Tuesday, November 24, 2015

(Feb. 12, 1872 - May 2, 1958)

In her autobiography, she gives an eyewitness account of the struggle for national women's suffrage including marching down Pennsylvania Avenue with 5,000 women.  As we approach the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote, she deserves to be remembered for her activism.
The following excerpt from A Woman of Parts: Memories of a Life on the Stage demonstrates her role in the chain of events.

      "Gertrude Foster Brown, in a quiet way, had become more and more involved in political matters. Woman suffrage was beginning to be a fiery issue, and she was editing The Woman Citizen.
       Gertrude, with others who were in the forefront of the struggle for national women's suffrage, had decided to put on in the Metropolitan Opera House an elaborate pageant, which had to do with the states pleading for recognition, the states being impersonated by women in costume.  There was to be the Spirit of Womanhood and the Spirit of Justice. The meeting was to be addressed by speakers of prominence, who advocated votes for women.
Pauline Frederick
Olive Fremstad
 Pauline Frederick had been asked to represent the Spirit of Womanhood and Madame Lillian Nordica, Columbia.  Gertrude asked me to represent Justice. I was delighted, the more so when I found my costume was one that Olive Fremstad, one of the great sopranos of the Metropolitan, had worn in one of her Wagnerian successes.

We plunged into rehearsal. Maud Durbin Skinner was to direct the action. Most of the women in the act were socially prominent, but without stage experience. There was a lot of marching and countermarching, and eventually, out of these evolutions, the  Spirit of Woman emerged, impersonated by the beautiful Pauline Frederick; she climbed slowly up to the middle of a stairway
upstage, where she approached me as Justice. Then, opening my arms, I leaned toward her and folded
her in an embrace.  Maud was also to recite a prologue written by Charles Hanson Towne.

Maud Durbin Skinner
A day before the pageant Otis (Skinner), Maud's husband, had taken ill. Maud had to go to him and Gertrude called me in to take Maud's place. The prologue was all right but I couldn't do anything with those women. The marching and countermarching became a ragged and wavering surge of undisciplined women.   At last, I gave up. The head of one of the departments of the Metropolitan took over, devised certain evolutions, marked them in chalk, and put the girls through their paces.

In the meantime I had memorized the poem. The great night came. There I was, on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, and the hall was packed. I stood in front of the velvet drapes where so many famous artists had taken their bows.  I spoke my prologue and retired behind the scenes to receive congratulations.  When the pageant was over, Mr. Towne came to me with outstretched hands and was good enough to say he had not realized all there      
                                       was in the poem.

Charles Hanson Towne
The opening lines were these:

'This is the tale of Woman's shining hour,
Her rise from bondage to the hills of power.
The handmaidens of freedom, all in white,
Stand in a grove upon a moonlit night.
They gather blossoming boughs, and never falter,
For Hope to lay upon the sacred altar...'


When this poem had been read, I had retired behind the curtain, a number of us started talking softly when I heard a squeaky, high-pitched male voice. There had been loud and prolonged applause when he came before the audience, but I had not seen him go out there. I asked who it was and could scarcely believe it when I was told it was Theodore Roosevelt.  That voice from a man who almost coined the phrase, "the strenuous life!"  I came to the conclusion the quality of his voice must have resulted from youthful illnesses and lack of vocal development.


Not long after, Gertrude Brown asked me to go down to Washington to be Justice again in a huge demonstration to take place just before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. I was glad to help out, and willy-nilly I was swept into the great campaign, one of the most interesting experiences of my life. It broadened my outlook immeasurably, and was the beginning of a real and vital interest in political matters, which increased and made my life far more interesting as the years went by.

Up to this time I had not concerned myself with larger issues than the strictly personal. Besides, there were reasons why I did not feel so strongly about woman suffrage as did Gertrude and many others. I had never felt discriminated against as a woman, in the first place.  I do not think discrimination operates in the theater as it does in most professions. I had worked with men for years in terms of equality and had managed to keep in step with them.  The idea of discrimination because of my sex simply never entered my head, and there were millions of women like me, not necessarily in the theater, but in the home or following other pursuits where they had their function and were at no particular disadvantage.  We had moved to Spokane, and the state of Washington had votes for women. 

    The day of the parade was gorgeous, clear, and chilly. We were photographed in tableau on the steps of the Department of Justice and it was a distinct sensation to march through historic Washington between rows of staring---sometimes applauding---people. I have a newspaper account of it which is interesting, when votes for women are no longer either an issue or a novelty.


