The Thelma Carpenter Centennial

Born 100 years ago today, the great singer/actress/performer Thelma Carpenter (1922-1997).

Brooklyn born Carpenter got her start as a teenager, singing on local radio, and winning the Amateur Night at the Apollo at age 16 (1938). Throughout the 40s, she played venues large and small, ranging from intimate 52nd Street cabarets to large presentation houses like The Palace, Loew’s State, the Capitol Theatre and the Strand. She sang with the bands of Teddy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie, appearing with the latter band in the 1943 Olsen and Johnson movie Crazy House. She was the regular singer on Eddie Cantor’s radio show 1945-46 (the first person of color to land such an engagement). Then came the Broadway shows Memphis Bound (1946) with Bill Robinson and Inside U.S.A. (1948) with Bea Lillie, as well as the 1952 revival of Shuffle Along. She played Spivy’s Roof, Chez Bricktop, and headlined the 1949 British movie It happened in Leicester Square.

Naturally in the ’50s she did lots of television, such as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Steve Allen Show, Cavalcade of Stars with Jackie Gleason, et al. She returned to Broadway in Ankles Aweigh (1955). In 1969 she was Pearl Bailey’s understudy in Hello, Dolly! and went on for her more than 100 times.

In 1970 Carpenter was a regular cast member on the all-black tv sitcom version of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, followed by the TV movies Call Her Mom (1972) with Connie Stevens and The Devil’s Daughter (1973) with Shelley Winters. She was the Good Witch “Miss One” in the all-star 1978 screen version of The Wiz (perhaps her best known role), and was also added authenticity and magic to Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984). She toured with road productions of musicals through much of her last years, and appeared on shows like The Love Boat and Cosby (her final credit in 1996).

Much here, and more (including recordings of course), to be celebrated!

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