This Day in Swimming: Esther Williams Makes a Splash
In the early 1940s, moviegoing in the U.S. was at its peak. The majority of Americans went to their local movie palace at least once a week! Hollywood stars served as role models for how to dress and behave. So Hollywood’s first swimming star had an enormous impact on the sport.
Almost an Olympian
Esther Williams started her career as a competitive swimmer. She would have competed in the 1940 Olympics had it not been cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II.
Instead, she joined a music, dance, and swimming show called Billy Rose’s Aquacade. Her costars included Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, and Johnny Weissmuller, an Olympic gold medalist in swimming and soon-to-be Hollywood's Tarzan.
The Rise of the "Aqua-Musical"
At the Aquacade, she came to the attention of a talent scout for MGM, the studio then known for musicals. After starting out in several small comic roles, she starred in Bathing Beauty, now acknowledged as the first "aqua-musical."
Opening on June 27, 1944, Bathing Beauty included elaborate Technicolor musical sequences in a grand pool. The synchronized swimmers were filmed underwater and on the water; in more spectacular shots, Williams was suspended above the pool.
After the smashing box-office success of Bathing Beauty, she’d go on to star in a series of aqua-musicals, including Million Dollar Mermaid, Jupiter’s Darling, and Dangerous When Wet.
Lifelong Swimming Advocacy
As the International Swimming Hall of Fame put it upon her induction, “Her movie career played a major role in the promotion of swimming, making it attractive to the public, contributing to the growth of the sport as a public recreation for health, exercise, water safety -- and just plain fun.”
In the early 1960s, she retired from acting, but she remained active as a passionate promoter of swimming. Williams licensed her name for a line of swimming pools, swimming accessories, and retro women’s swimwear. She launched her own Swim, Baby, Swim video series, instructing parents on how to teach swimming to their children. At the 1984 Olympics, she served as a synchronized swimming commentator.
In the pre-Mark Spitz era, Esther Williams arguably did more than anyone to promote swimming in the U.S. With her skill, business savvy, and lifelong contributions to the sport, she was clearly more than just a “bathing beauty.”