     "Five thousand women, marching in the suffrage pageant today, virtually fought their way foot by foot up Pennsylvania Avenue through to a surging mob that completely defied the Washington police, swamped the marchers and broke their procession into little companies.
The women, trudging stoutly along under great difficulties, were able to complete their march only when troops of cavalry from Fort Myer were rushed into Washington to take charge of Pennsylvania Avenue. No inauguration has ever produced such scenes, which in many instances amounted to nothing less than riots.

Miss Helen Keller (picture left), the noted deaf and blind girl, was so exhausted and unnerved by the experience in attempting to reach a grandstand, where she was to have been a guest of honor, that she was unable to speak in Continental Hall.
     The scenes which attended the entry of 'General' Rosalie Jones and her hikers on Thursday, when the bedraggled women had to fight their way up  Pennsylvania Avenue, swamped by a mob with which a few policemen struggled in vain, were repeated today, but on a vastly larger scale.
     Miss Inez Milholland, herald of the procession, distinguished herself by aiding in riding down a mob that blocked the way and threatened to disrupt the parade.  Another woman member of the 'petticoat' cavalry struck a hoodlum a stinging blow across the face with her riding crop in reply to a scurrilous remark as she was passing. The mounted police seemed powerless to stem the tide of humanity.

The parade itself, in spite of the delays, was a great success.  Passing through two walls of antagonistic humanity, the marchers for the most part kept their tempers. They closed their ears to jibes and jeers.
Few faltered, although several of the older women were forced to drop out from time to time.

              The greatest ovation was given to 'General' Rosalie Jones, who led her
little band of 'hikers' from New York, over rough roads and through snow and rain to march for the cause.  'General' Jones was radiant. She carried a great bunch of American Beauty roses,
which made a splash of red against the dull brown of her hooded tramping gown."  End of article

"General' Rosalie Jones

Resource: A Woman of Parts: Memories of a Life on Stage
by Sarah Truax. 1949

Gertrude Foster Brown

Miss Inez Milholland  
Sarah Truax added that the tumult and shouting had ended when the section of the parade in which she marched came along.


Monday, November 16, 2015

   (Ocrober 31, 1896 - September 1, 1976)

She was the first black actress to star on Broadway in a dramatic play as Hagar in Mamba's Daughters by
Dorothy and DuBose Heyward (January 3, 1939)

In her autobiography His Eye Is on the Sparrow (1951) she wrote the following:
           "I never was a child.
            I never was coddled, or liked, or understood by my family.
            I never felt I belonged.
            I was always an outsider...."
She was born in Chester, Pennsylvania to a mother who was thirteen when she was raped by her father John Waters.  Ethel was raised by her grandmother, Sally Anderson, a housemaid.  Ethel worked at various jobs including chores at local brothels, cleaning hotel rooms, and washing dishes. And even after her professional career had begun, her dream was to become a lady's maid and companion to some wealthy woman who would take her on her travels around the world.

EARLY CAREER--"Sweet Mama Stringbean"
     Her show business career began in a Philadelphia nightclub in 1911.  On a tour with the Hill Sisters, she became the first woman to sing the W. C. Handy classic "St. Louis Blues" at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore in 1913.  After working on the carnival circuit she headed south to Atlanta where she worked in the same club with Bessie Smith.  Smith demanded that Waters not compete in singing blues opposite her.  She conceded and sang ballads and popular songs.  In 1919 she moved to Harlem and became a celebrity performer in the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s.  In 1921 she became the fifth black woman to make a record, on tiny Cardinal Records label, later joined Black Swan Records which became Paramount and later recorded for Columbia records in 1925, achieving a hit with "Dinah".  She joined what she called the "white time" Keith Vaudeville Circuit, earning as much as $1250 a week.

 After many years of performing as a singer (during which she became well known for "shimmying" as well as for her vocal abilities) she appeared on Broadway in Dancer and Africana, an all-black revue for which she received an excellent notice in Variety.
       As a result, she appeared in Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1930 and Rhapsody in Black (1931).

As Thousands Cheer (Bruehl)

Upon hearing her sing "Stormy Weather" at Harlem's Cotton Club,
Irving Berlin invited her to play in his Broadway show As Thousands Cheer (1933) with Clifton Webb, Marilyn Miller, and Helen Broderick, making her the first black performer in an otherwise all-white cast to appear on Broadway.  The show featured her singing "Suppertime," the dirge of a black woman who is preparing dinner for her family on the day that her husband has been lynched, the first such song to reach such a wide audience. She remained in the hit show for two years (1933-1935) and it was the vehicle that carried her to stardom. When the show appeared in the South, she became the first black to co-star with whites on the Southern stage.  Between 1935 and 1936 she co-starred with Beatrice Lillie in At Home Abroad directed by Vincente Minnelli.   In spite of her success she received no further offers to perform as an actress until she created the role of Hagar in Mamba's Daughters, who bore similarities to her mother.

