Best Supporting Actress
Ethel Waters was raised by her grandmother in the dismal ghettoes of South Philadelphia. She began working as a hotel chambermaid for $4.75 a week, and at age 12 she married the first of three husbands. Her goal at that time was to become a maid/companion to a wealthy white woman; instead, she launched a show-business career at 17, when she entered a local talent contest on a dare. Her exquisite, self-trained singing voice attracted the attention of a black vaudeville team, who offered her $10 weekly to join their act. Billed as Sweet Mama Stringbean in honor of her tall, slender frame, Waters toured the black vaudeville circuit singing such standards-to-be as "St. Louis Blues," and continued to hold on to her chambermaid job just in case the bubble burst.
Throughout her singer years, Waters fought against performing "hot" -- i.e. sexually suggestive -- songs, preferring instead to perform religious music. But the audiences preferred "hot," and that's what she gave them during her formative years. Her popularity extended to white audiences by way of the recording of her signature tune "Dinah." In 1927, she starred on Broadway in the all-black musical revue Africana, which she followed in quick succession with Vaudeville, Blackbirds of 1930 and Rhapsody in Black. Booked into the Cotton Club, a Harlem night spot catering to a rich white clientele, Waters caught the eye of Irving Berlin with her rendition of "Stormy Weather." Berlin cast her in his 1933 musical revue As Thousands Cheer, supplying her with the hit tunes "Heat Wave," "Harlem on My Mind" and "Supper Time." The difference between As Thousands Cheer and Waters' earlier New York stage appearances was that, for the first time in Broadway history, a black female entertainer was given equal billing with her white co-stars. After spending several years in touring shows, she returned to Broadway in 1939, making her dramatic, nonsinging debut in Mamba's Daughters. The following year, she starred in the musical Cabin in the Sky, in which she introduced "Happiness is a Thing Called Joe" and "Taking a Chance on Love."