Ethel Smith: Lady Fingers

Backwards is how I learned about the career of popular organist Ethel Smith (Ethel Goldsmith, 1902-1996). She had a bit part in Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker (1970), which I wrote about here. Come to find out, she was a wildly popular musician during the late ’40s and early ’50s, where her greatest fame ought to lie.

Smith was native to Pittsburgh; she majored in piano at Carnegie, and mastered several languages (French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian). A job as the house organist at the St. Regis hotel in New York got her radio work in the late 1930s. In 1941 she got a four week engagement at the Copacabana Casino in Rio de Janeiro. The time spent in Latin America was transformative. Thereafter she would ride the wave of popularity that went with the Latin music craze in the U.S. In 1943, she became the arranger and accompanist on the radio show Your Hit Parade, backing such major vocalists as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, and this brought her national recognation. Her appearance in the 1944 film Bathing Beauty with Esther Williams and Red Skelton, led to her having a #14 hit with the instrumental “Tico Tico”. She recorded dozens of LP records over the ensuing decades, full of the kind of generic “themed” music (cha cha, Hawaiian, Christmas) people used to love to play at parties. In 1945 she married movie star Ralph Bellamy, a liaison that only last three years. And Smith and her music were featured in the movies Twiced Blessed (1945), George White’s Scandals (1945), Cuban Pete (1946, with Desi Arnaz), Easy to Wed (1946), and Walt Disney’s Melody Time (1948). In the late 40s and early ’50s she performed on TV variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Milton Berle Show, Cavalcade of Stars, and The Saturday Night Revue with Jack Carter. In 1951 she had a #16 hit with “Down Yonder”.

For years, Smith toured with a night club act featuring her organ playing and patter. In her later years, she acted in live theatre, and in films like the aforemention Pigeons (1970), as well as C’mon Live a Little (1967) with Bobby Vee, Ken Osmond, and Patsy Kelly, and the split screen horrror movie Wicked Wicked (1973). She lived long enough to see her favorite instrument come into vogue once more as a rock instrument in the ’60s and ’70s….and then fade away again as synthesizers took over in the ’80s. She was living in Palm Beach, Florida when she died in 1996. The Online Archive of California has her papers.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.