Long before television there were entertainers from Broadway, radio and vaudeville who were captured on film doing their “specialty” acts.
One of the most successful was organist Ethel Smith, who MGM used wisely in several musicals.
She was born Ethel Goldsmith in Pittsburgh in 1902, and studied music seriously at Carnegie Tech. A job as an organist took her to California enroute to an extended booking in Rio de Janeiro where she perfected renditions of such local fare — delivered in boldly colored dresses and over-the-top hats — as the song, Tico Tico.
That in addition to her good looks generated interest in Hollywood and MGM among others came calling. In reasonably short order, Smith found herself performing Tico Tico in 1944’s Bathing Beauty, which in turn propelled specialty number to lofty spots on 1945 pop hit charts. Her rendition of the tune wound up as a hit worldwide.
She appeared on camera (as opposed to soundtracks only) in about 10 movies including 1945’s George White’s Scandals and Melody Time, a Disney semi-animated outing in which she teams up with Donald Duck in a hot samba routine. At Universal, she was cast as herself in a Desi Arnaz programmer about, what else?, a Cuban bandleader.
Smith was married and divorced at least twice, and is still remembered for her brief (1945-1947) marriage to actor Ralph Bellamy (the then happy couple is pictured below — center and right). Things got messy when Bellamy walked out refusing to pay alimony. For her part, Smith claimed he drank too much and was moody.
Ah, well, for the rest of her long life (she died in 1996 at the age of 93) Ethel never married again.