For this reporter, Ruth Etting is the first of the Bland Bombshells, representing the advent of legions of non-descript performers who were to inhabit American popular culture in the 1940s and 50s. Her saving grace is a voice that is to die for, warm, pleasant and likable, and, on record at least, that is all that matters. She sounded like, and looked like, the girl next door, which of course is the origin of her vaudeville handle. The essence of vaudeville prior to this, however, had been the colorful, individual character. Costumed, distinctive, and, yes, mannered. Posh or earthy, the mere mention of the name conjured up a personality: Nora Bayes, Eva Tanguay, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Beatrice Lillie…to name just a few. Henceforth, it was to become an industry where a pretty girl could get up onstage, smile ingratiatingly, and just sing. She might have the best voice in the world…but without that indispensable persona, we would forget about her the instant she walked off the stage. She was disposable.
This seems like a lot of heavy freight to lay at Ruth Etting’s feet, and Ms. Etting, wherever you are, I apologize. By all accounts she had no great designs on stardom, but would have been happy to continue on in the career she studied for in the late teens at the Chicago Art Institute: costume design. She started singing to earn a little money and soon became the principal project of one Martin “Moe the Gimp” Snyder, a Chicago gangster who became her manager and husband in 1922. (What is it with girl singers and these gangsters, anyway?) She became huge in Chicago before ever setting for in New York, playing the best vaudeville and nightclub jobs, performing on local radio, and starting to cut disks. Her Columbia hits included “It All Depends On You” “Everybody Loves My Baby” “Mean to Me”,and many others.
Her New York debut was a 1927 job fronting Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra at the Paramount Theatre. In the 1927 Ziegfeld Follies she introduced another hit “Shaking the Blues Away”. The following year she appeared in both Eddie Cantor’s Whoopie! and Ed Wynn’s Simple Simon. While continuing to appear on stage, she went into films in the thirties, such as Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals (1933), Wheeler and Woolsey’s Hips Hips Hooray (1934), Gift of Gab (34) and 30 shorts for Paramount and Warner Brothers.
In 1936, she retired, further proof that she never had the mania for stardom to begin with. The following year divorced her husband/manager for her piano player Myrl Alderman – who soon found himself shot full of holes. You shouldn’t oughtta cross Moe the Gimp. This juicy story was made into a 1954 film, called Love Me or Leave Me starring Doris Day and James Cagney (for once, intelligent casting in a Hollywood bio-pic).
[Note: in addition to being Miss Etting’s birthday today, it is also the birthday of “fourth Stooge” Fred Sanborn. Check out the movie Soup to Nuts, which in addition to being entertaining, is a major revelation. We get to enjoy Ted Healy along with Moe, Larry and Shemp…and a fourth Stooge, Fred Sanborn who is a sort of Harpo-like figure, silent (but for unheard whispers), weaving in and out of the plot doing purely visual shtick. We should have seen more of him!]
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.