Classic Video Showplace

Ethel Waters

Share This Post

 For over a hundred years some of the greatest video treasures of all time have been produced. Some have been lost in the sands of time and others, soon to be rediscovered, will become fan favorites for a whole new generation.

 Each week we will feature just one of the many hidden gems that you can see on ATVN with insights and commentaries on classic television shows and legendary cinematic performances.

As part of the Astound TV Network’s celebration of Black History Month, here at the “Showplace” we are putting the spotlight on African American actors who excelled not just on the big and small screens but those who also inspired change with their courage and perseverance.


A proper examination of film and television history would not be complete without recognizing the efforts of Ethel Waters.

Born on October 31st, 1896, Ethel was abandoned by her mother and was raised in poverty by her grandmother in Chester, Pennsylvania.  She married at the age of 13 but her husband was abusive and so she left him to work as a maid in Philadelphia.

At the age of 17 she was invited to a costume party and was asked to sing two songs.  Her performance was so impressive that she soon received an offer to perform at the Lincoln Theater in Baltimore, followed by working on the vaudeville circuit and eventually became a major performer during the Harlem Renaissance in the early-1920s.

Even though there were many well-known female African-American singers during the Jazz Age, Waters was one of the first to record her songs on a record.

In 1920 she helped integrate the Broadway Theater District by becoming the first black woman to lead a stage production in “The Emperor Jones.”  She soon became the highest paid actress on Broadway…yet would struggle to find work in the cinema for several years.

In 1921, she became the highest paid African-American female singer in the world and, by 1928, was the nations’ highest paid female singer while performing on the Keith Vaudeville Circuit, earning a then-record salary of $1,250.  Even so, her compensation paled in comparison to many of her male counterparts in the entertainment industry.

Eventually, film offers would come to Waters.  Among her early cinematic performances includes Rufus Jones for President, which would feature a then-unknown child actor by the name of Sammy Davis, Jr.

Throughout the next two decades, she recorded many hit songs while continuing to perform on the stage and in movies…but she was not finished being a social pioneer.

Waters broke glass ceilings on television–TWICE!

She was the first African American–male or female–to star in her own variety show, “The Ethel Waters Show.”  This program pre-dated the show hosted by Nat King Cole, who many people often miscredit as the first black star of his own show.  

Waters also starred as the titular character, Beulah, on ABC from 1950 through 1952.  Waters would later quit her own show, calling the shameful stereotypes and poor depictions of black performers “degrading.”  Despite being a frequent guest star on many popular television shows throughout the 1950s and 60s, she would never pilot her own program again.

According to her biography, “I Touched A Sparrow,” Waters devoted the rest of her life to Christianity after attending a Billy Graham revival in 1957.  She toured with Graham off-and-on for nearly 20 years before she succumbed to cancer and kidney failure on September 1, 1977.

She was 80 years young.

While many episodes of Waters’ original shows have been lost, you can see some of Ethel’s earliest television appearances as a guest star on the Texaco Star Theater, which frequently airs on the Astound TV Network.

To view the complete rundown of classic programming on ATVN, check out the weekly listings here.


The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Astound Broadband or any other agency, organization, employer or company.