A Minneapolis Cinderella

Born in 1918, Hilda Moses grew up in Minneapolis. The eldest of 13 kids, she walked from her family home at 908 Emerson Avenue North to Sumner and Grant Elementary Schools. She was confirmed at the Basilica of Saint Mary and graduated from St. Margaret’s academy. She got her early dramatic experience at the University of Minnesota and the Phyllis Wheatley House where she became the assistant girl’s director and receptionist. Hilda began college as an English major at the University of Minnesota, but finished her bachelor’s degree at Hampton University in Virginia where she met her first husband, William Simms.  They married in 1941.  At Hampton she assisted with a dramatic workshops and was inspired her to pursue the wild and crazy dream of an acting career. At the tender age of  25,  Mrs. Simms moved to New York City and joined the American Negro Theater. She performed a variety of tasks including sound effects, props, and publicity work and did a little moonlighting in radio dramas before she landed her first role as a southern ingénue in a play called Three’s a Family.

Hilda’s big break came in 1943 when she was cast in playwright Philip Yordan’s drama, Anna Lucasta.  The story of a middle-class woman who falls into prostitution and has to figure out a way back to respectability was written for a white cast. but the American Negro Theater company drew rave reviews when they staged the work as adapted by Abram Hill. The play moved from Harlem to Broadway in 1944. New York Times noted that it was the first time, American playgoers saw an all-black cast acting in a drama that did not deal with racial issues. Anna Lucasta was a big, big hit! A Life Magazine review put Hilda Simms in the national spotlight. Everybody went to see Anna Lucasta except for Hilda’s mother who said she didn’t raise her Catholic daughter to play the role of a prostitute. In 1947 the production moved to London. While in Britain, she married American actor Richard Angerolla at a ceremony in Sterling, Scotland. A couple years later in France, Simms worked with Edith Piaf who turned her into a “Chanteuse”. She performed in Paris nightclubs under the stage name of Julie Riccardo and no one was the wiser until Gregory Peck spotted her one night and yelled out, “Why its Hilda Simms!”.

In the early 1950’s, Angerolla and Simms returned to the states. Angerolla went to work in the theater and Simms began a movie career with the role of a heavyweight boxing champion’s wife in the 1953 movie, The Joe Louis Story .  After the movie’s release Simms took her husband home to visit her family. Minneapolis Star columnist, Virginia Stafford wrote that she knew Hilda back when she was a girl pounding on Gertrude Lawrence’s dressing room door at the Lyceumn 1939. The English star was in town performing in a production of Skylark. Lawrence did her best to discourage Simms and told her pursuing a stage career would just be one big heartache. In 1954 Simms appeared on the big screen along side Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney, Van Heflin and George Raft in the Cinemascoped, film noir, Black Widow.

Simms was outspoken in her support of civil rights. She served as the creative director of the New York State Human Rights Commission and was credited with opening up better film roles for African-American actors. She vented to Jet magazine that while her light skin and features kept her from being cast in stereotypical black roles and her race kept her from playing any white characters. An alleged affiliation with the Communist Party in the early 1940s put her on the Hollywood blacklist and in 1955, the Department of Justice denied her passport and canceled her scheduled tour to visit U.S. Armed Forces stationed in Europe. In 1960 openly discussed the political setbacks to her career in a piece she wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier called , “I’m No Benedict Arnold”.

Simms went on with her career in the theater starring in  productions of The Cool World, Tambourines to Glory, and The Madwoman of Chaillot. She became regular on the television series The Nurses and hosted her own radio show, Ladies Day, on New York’s WOV. She eventually went back to school ,earned a master’s degree and went into teaching. In 1994 Hilda Simms passed away at the home of her sister in Buffalo New York. Service were held at the Basilica of Saint Mary. The visitation was held at the Gill Brothers Chapel on 58th and Lyndale.