Ethel Shutta: The Little Girl with the Big Voice

The long career of Ethel Shutta (1896-1976) has several distinct phases: 1) childhood in vaudeville; 2) young womanhood on Broadway; 3) middle aged woman on radio and singing with big bands; 4) old age on television; 5) old age Broadway revival. All told her career spanned around 75 years!

She started out in a family vaudeville with her mom Augusta and her little brother Jack (whom we wrote about here) called variously the The Three Shuttas and The Peewee Minstrels. As a child performer she was billed as “The Little Girl with the Big Voice”.

As a solo performer, she made her Broadway debut in The Passing Show of 1922, followed by Marjorie (1924), Louie the 14th (1925), the Ziegfeld Follies of 1925, and Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee! (1928-29). She reprised her role in the 1930 film version of Whoopee!, her only movie.

In 1926 she married band leader George Olsen, fronting his orchestra as singer in nightclubs and ballrooms and on records and radio for over over a decade. They appeared on The Jack Benny Canada Dry Radio Show (1933), Nestle Chocolateers (1933), and The Oldsmobile Program (1933). In 1934 Shutta was voted the second most popular radio singer, after Annette Hanshaw. In 1939 she divorced Olsen, marrying sportswriter George Kirksey the following year. During this period she continued to sing professionally, and was in one Broadway show, My Dear Public (1943), with Nanette Fabray and Jesse White.

In 1957, Shutta divorced Kirksey and plunged into a new phase of her career: television. She did several episodes of Wagon Train (1958-60), and also The George Jessel Show (1959), Cimarron City (1959), M Squad (1959), and Overland Trail (1960).

In 1963 she returned to Broadway for the musical Jennie, with Mary Martin. This was followed several years later by what Shutta is best remembered for today, her turn as Hattie Walker in the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies (1971-72), where she performed the number “Broadway Baby”. At the age of 74 she had finally achieved immortality.

In 1974, Shutta appeared in a health-themed kids variety show called Feelin’ Good produced by Children’s Television Workshop, hosted by Dick Cavett. This was her final credit.

To learn more about vaudeville, whre Ethel Shutta got her start please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous