Happy 115th Birthday, Louise Beavers!
The delightful Louise Beavers was born 115 years ago today in Cincinnati, Ohio. Beavers made the very most of the extremely limited opportunities Hollywood offered African American performers in her time, but we can’t help but mourn for what might have been, for Beavers and for so many other black actresses and actors. Here are 10 LB Did-You-Knows:
- Beavers’ father, a school teacher, moved the family to Pasadena, California, when Louise was 11 years ago. While Beavers attended Pasadena High School, her mother, a voice teacher, trained her daughter for the concert stage, but Beavers instead joined an all-female minstrel company called “Lady Minstrels” and spent time in vaudeville. She also worked as a dressing room attendant for a photographer, a nurse, and as a personal maid to silent film star Leatrice Joy.
- A Central Casting Bureau talent scout named Charles Butler saw Beavers perform and urged her to try for a movie role. Beavers was hesitant due to the typically derogatory portrayal of African Americans in pictures at the time, but she was finally persuaded and won a role in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927).
- Though Beavers broke into movies near the end of the silent era, she smoothly made the transition into talkies, making more than 75 film appearances by 1935—she appeared in twenty pictures in 1933 alone! Though Beavers’ roles were (sadly) limited to the sort of maid, mammy and slave characters that black actresses were restricted to in those days, she brought a sense of wisdom, warmth and gentleness to them that allowed her to rise above their inherently cardboard, stereotypical nature.
- In 1934, Beavers was given a breakout role in Imitation of Life opposite Claudette Colbert. In that film, she plays Delilah Johnson, a single mother who agrees to serve as a housekeeper for a white widow named Bea Pullman (Colbert) in exchange for room and board for her and her daughter. Delilah and Bea team to open a pancake recipe (using Delilah’s secret recipe) and together become very wealthy, though their respective relationships with their daughters become strained. Beavers was billed fourth for the film, but anyone who’s seen the picture knows that she deserved equal billing with Ms. Colbert, not only for the size and importance of her role but for the memorable and moving performance she delivered.
- After that moment in the spotlight, though, Beavers returned to playing the secondary characters she’d always played, bringing humanity to them but leaving us 21st century movie buffs bemoaning what might have been if had Beavers been allowed to build on her wonderful work in Imitation of Life.
- Beavers was just a year older than Fredi Washington, who played her daughter in Imitation of Life.
- Like other black performers of the day, Beavers sometimes came in for criticism from the African-American community for accepting the kind of derogatory roles Hollywood offered. She defended herself and performers like her, saying, “I am only playing the parts. I don’t live them,” but as she became more successful and better known, she began to speak out more about Hollywood’s poor treatment of black performers.
- Even after finding success in movies, Beavers continued to work in live theatre, taking part in annual tours of twenty weeks’ duration.
- Beavers was the third of three actresses to portray Beulah Brown on the comedic television program The Beulah Show, which began as a radio show before moving to TV. Ethel Waters originated the role on television, followed by Hattie McDaniel, whose health forced her to drop out after just six episodes, at which point Beavers came in as her replacement. The show came in for criticism for its stereotypical characters, but it was the first sitcom to star an African-American performer.
- Among the more than 150 features and shorts in which Beavers appeared are Our Blushing Brides (1930), What Price Hollywood? (1932), 42nd Street (1933), The Story of Temple Drake (1933), Bombshell (1933), Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Made for Each Other (1939), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) and The Jackie Robinson Story (1950).
Happy birthday, Louise Beavers, wherever you may be!
Happy 120th Birthday, Ethel Waters!
Singer and actress Ethel Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, 120 years ago today. Here are 10 EW Did-You-Knows:
- Ethel’s mother was a teenage rape victim, and hers was a difficult childhood. She was raised in poverty and she never lived anywhere more than 15 months. “I never was a child,” she would say later. “I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family.”
- Waters married at 13, but the man she married abused her and she left him to become a maid at a hotel in Philadelphia. When she was 17, she sang two songs at a costume party at a nightclub and was such a hit that she was offered work performing at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore.
