Musician and actress Juanita Hall was born on November 6, 1901, in Keyport, Monmouth County. A mix of African American (father) and Irish American (mother) descent, Hall is best known for her work on both Broadway and the big screen; including her stage roles in South Pacific and Flower Drum Song, as well as their film adaptations.
Hall lost her mother at a young age, so she and her three siblings were raised by her maternal grandparents. She attended early schooling at the Bordentown Industrial School in Burlington County; this residential school for African-American students closed in the 1950s.
Growing up, Juanita Hall sang in her church’s choir. After graduating from Keyport High School in her hometown, she received classical training at the Julliard School for performing arts. During this time, she was also working at the Lincoln settlement house in East
Orange, Essex County; teaching music to children during the day, and then instructing the home’s adult chorus members in the evening.
Juanita Hall Heads to Broadway
In the 1930s, Hall became a leading performer on Broadway. In addition, she worked as the assistant director of the Hall Johnson Choir and also served as a special soloist. This choir was featured in the Marc Connelly Broadway drama The Green Pastures. It won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was adapted as a film in 1936, again featuring Hall’s choir.
Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Hall performed in a number of other plays on and off Broadway; for instance, she had roles in Sailor, Beware!, Sweet River, The Pirate, The Secret Room, and St. Louis Woman. In 1949, however, Juanita Hall was cast in one of her most widely recognized roles: Bloody Mary. The role is from the critically acclaimed Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II Broadway production South Pacific. Her performance won her a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. The play itself also won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and several Tony Awards. Her portrayal of Bloody Mary was so adored, she reprised the role nearly 10 years later in the feature film.
After South Pacific, Hall performed in a number of other large productions. She was cast in House of Flowers, The Ponder Heart, and Flower Drum Song; for the latter, she once again reprised her role for the 1961 film adaptation.
A Bright Star Begins to Dim
Juanita Hall was then diagnosed with diabetes late in life. By her 60s, it led her to lose her sight. Despite her success on Broadway, Hall was left with little money. The Actors Fund of America housed her in its Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, Bergen County to assist her. But she ended up moving to the Percy William Actors home in East Islip, New York. Hall died on February 29, 1968, at Southside Hospital due to complications from diabetes. However, she crafted a remarkable legacy on Broadway and in her home state of New Jersey.