The Three Belters : Broadway Belters

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Richard Skipper as Carol Channing Julie Sheppard as Judy Garland Hollie Vest as Ethel Merman

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ETHEL MERMAN - Biography Continued

Her powerful voice won attention at church and led to various concert appearances. She also attended many performances at The Palace Theater, watching the greatest vaudeville stars do their acts. All of this left Ethel increasingly  determined to build a singing career.

Her parents Edward (an accountant) and Agnes Zimmerman understood Ethel's love of singing, but they did not see show business as a reliable career choice. So they sensibly insisted that she get a solid education – including a thorough training in secretarial skills. If her dreams of stardom didn't pan out, they wanted the girl to have marketable abilities to fall back on. After graduating William Cullen Bryant High School, Ethel earned a respectable $28 a week as a stenographer. She also picked up extra money singing at private parties and in night clubs. Ethel was so efficient that an indulgent boss (who only came in two days a week) and co-workers overlooked her taking nap breaks at the office after late night gigs, but she eventually gave up her day job to sing full-time.
Merman in an early autographed photo.

Warner Brothers put young Merman under contract at a sweet $200 a week. But in the early days of sound film, the studios were in such confusion that they hardly used her. After months of inactivity, she got a release so she could accept live engagements. At about this time, Ethel abbreviated her last name so it would fit more easily in ads and on theater marquees. She also began working with Al Siegel, a pianist who had helped several torch singers attain success. In later years, Siegel would claim that he made Merman a star – a suggestion Merman herself would always deny. While Siegel certainly helped her select better material and show it off with exciting arrangements, it is ludicrous to suggest that Merman owed her unique qualities as a performer to anyone other than herself. Siegel merely put a fresh diamond-like talent in the best possible light. A scary bout with tonsillitis in 1929 somehow left Merman's voice louder than ever. With her earthy style and powerhouse pipes fully restored, Merman was ready for her shot at the big time.

Big Break: "I Got Rhythm"
In 1930, Merman was performing songs between film screenings at Brooklyn's massive Paramount Theatre. Broadway producer Vinton Freedley caught her act and was so impressed that he engaged her for his next musical – pending the approval of songwriters George and Ira Gershwin. The two brothers auditioned Merman, previewing "I Got Rhythm" and "Sam and Delilah" for her. When George misinterpreted Ethel's thoughtful expression as an indication of disapproval, he graciously offered to change anything she didn't like in the songs. A flabbergasted Merman managed to casually blurt out, "They will do very nicely, Mr. Gershwin." Her unintentional cockiness delighted the Gershwins, and marked the beginning of her legendary reputation for self-assurance.

With the Gershwin musical in preparation, Merman filled in the time by making her debut at The Palace, Manhattan's high temple of vaudeville. Outstanding reviews provided the first hint that a new star was being born, but nothing could fully prepare Broadway or Merman for what happened next.
On the opening night of Girl Crazy (1930 - 272), Merman's clarion voice and hilarious comic timing made her a sensation. Her rendition of "I Got Rhythm," which included belting a C note for sixteen exhilarating bars, left the audience demanding multiple encores. During the intermission, George Gershwin left the orchestra pit and charged up to her dressing room. "Ethel, do you know what you're doing?" he asked. When she replied in the negative, he departed saying, "Well, never go near a singing teacher . . . and never forget your shorthand." Overnight, the stenographer from Astoria became a Broadway star in a string of musical comedy hits that would stretch through the next four decades.
William Gaxton, Ethel Merman and Victor Moore on the sheet music for "All Through the Night" from Anything Goes.

After saving a shaky edition of George White's Scandals (1931) and stealing the troubled Take A Chance (1932) with her crackling rendition of "Eadie Was a Lady," Merman was the hottest talent on Broadway. She filmed the now forgotten We're Not Dressing (1934) with Bing Crosby and the daffy Kid Millions (1934) with Eddie Cantor, learning that Hollywood still had no clue what to do with her talents. Returning to Broadway was a genuine relief.