- That engagement launched Waters’ career on the black vaudeville circuit. In Atlanta, she found herself working at the same club as blues legend Bessie Smith, who insisted that Waters not perform the same kind of music she was, so during their time on the same bill, Smith sang the blues and Waters stuck to popular songs.
- In 1919, Waters made her way to Harlem, debuting at a black club there called Edmond’s Cellar.
- In 1921, Waters became the fifth black woman to make a record on the small Cardinal label. Before long, she moved up to Black Swan Records, where she recorded with Fletcher Henderson. In 1925, she signed with Columbia records, for whom she recorded the hit song, Dinah (in 1998, that recording was given the Grammy Hall of Fame Award, one of three such awards Waters’ 1920s recordings received).
- As her star continued to rise, Waters began to play “white” vaudevile on the Keith Circuit, which paid more and increased her fame.
- In 1929, Waters introduced the Harry Akst song, Am I Blue? It was a huge hit for her and became her signature song.
- In the early 1930s, Waters starred at the Cotton Club and appeared in Irving Berlin’s hit musical revue As Thousands Cheer; she was the first black woman to appear in an otherwise all-white show.
- In 1933, Waters was, thanks to her continuing nightclub work, her stage success and her national radio program, the highest paid performer on Broadway.
- In the 1940s, Waters’ career was on the wane and she experienced legal and health problems. In 1951, she wrote her autobiography, His Eye Is on the Sparrow with Charles Samuels. A later memoir, To Me, It’s Wonderful, established her birth year as 1896; she’d been lying about her age for some time in order to get a group insurance policy.
- In her later years, Waters began to focus on gospel music and spirituals, often touring with evangelist Billy Graham. In 1983, she was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
Happy birthday, Ethel Waters, wherever you may be!
Happy 115th Birthday, Annette Hanshaw!
Cladrite sweetheart Annette Hanshaw was born Catherine Annette Hanshaw 115 years ago in Manhattan. For us, she’s the gold standard for songbirds of the late 1920s and early ’30s; we think she’s keen. Here are 10 AH Did-You-Knows:
- Hanshaw came from something of a show biz family. Her father, Frank Wayne Hanshaw, loved the business so much he ran off to join the circus (he thought better of it and returned), and her aunt, Nellie McCoy, and cousin, Bob “Uke” Hanshaw, were popular and successful vaudeville performers.
- Hanshaw grew up loving to sing—she performed for the guests at a series of very small hotels her father operated for a time and demo’d sheet music at a Mount Kisco music shop owned by her family—but she dreamed of making her mark as a painter, not a singer, even studying at the National School of Design for a year.
- Hanshaw made her first professional recordings in 1926, recording a demo of six popular songs of the day for the Pathé label before recording her first commercial recordings—Black Bottom and Six Feet of Papa—in September of that year. She recorded for many labels and under many pseudonyms, including Gay Ellis, Dot Dare, and Patsy Young. She also sang in variety of styles, delivering sentimental songs in a more straightforward fashion and, when appropriate, jazzing peppy songs up a bit. She even did Helen Kane impersonations (on whom Betty Boop‘s vocal stylings were clearly based) on a number of recordings.
- Hanshaw began to appear on the radio in 1929 and soon was a huge hit. As the twenties gave way to the thirties, she began to sing with Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, and from 1932-34, she was featured on the very popular program Maxwell House Show Boat, which aired every Thursday evening, and she later did 39 weeks on Camel Caravan. Her success on radio did little to alleviate her anxiety about performing over the airwaves. “I’m so afraid I’ll fail, not sing my best,” she said before agreeing to appear on radio. “Suppose I should have to cough. Suppose I didn’t get just the right pitch. And all those people listening.”
- At the height of her fame, Hanshaw was known as “The Personality Girl” and her trademark was ending each recorded performance with a winsome “That’s all!”