With Lena Horne in
Cabin in the Sky

MGM hired Lena Horne as the ingenue in the all-Black musical
Cabin in the Sky (1942) with Ethel reprising her stage role as Petunia. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, the film was a success. Other motion pictures included Tales of Manhattan (1942) with Paul Robeson and Stage Door Canteen (1943).  Though still in demand as a singer, she received little attention as an actress.

However in 1949 she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the film Pinky, directed by Elia Kazan after John Ford quit, due to his disagreements with Ms. Waters.  In 1950, she won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for her performance in The Member of the Wedding opposite Julie Harris. Both actresses repeated their roles  in the 1952 film version. She was nominated for an Oscar for the same role.  ( Ethel Waters and Julie Harris, photo: Bob Colby)
During preproduction consultations Waters had insisted as a condition for accepting the role that Carson McCullers alter the character of the maid. Carson agreed that Waters could bring "God" and "hopefulness" to the character, qualities that were missing from both the novel and the play. Langston Hughes said of her performance: "She gave an additional human dimension to the conventional 'Mammy' of old--one of both dignity and gentleness--endeared her to theatregoers without the use on stage of the handkerchief-head dialect and broad humor of former days. In her portrayals of illiterate Negro mothers of the South, Ethel Waters was a mistress of the 'laughter through tears' technique which she brought to perfection in her highly hailed performance of Berenice....."(Black Magic).

Despite brilliant successes, her career was fading. She lost tens of thousands in jewelry and cash in a robbery, and had difficulties with the IRS.  Her health suffered, and she worked only sporadically in following years.   In her autobiography, His Eye is on The Sparrow, with Charles Samuels, she wrote candidly about her life. It was adapted for a stage production in which she was portrayed by Ernestine Jackson.

In the twilight of her career she played a few guest spots on television and was the star of the first "Beulah" series.

She was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame,
The Christian Music Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and she is on the 29 cents Commemorative stamp (Photo: Scott #2851)

Women-in-jazz historian and archivist Rosetta Reitz called Ethel Waters "a natural....(Her) songs are enriching, nourishing. You will want to play them over and over again, idling in their warmth and swing. Though many of them are more than 50 years old, the music and the feeling are still there."

Resources and References:  Wikipedia.
Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989 Elizabeth Hadley Freydberg
Waters, Ethel. His Eye Is on the Sparrow (1951)
Bogle, Donald.  Chapter "Ethel Watsrs: Sweet Mama Goes Legit" in
Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of America's Black Female Superstars (1980)
Hughes, Langston and Milton Meltzer. Black Magic: A Pictorial History of Black Entertainers
in America. 1967

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

(October 30, 1896 - August 27, 1985)

She described herself as a "visceral legend" in her third and final autobiography Ruth Gordon: An Open Book.

An actress known for her eccentric comedy, a playwright whose works were staged on Broadway and adapted for the screen, and best remembered on stage for her portrayal of Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder's
The Matchmaker, she knew she wanted to act from an early age, especially, when she travelled to Boston to see Hazel Dawn, a leading actress, in The Pink Lady.   As she has written in her second autobiography,
My Side,
       "If the Colonial Theatre hadn't opened in 1900 with Ben Hur, would I be an actress?  If C.M.S. McClellan and Ivan Caryll hadn't written The Pink Lady...if Mr. Tout hadn't gone to bed with Mrs. Tout and had Hazel Dawn, would I be an actress?  I believe so. Why? I'm a believer. If The Pink Lady hadn't rung a bell, something else would have."

     After graduating from Quincy High School, she studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York for a term, when she was told she had no potential.  She then began the labor intensive task of finding an acting job on her own.

