Edna Mae Harris: From Harlem to Hollywood

Harlem-born Edna Mae Harris (1910-1997) was one of the top stars of so-called race films in the 1930s, as well as a Broadway performer, and supporting player in Hollywood productions. The daughter of a pugilist, Harris grew up a short distance from the Lafayette Theatre, and taught to sing and dance by Ethel Waters. From 1929 through 1933 she performed on the top black vaudeville circuit, the Theatre Owners Booking Association. Her Broadway debut was in the original 1930 production of Green Pastures, later reprising the role on Broadway in 1935 and in the 1936 Hollywood film. From 1933 through 1938 she married to Edward Randolph (I have not yet learned whether he was related to Lillian Randolph and Amanda Randolph — it’s tempting, right?)

She had supporting roles in the Hollywood films Private Number (1936), Fury (1936), Bullets or Ballots (1936), The Garden of Allah (1936), and Stolen Paradise (1940). Her race films include the Joe Louis bio-pic Spirit of Youth (1938), Paradise in Harlem (1939), Sunday Sinners (1940). Murder on Lenox Avenue (1941), and Legs Ain’t No Good (1942). She starred in the Oscar Micheaux pix Lying Lips (1939), and The Notorious Elinor Lee (1940),

In the ’40s she returned to Broadway for the shows Good Neighbor (1941), Run, Little Chillun (1943), and A Long Way from Home (1948). In between films and Broadway shows and afterward Harris performed on radio and with big bands like that of Noble Sissle. Not long before her death she was one of the commentators in Midnight Ramble (1994), a documentary about race films.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.