In Remembrance: Etta Moten
Etta Moten, a singer and actress who was hailed as a pioneer for black actresses, passed away in Chicago on January 2, 2004. She was 102.
The daughter of a Methodist minister in Texas, Moten was born November 5, 1901. She briefly abandoned college after her first marriage. She soon divorced, but was a mother of three children. Moten’s parents agreed to care for the children while she attended the University of Kansas. She was well liked at school and her professors urged her to move to New York City shortly after she graduated in 1931 with a degree in voice and drama. She promptly received two roles on Broadway. She starred in the aptly titled Fast and Furious which came and went quickly, but Moten and Zombie was well received by audiences. Moten followed Zombie to Los Angeles where she auditioned for work in film.
Moten's first work was heard rather seen, dubbing songs for Barbara Stanwyck. Sadly, it wasn’t well documented what films she sang for. Moten’s first onscreen appearance was uncredited in Busby Berkeley’s film Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), singing “My Forgotten Man”. Moten quickly became recognized as a sexy, black figure on screen. She was considered the first to have broken the custom Hollywood stereotype of black women in film, capable of playing more than the role of maid. Moten provided the singing voice for Theresa Harris in Professional Sweetheart (1933). She would’ve appeared onscreen in the 1933 Jean Harlow comedy, Bombshell, but her scenes were cut before final release. Moten was also cast in the role of a Brazilian singer in RKO’s Flying Down To Rio (1933), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In what was to be her most famous screen appearance, she sang the Oscar nominated song “The Carioca”, wearing fruit in her hair years before Carmen Miranda. However, Moten herself couldn’t avoid the harshness of Hollywood’s casting processes.
Moten made history in 1934 when she became the first African American stage and screen actress to sing and perform at the White House. Upon President Roosevelt’s request, she sang “My Forgotten Man” at his birthday party.
Moten married her second husband, Claude Barnett, the founder and head of the Associated Negro Press in 1934.
Composer George Gershwin, who was also impressed by Moten’s onscreen abilities, asked her to star in his new folk opera Porgy and Bess later that same year. Moten wanted the part to fit her voice but Gershwin refused, and the role went to Ann Brown. Eight years later she did appear as Bess and toured with the show until 1945. Strain limited Moten’s voice, yet after surgery and rest she continued to give concerts through the 50’s and 60’s.
Moten later became involved in many civic organizations, including the National Council of Negro Women, the Chicago Lyric Opera, and the Field Museum. She also represented the US at various independence ceremonies of African nations.
Moten was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1979.
- John Gibbon