She acted in various touring companies and married her leading man in
Seventeen, Gregory Kelly.  She returned to New York (1923) to act in Tweedles, which the NY Times noted was 'admirably acted'. In
Mrs. Partridge Presents (1925) she received praise for her comic pauses and timing, and in the same year she delighted audiences by her comic mannerisms in The Fall of Eve----her rapid walk, her jerky arm movements, and comically blank face. Brooks Atkinson (NY Times) wrote about her performance in Saturday's Children (1927) noting the same comic vain but with a "curiously subtle penetration.'  Later she earned praise in her sensitive rendering of Serena in Serena Blandish.  Atkinson would write: "One of the most thoroughly individual of our comediennes who has progressed from trickery into conscious method."
   It was a mark of her growing dramatic versatility that she was successful in the role of one of the assaulted women in They Shall Not Die, based on the Scottsboro case.  Other successful roles were Mistress Pinchwife in The Country Wife (1935) and
Mattie in Ethan Frome (1936). Her attention to detail, emotional investment in the character as witnessed when she anguished over a 'broken dish' was hailed as a tremendous accomplishment of the American stage.
          After appearing in The Country Wife as the first American to appear in an Old Vic production, she returned to New York and married Garson Kanin who was her second husband.( Gregory Kelly had died in 1927). She was considered a superb Natasha in The Three Sisters (1942).

Ruth and Garson
She wrote three plays and acted in two of them.
Over Twenty-One (1944), a flip comedy, ran for 221 performances; Years Ago, an autobiographical play, was considered amusing but Leading Lady which she co-authored with Garson, was judged uneven and closed after 8 performances.

In 1948 she and Garson began writing screenplays and were nominated for an Oscar for A Double Life and won the Box Office Ribbon Award and another Oscar nomination for Adam's Rib (MGM, 1949).

Her preparation for Dolly Levi was intensive and Brooks Atkinson was in awe of her character who was "sweeping wide, growling, leering, cutting through her scenes with sharp gestures, filling in every corner with a detail or a sardonic observation....The performance is epochally funny." A triumphant success, The Matchmaker ran for 1,078 performances. Garson Kanin wrote:  "Once engaged, the performance of the job came first. She was in the habit of going over her part every day. She played The Matchmaker 1,078 times (without missing a single performance) and on the afternoon of the 1,078th, I was astonished to come upon her "going over her part."  (My Side, preface)

Ruth as Dolly Levi

After a string of less than triumphant performances in rather mediocre and unmemorable plays, in 1966 she received an Oscar for her role as Minnie Castevet in the film Rosemary's Baby. Accepting it she proclaimed, "I can't tell ya how encouragin' a thing like this is!"

Ironically,  she received the American Academy's Award of Achievement in 1968,  an award that was especially gratifying since she had been told years earlier by the Academy's president that she had no talent.

However in 1971 she won world-wide praise as Maude in Harold and Maude, a film which achieved cult status especially among college students.

During the remainder of her career she would appear in twenty-two more films and at least that many television appearances through her seventies and eighties including such successful sitcoms as Rhoda, Newhart, Taxi, and guest starred on Columbo in the episode "Try and Catch Me."

I found a litany of her longings in My Side (pp. 329-330) and fell in love with her writing ability and inspired by her truth and passion.
   "When you have to go without things, splurge on dreams. Dream you're a somebody and write your own definition. In my room at 14 Elmwood Avenue with the yellow roses on the wallpaper, I'd dream up how to astonish people, how to be pretty, extravagant, look like an actress, look fast, have great clothes, have a maid, a cook, a butler, a Scotch terrier, a lapis lazuli anything, a white celluloid toilet seat set with my monogram, silk stockings with no darns, be rich, be an actress, see all the plays, go as often as I wanted to on the train to Boston, get an ice cream soda at Huyler's, have 'bought' clothes, have wider hair ribbons than anybody, have actresses answer my letters and send their pictures, have whipped cream, old-fashioned strawberry shortcake, opera caramels, a striped blazer, have an upright piano, get sheet music of the shows I saw...to go to New York to live, to know society people, to have plenty of partners at a dance, to buy Theatre magazine, to buy Elite, to sit in the first balcony and have a thick program and not go in the gallery entrance.....to be tall and have dark hair, have a beautiful bathing suit and a frilled rubber cap...."

Guest star on Colombo
According to Glenn Close, "she had a great gift for living the moment and it kept her ageless."

According to Garson, in his preface to My Side, written after her death:
"She was on the verge of beginning Act Two of a new play when she died. She was eighty-eight years old and I had the indescribably great fortune of sharing precisely half of that wondrous life.
Three days before her death, she said, "I'm in love with the past, but I'm having a love affair with the future."

Resource:  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989    Linda Tolman
Wikipedia   Ruth Gordon
My Side, The Autobiography of Ruth Gordon with an introduction by Garson Kanin