed Florence Mills at the Plantation Club. In 1927 she starred in the Broadway show Africana at the Daly Theatre. In that year, too, she crossed over into mainstream vaudeville, debuting at the New York Palace. By the following year, she was headlining at the Chicago Palace. In 1930, she starred in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds with Mantan Moreland and Buck and Bubbles. In 1933 she introduced the song Lena Horne was later to become famous for “Stormy Weather”, at the Cotton Club. That year she also made the short Rufus Jones for President featuring a pint-sized Sammy Davis, Jr. A star of radio and live performance throughout the 30s and 40s, she also principal roles in the films Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Pinky (1949) . She was in both stage and screen versions of Carson McCuller’s Member of the Wedding (1950 and 1952, respectively). For the last two decades or so of her life, she would only sing spirituals, and criss-crossed the country with evangelist Billy Graham, paving her way for her inevitable passage to Glory in 1977.
Here she is performing “Am I Blue” from the 1929 picture On With the Show:
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.