Ethelind Terry: The Original Rio Rita

Philadelphia-born stage and screen star Ethelind Terry (1899-1984) was renowned for her physical beauty and her lovely singing voice, which briefly catapulted her to the front ranks of American performers.

As “Rio Rita” 

Terry started out in in a supporting role in the 1920 Broadway show Honeydew, produced by Joe Weber, which played for a year. This led to a featured turn in the London production of Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue (1922) where she danced and cavorted with the likes of Renie Riano and Solly Ward. Portions of the show were filmed and shown in British cinemas in 1923. Next came starring parts in two hit Jazz Age Broadway musicals, on which her legend now rests: Kid Boots (1923-25) with Eddie Cantor, and Rio Rita (1927-28) with Wheeler and Woolsey. In 1928 she married Chicago real estate tycoon Benedict Bogeaus.

With Terry’s star rising, Hollywood naturally beckoned. Unfortunately Bebe Daniels got her role in the 1929 screen version of Rio Rita, but Terry was cast to great fanfare in the hilariously downbeat MGM musical Lord Byron of Broadway (1930), supported by the likes of Cliff Edwards and Benny Rubin. The movie, about a guy who turns his friend’s death into a hit musical, was panned by critics and avoided at the box office. Terry and co-star, the equally forgotten Charles Kaley, were called “lacklustre”, and neither was ever given a second chance to prove what they could do. Terry returned to Broadway to star as the title character in the Shubert show Nina Rosa, which played Broadway for four months and then went to London. This was her last major chance to shine.

Meantime of course the Great Depression had hit. Bogeaus had lost his $18 million fortune. A decade and a half later he would become a successful independent Hollywood producer, but by then he and Terry were long quits: the pair divorced in 1931. The early 1930s were a terrible time on Broadway. Very few shows were produced, and most of them fared badly. Work, even for stars such as Terry, became scarce. In 1933 she was back on movie screens, but only because MGM had excerpted parts of Lord Byron of Broadway for the short Nertsery Rhymes starring Ted Healy and the Three Stooges. In 1935 she toured Australia with a show called The Flame of Desire. In 1937 she was fifth-billed in the Tex Ritter western musical B movie Arizona Days with Syd Saylor and William Faversham. Second billing went to White Flash, Ritter’s horse.

After this we have only a couple of scraps on information. In 1942 she married minor star Dick Purcell, soon to become the silver screen’s first Captain America. The couple were divorced three months later, Purcell claiming “It is no longer possible to live with her without seriously jeopardizing my health and well-being.” This sounds damning. Was she violent? A heedless party-hound? But the reality may have less incriminating. Purcell died in 1944 of a bad heart at age 38. So what he said about Terry could have been literally true without being dramatically excessive. It sounds like his medical condition required an extraordinary amount of peace and quiet. It might have been that even a small amount of excitement caused by Terry was too much. OR, she could well have been a hellion. It might explain the mysterious evoration of her career.

In 1943, one last little blip of publicity. A photograph of Terry (above) was published in newspapers of her doing her bit for the war effort by working in an aircraft plant. This was extremely common at the time. In most cases it meant a fall from show business heights, glossed over with a positive spin. One thing I note about the photo is that she is still a glamour-puss. If she kept a hand in show business after 1937, whether it be in nightclubs, regional theatre, or radio, I’ve not yet found any references. She was living in Fort Lauderdale when she died in 1984

To learn more about show biz history please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,

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