With the Great Depression in full swing, producer Vinton Freedley needed a hit to restore his fortunes. He assembled a stellar team, barely raised the money, and guided the show through a tortuous series of revisions. When the script of Anything Goes (1934 - 420) was being desperately re-written during rehearsals, Ethel put her secretarial skills to good use, taking down the lines as the authors improvised them. She then typed out the material herself. (I shudder to think how Actor's Equity would scream if an actor pitched in like that today!) The most frequently revived musical of the 1930s, Anything Goes overcame its improvised formation thanks to a funny low comedy script and a hit-laden Cole Porter score. As evangelist turned nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, Merman co-starred with veteran comic Victor Moore and the suave leading man William Gaxton. She also got to introduce the topical title tune, the fanfare-like "Blow Gabriel Blow" and "I Get a Kick Out of You." She shared Porter's popular laundry-list song "You're the Top" with Gaxton, who became a lifelong friend.

Merman was the only member of the Broadway cast to appear in the film version of Anything Goes (1936) co-starring with Bing Crosby. This watered-down adaptation tossed out most of the original score and "cleaned-up" the remaining Porter lyrics. (Many surviving prints inexplicably re-title the film as Tops is the Limit). It was one of several frustrating attempts to make Merman into a movie star. The larger-than-life talents that made Merman a favorite on stage simply did not work well on the big screen. And while her youthful energy was appealing, she didn't have the glamorous looks Hollywood expected in a leading lady. Her effective performance in the hit film Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938) did not lead to other good roles, so Merman refocused her energies on stage roles.

By the end of the 1930s, Merman was Broadway's top musical comedy star. Every major producer and composer was clamoring for a chance to work with her, and her name guaranteed strong ticket sales for any project. She closed out the decade with another Cole Porter hit, DuBarry was a Lady (1939 - 408). Co-star Bert Lahr played a washroom attendant in love with a singing star (Merman). Knocked out by a drugged cocktail, Lahr dreams that he is Louis XV, chasing mistress Madame DuBarry (also played by Merman) around Versailles. Merman and Lahr stopped the show with the bawdy "But in the Morning, No" and the popular hit "Friendship." Although the chronically insecure Lahr was somewhat intimidated by Merman's strength, they made an effective team on stage.
While dreaming that he is King Louis XV of France, Bert Lahr contemplates Ethel Merman's latest royal scheme in DuBarry Was a Lady.

Bert's Lahr offered his son this frank assessment of what it was like to work with Merman –
"She's an individual with a special way of working. There was nothing vicious in what she did, she is a great performer. But she's tough. She never looks at you on stage. She's got her tricks."
- as quoted by John Lahr in Notes on a Cowardly Lion (New York: Limelight, 1984), pp. 207-208.

Tricks? Certainly – all comic stars had them, Lahr included. But Merman's seemingly boundless energy and undeniable talent made her a force of nature on stage. She was infamous for not looking fellow actors in the eye. She had only one focus while on stage – the audience. If the results did not meet with the approval of acting teachers, they delighted the public. That is why Merman had become one Broadway's biggest stars in less than ten years. And she was just getting started.Through the 1940s, Merman continued her unbroken string of Broadway hits. She introduced "Let's Be Buddies" in Cole Porter's Panama Hattie (1940 - 501), a comic romp involving a vulgar bar owner (Merman) who cleans up her act when she falls in love with a high society diplomat. The first show in over a decade to top 500 performances, its ensemble included future film stars as Betty Hutton and June Allyson.

Merman's fifth and final Porter musical was Something For the Boys (1943 - 422), a mindless bit of wartime fluff that included the hit song "Hey Good Lookin'." The so-called plot involved three cousins inheriting a Texas ranch that happens to sit next to a military base. As one of the lucky trio, Merman discovers her molar fillings can pick up radio signals, and she uses this bizarre talent to save a crippled airplane and win the love of a bandleader-turned-soldier. This convoluted situation kept audiences cheering for over a year, and gave Merman plenty of comic opportunities –

SOLDIER: (Admiring Merman's legs) Boy, look at those drumsticks.
MERMAN: How would you like a kick in the teeth from one of those drumsticks?
SOLDIER: How do you like that? And this is the womanhood I'm fighting to protect?
MERMAN: And this is the womanhood I'm fighting to protect!

Throughout World War II, Merman did her full share of wartime work, including war bond concerts and performances for the troops. She also appeared in Stage Door Canteen, a film set in the Manhattan nightclub where the stars performed for a military-only audience throughout the war.
By the time the war was over, Broadway was a different place. Thanks to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's Oklahoma!, the mindless musical comedies of the past had given way to more carefully written shows that fully integrated the songs and story. When librettists Herbert and Dorothy Fields came up with the idea of a musical based on the life of famed Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley, the great Jerome Kern agreed to compose the score, and Rodgers and Hammerstein stepped in as producers. Kern's unexpected death nearly derailed the project, until Irving Berlin was persuaded to give the new kind of musical a try.

Annie Get Your Gun (1946 - 1,147) was one of the biggest musical comedy hits of all time, the longest running show that Ethel Merman or Irving Berlin would ever be associated with. The score was a virtual one-man hit parade, including "Doin' What Comes Natur'ally," "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," "They Say It's Wonderful," and "Anything You Can Do." Merman became permanently identified with the role of Annie Oakley, as well as the theatrical anthem "There's No Business Like Show Business." She would perform the song to uninterrupted acclaim for the rest of her career.

Merman had reached her creative peak, and would stay there for years to come. The $28 a week stenographer was now commanding $4,700 a week – more than any other performer on Broadway. Some of Broadway's finest composers were doing some of their finest work for her, and they tended to rave about what she brought to their work. Irving Berlin said, "You'd better not write a bad lyric for Merman because people will hear it in the second balcony." Cole Porter called her "La Merman" and said she sounded "like a band going by." When illness forced Porter out of the public eye in his later years, Merman was one of the very few friends welcomed into his home.

Merman's circle of friends extended from childhood chums still living in Astoria to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. No matter who Ethel was with, her earthy, street smart approach was the same. When the Duchess danced the night away with an admirer, Merman tapped the former King of England on the shoulder and said, "Hey Duke, get off your royal a** and dance with your wife!" Instead of being offended by such coarse language, the Duke laughingly complied. Although a loving mother, Merman had her limits. When her daughter paged through a comic book during a rehearsal of Annie Get Your Gun, Merman snatched the magazine away, saying, "When I'm on stage, nobody reads."

Ethel Merman and Russel Nype stopped Call Me Madam (1950) cold with Irving Berlin's "You're Just in Love."

Call Me Madam (1950 - 644) spoofed Cold War politics by casting Merman as Sally Adams, a Washington socialite appointed ambassador to a small European principality. There she finds romance and sets off a few political firestorms, all set to songs by Irving Berlin. Merman had "Hostess With the Mostess" and shared the counterpoint showstopper "You're Just in Love" with newcomer Russell Nype. For once, her performance was considered so irreplaceable that she got to repeat her role in the delightful 1953 film version.

Merman's duet with Mary Martin on a 1953 television special drew record ratings and resulted in a best-selling recording. From that point on, Merman remained a popular guest artist on TV specials and variety shows. She starred in abbreviated TV versions of several of her Broadway hits, including Anything Goes (NBC - 1954) and Panama Hattie (NBC - 1954). A lifelong Republican, Merman was a frequent guest at the White House during the Eisenhower administration, 
Private Life
As Merman's career moved along with seemingly surefire success, her personal life followed a somewhat rockier path. Each of her four marriages ended in divorce. The first, to Hollywood agent Bill Smith, was primarily Ethel's way of escaping from a scandalous affair with married Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley – it ended in a cordial divorce after less than six months. Next came newspaper executive Robert Levitt, with whom Merman had two children – Bobby and Ethel. Eventually, a series of business difficulties made it impossible for Levitt to deal with Ethel's success – he was called "Mr. Merman" too often. Several years after they divorced, Levitt took his own life, leaving Merman to raise the children on her own.

By that time, Merman had married airline executive Bob Six. Hoping to give her children some semblance of a normal life, Merman announced her retirement and became a fulltime Denver housewife. But this arrangement soon palled, and Merman returned to work. Hollywood cast her as the mother of a theatrical family in There's No Business Like Show Business (1954), a lavishly showcase for a trunk load of old Irving Berlin songs. Despite a stellar cast, the film did poorly at the box office, and Ethel once more had to abandon her old ambition to be a movie star.

She followed several films by returning to Broadway for the less than thrilling Happy Hunting (1956 - 412) – a spoof of Grace Kelly's royal Monaco wedding that included the catchy "Mutual Admiration Society." Merman's relationship with co-star Fernando Lamas turned so acrimonious that he tried to embarrass her during performances, frequently upstaging her and openly wiping his mouth after their on-stage kisses. Actor's Equity (the stage actor's union) sanctioned Lamas (a very rare occurrence) and the show ran on, with the two stars countering onstage romance with offstage hostility.

Merman divorced Six after it became obvious that he primarily married her primarily for publicity purposes. While on the rebound, Merman was wooed by actor Ernest Borgnine, the Oscar-winning star of Marty and the popular TV comedy McHale's Navy. Their highly publicized 1964 marriage ended within days. Neither Merman nor Borgnine ever publicly explained what drove them apart so quickly. However, the marriage rated a special chapter in Merman's autobiography – one blank page. Embittered by the experience, she never married again.
On With the Show
Although many critics underestimated Merman's acting talents, she won universal praise as Mama Rose, the ruthless stage mother in Gypsy (1959), a musical based on the memoirs of striptease star Gypsy Rose Lee. Along with a searing libretto by Arthur Laurents, there was a brilliant score with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Merman's sizzling renditions of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn" became the stuff of theatrical legend. 

Stories about Merman's performance in Gypsy vary widely. Many recall it with awe as one of the great events in musical stage history. Others who caught Merman later on the in the run have complained that her acting sometimes took on a mechanical quality -- only the songs were uniformly socko. Her backstage behavior has inspired similarly contrasted tales. Co-star Jack Klugman has often praised Merman for her kindness and professional support. Another story involves young actress Sandra Church (the original Louise), who supposedly somehow got on Merman's bad side during the course of the run. When producer David Merrick asked Merman if she was still speaking to Church, Merman reputedly said, "Of course I speak to her! Every night when the curtain goes down, I say 'Go #!&! yourself!'"

Merman must have been disappointed when the Tony went to Mary Martin for The Sound of Music. There have been any number of idiotic Tony decisions over the years, but it is inconceivable that anyone playing Maria Von Trapp could possibly outclass Merman's Mamma Rose. But Oscar Hammerstein's death made Sound of Music a sentimental favorite with Tony voters. Gypsy's powerhouse book and score did not even receive the courtesy of nominations. 

Few would have believed that Mama Rose was the last stage role Merman would originate. But the demands of eight performances a week were becoming too much, forcing Merman to so limit her life that it was "like taking the veil." When offered the chance to star in the new musical Hello Dolly!, Merman declined, saying she was simply too tired to take on another show. She took on several films, including an acclaimed performance as the greedy Mrs. Marcus in director Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). She gave another hilarious performance as a French whorehouse madam in director Norman Jewison's comedy The Art of Love (1965).

The bulk of Merman's legendary career was behind her at a time when popular culture was undergoing massive change. Merman had the task of carrying on as something more than a great performer – she had the burden of being a living Broadway legend in a world that was paying increasingly less attention to Broadway.Merman was surprisingly nonchalant about her talents. "Hell, I just sing! I open my mouth and it happens, what can I tell you?" She never admitted to stage fright, saying instead, "If they could do what I can do, they'd be up here and I'd be out there." It was in that spirit that Merman agreed to star in a limited run revival of Annie Get Your Gun (1966). