Singer and actress Vivian Dandridge was born on this date in 1921 in Cleveland, Ohio to Cyril Dandridge and the former Ruby Jean Butler, an aspiring entertainer. Dandridge's parents separated shortly before the birth of her sister Doro Read more ...
Vivian Dandridge reached the peak of her fame with sister Dorothy and friend Etta Jones in the vocal group the Dandridge Sisters, which was formed in 1934. Initially, Ruby Dandridge put her two girls to work performing acrobatics, songs, and skits. She billed them as the "Wonder Children." Realizing the potential success of her girls (and acknowledging her chance of stardom in the entertainment industry was at best, limited), Ruby decided to have her daughters embark on a tour of the United States. The Wonder Children earned $400–$500 per appearance during the late 1920s, touring through Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia and many other states.
Because their income was more important to the family than their education, Dorothy and Vivian did not attend regular classes at school until the 8th grade, instead relying on tutors (since they were the primary breadwinners of the family). After the Stock Market Crash in 1929, the Wonder Children were added to the long list of the unemployed. Ruby Dandridge, still clinging to the hopes of a film career for herself and her daughters, moved the family (and her partner) to Los Angeles. After immersing herself into the professional community of black Hollywood, Ruby found limited opportunities for herself or her girls.
After Clarence Muse, a working black actor in Hollywood (who befriended the family) told Ruby that her daughters were unlikely to meet with success in California, she enrolled them in a dancing school run by Laurette Butler. Here, the Dandridge daughters befriended another girl, Etta Jones, and began to sing together. After Jones' father heard them sing, Ruby Dandridge decided that the three should form a singing group. Thus, the Dandridge Sisters were born. While Ruby gained bit parts in films, the Dandridge Sisters began appearing in musical sequences of films and toured over the United States, sharing bills with the likes of Nat King Cole, Mantan Moreland, and dancer Marie Bryant.
The female trio was a sort of black Andrews Sisters, singing songs in three part harmony. They eventually became headliners at the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York. They even appeared in a short-run Broadway musical revue, Swingin' The Dream, in 1939, at the Centre Theater. The Dandridge Sisters also toured in London and Hawaii, and recorded four tracks with well-known big band leader Jimmie Lunceford and his orchestra: "You Ain't Nowhere," "Minnie the Moocher Is Dead," "I Ain't Gonna Study War No More," and a minor hit, "That's Your Red Wagon."
After touring for a year and a half, however, the Dandridge Sisters group abruptly disbanded, after Dorothy Dandridge was determined to become an actress, unsatisfied with just appearances in occasional soundies or bit parts in Hollywood films. She detested life on the road and was certain she could find bigger success as a dramatic actress. This left Vivian in a desperate financial situation. She attempted to find work in clubs, but many were not interested. She did, however, find employment as an occasional actress in minor film roles.
Vivian appeared in some minor film roles: she co-starred with Frances Dee as native girl Melisse in the 1943 classic "I Walked With a Zombie" and in 1953's "Bright Road," starring Dorothy Dandridge, in which she played the small role of schoolteacher Ms. Nelson (she received no credit on either film). She also acted as Dorothy's hairdresser on the film.
She appeared with the Dandridge Sisters in musical sequences of the films "The Big Broadcast of 1936" (with George Burns and Gracie Allen), "A Day at the Races" (with the Marx Brothers), "It Can't Last Forever" (with Ralph Bellamy and Betty Furness), "Irene" (with Ray Milland, Anna Neagle, and Billie Burke) and "Going Places" (with Louis Armstrong and Maxine Sullivan).
She also appeared in the soundie "Snow Gets in Your Eyes" as a member of the Dandridge Sisters and as the voice of "So White" in the controversial cartoon "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs" opposite her mother Ruby Dandridge. In the summer of 1955, she replaced Thelma Carpenter in the Broadway play "Anchors Aweigh." She moved to the Alvin Hotel in New York City, but after this engagement she largely disappeared from show business. She attended the Academy Awards in 1955 with Dorothy Dandridge when Dorothy was nominated for Best Actress for her role in Carmen Jones.
By 1956, friends and family members were concerned for the welfare of Vivian, as she moved away and went into seclusion. Dorothy Dandridge hired a private detective to find her missing sister, but to no avail; Dorothy later found out that her sister was in the south of France trying to find work. Later, she found out that her sister was residing in New York City. At this point, Dorothy and Vivian did not remain in contact, though Dorothy sometimes provided financial assistance to Vivian and her son Michael Wallace. Other than the occasional telegram, Dorothy and Vivian remained estranged.
Vivian recorded an album, "The Look of Love," in 1968. (See the comments for audio of two of the songs from the LP.)
Vivian Dandridge did not attend the funeral of her sister in 1965, admitting that it was just too painful to return. She said, "I grieved in my own way, in my privacy. Dottie knew that I loved her." Vivian later rekindled a relationship with her mother (albeit an adversarial one) until her mother died penniless in a Los Angeles nursing home of a massive heart attack in 1987.
Vivian, under the alias "Marina Rozell," later settled in Seattle, Washington, where she lived for the rest of her life. She passed away in October 1991.