Sheila Guyse, a popular actress and singer who appeared on Broadway and in so-called race movies in the 1940s and ’50s, and who for a time, despite limited opportunities in the entertainment industry, appeared headed for broader fame, died on Dec. 28 in Honolulu. She was 88.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, her daughter Sheila Crystal Devin said.
For several years, Ms. Guyse (rhymes with “nice”) was compared to stars like Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Ruby Dee, black actresses who broke through racial barriers. But by the late 1950s she was out of show business, a result of some combination of health problems, a religious conversion and family obligations.
She left behind a handful of films. The best is probably “Sepia Cinderella” (1947), in which she played a girl-next-door who is initially overlooked by the musician she loves, played by the singer Billy Daniels. She also appeared in Broadway musicals and in nightclubs. Her only album, “This Is Sheila,” a collection of standards released by MGM Records in 1958, a decade after her heyday, was supposed to be a comeback. That November, Jet magazine put her on its cover.
“Sheila Guyse, a glamorous, high-octane performer under supper club spotlights,” the article said, “is a singer who has had to overcome serious illness, marriage failures, financial pressures and professional disappointments in her long campaign to create a career in show business.”
The article quoted Ms. Guyse as saying, “I was discouraged and depressed for a while, but now life looks a lot better to me,” and mentioned a five-year recording contract. But the comeback never happened.
Ms. Guyse, who had surgery for bleeding ulcers in the mid-1950s, continued to have health problems. Ms. Devin, her daughter, recalled once finding her collapsed in her bedroom, bleeding from the mouth.
In addition, Ms. Guyse’s husband did not want her to have a career, Ms. Devin said.
Ms. Guyse’s first two marriages had ended in divorce, and she was a struggling single mother when she met Joseph Jackson, a New York sanitation worker so enthralled by her that he would sometimes follow her in his garbage truck. After they married, in the late 1950s, Ms. Guyse stopped performing and became increasingly involved with a Jehovah’s Witness hall in Queens.
“It wasn’t easy to be a glamorous movie star with people following you for your autograph and now you’re home making pancakes,” Ms. Devin said. “She did it, but I don’t think it was easy.”
Etta Drucille Guyse was born on July 14, 1925, in Forest, Miss. She took Sheila as a stage name. She followed her father, Wilbert, to New York when she was a teenager and, her daughter said, lived for a time in a Harlem rooming house with Billie Holiday.
After winning an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater, Ms. Guyse had a small role on Broadway in the musical “Memphis Bound!” and appeared in a series of all-black films, beginning with a small role in “Boy! What a Girl!” (1947), which starred the vaudeville performer Tim Moore. She moved on to starring roles in “Sepia Cinderella” and “Miracle in Harlem” (1948), in which she played a woman wrongly accused of murder.
She also appeared in the Broadway musicals “Finian’s Rainbow” (1947) and “Lost in the Stars” (1949).
In addition to Ms. Devin, who has worked as a model and actress under the name Sheila Anderson, Ms. Guyse is survived by another daughter, Deidre Devin, from her marriage to Mr. Jackson; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. A son, Michael Jackson, died a few years ago. Joseph Jackson died in 2012.
Ms. Guyse moved back to Mississippi in the 1980s and to Hawaii about five years ago.
Her first marriage, to Ms. Devin’s father, a tailor named Shelby Irving Miller, was very brief. Her second, to Kenneth Davis, whom she had met while both performed in “Finian’s Rainbow,” lasted eight years. Mr. Davis, who was white, became a dancer with American Ballet Theater. In 1952, a photograph of the couple appeared on a cover of Jet with the headline “Negro Women With White Husbands.”
“I don’t go about looking for difficulties,” Ms. Guyse said in the article. “It took me a long time to decide to marry Ken, but I’m glad I did. We’ve been very happy. Intelligence and understanding are needed to make a marriage like ours succeed. It takes more than love. You have to have a mind of your own and be able to ignore what the world is saying and thinking about you.”
Etta Drucille Guyse, known as Sheila Guyse, (July 14, 1925 – December 28, 2013) was a popular African-American singer, actress, and recording artist, performing on stage and screen during the 1940s and 1950s.
Guyse was often compared to Dandridge and it has been said that some critics thought Guyse was a better actress than the more well-known Dandridge. It may be argued that if Sheila had been allowed the opportunity to make an impact in the Hollywood cinema, she would have been stiff competition for the more established actress.
Guyse had a sultry "girl-next-door" appeal which she showcased in three independent all-Black films (so-called "race films") of the late 1940s: Boy! What a Girl! Boy! (1947), Sepia Cinderella (1947, co-starring with Billy Daniels), and Miracle In Harlem (1948) giving impressive performances in all of them. She also appeared in the "Harlem Follies of 1949" and in a 1957 television adaptation of the play The Green Pastures.
Guyse was not an experienced or trained actress but she was a natural talent. She appeared in many Broadway stage productions such as Lost in the Stars and Finian's Rainbow which were both long-running. She contributed to cast recordings for these productions, and her singing voice was said to be as beautiful as she was; divine, sweet, easy on the ears whether singing jazz, pop, or gospel.
She died of Alzheimer's disease on December 28, 2013 in Honolulu, Hawaii.