- Hanshaw loved singing but was not at all confident of her voice and was, at best, a reluctant star. In her later years, when asked to assess the recordings she’d made during her prime, she had not a positive word to offer. She was her own worst critic, and it may have been this tendency that led to her (extremely) premature exit from show business. “I disliked all of [my records] intensely,” she said during a 1972 interview with radio host Jack Cullen. “I was most unhappy when they were released. I just often cried because I thought they were so poor, mostly because of my work, but a great deal, I suppose, because of the recording.”
- Hanshaw’s favorites singers of the day were Marion Harris, Sophie Tucker, Blossom Seeley, Ruth Etting, Ethel Waters, and Connee Boswell.
- Hanshaw composed two songs—Sweet One and Till Your Happiness Comes Along—but it’s unclear if either was ever published or recorded.
- Uncomfortable in the spotlight, Hanshaw retired from show business in 1937 at the age of 36. She considered a return in the 1950s, recording a pair of private demos to test the waters, but, alas, no comeback was forthcoming.
- The 2008 animated film Sita Sings the Blues, which retells the Indian epic poem The Ramayana from Sita’s perspective, used Annette Hanshaw’s recordings as its soundtrack. In 2010, her 1929 recording of Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home was used in the video game BioShock 2.
Happy birthday, dear Annette, wherever you may be!
A brief but influential existence
Have you ever heard of the Black Swan record label? Neither had we (and it’s not something we’re proud of, given we’re all about pop and jazz of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s), but we were intrigued by Michael Pollak’s recent story in the New York Times and felt the Cladrite community might find it of interest, too.
Black Swan was the first major black-owned record company. It managed to remain in operation for just a couple of years, but its influence was wide-ranging and long-lived.
Black Swan was founded by one Harry H. Pace, a banking and insurance worker and disciple of W. E. B. Du Bois, who had previously paired with W. C. Handy in forming the Pace & Handy Music Company, a music publishing concern.
Nine years later, Pace made history when he parted with Handy and started Black Swan Records. Many of the established labels at the time would not record African-American performers, but Pace was not satisfied with merely rectifying that injustice, he set out to demonstrate the breadth of the talent in the African-American community, to, as Pollak writes in the Times, “challenge white stereotypes by recording not just comic and blues songs, but also sacred and operatic music and serious ballads.”
Black Swan would have achieved a certain degree of importance if only because the great Fletcher Henderson played piano on many of the label’s early recordings, but Black Swan rose to greater heights in signing Ethel Waters. Her blues recordings made a splash, and a vaudeville tour featuring Black Swan artists managed to make the label what Pollak terms “a national one.”
But Black Swan’s success led more established labels to realize what they’d been missing in not recording black artists, and in an effort to elevate the nation’s image of African-American performers, the label opted not to sign blues singer Bessie Smith to a contract.
That was a costly mistake.
The label did introduce the likes of Waters, Henderson, Trixie Smith and Alberta Hunter, but after only two years, it was relegated to the dustbin of American music history. But during its brief existence, it had, as Pollak notes, awakened the music business, an impact that is still being felt today and for which we are all the richer.
An OTR Christmas, Day 2
Today’s broadcast from Christmases Past is an episode of Command Performance, a program produced by the War Department for the enjoyment of our men and women serving overseas. The service men and women requested which stars and songs they’d like to have featured, and the producers of the show did their best to accommodate them.
This program, which originally aired on Christmas Eve, 1942, features Bob Hope as emcee and a variety of guests, including, among others, Ethel Waters, Bing Crosby, and Dinah Shore, all performing popular hits of the day.
It’s a lot of fun, and we hope you’ll enjoy it.
You think that money is everything
And yet it’s anybody’s spring.
Go make a fortune, become a king
And still it’s anybody’s spring.
And if you flash a bank roll
Do you suppose the brook would care?
Or that a rose would say
“There goes a millionaire!”
It’s more than diamonds around a ring
Because it’s anybody’s spring.
You may be born with the silver spoon
And yet it’s anybody’s moon
You couldn’t buy a ticket
To hear the first robin sing
It’s free because
It’s anybody’s spring.
Music by James Van Heusen, lyrics by Johnny Burke, 1944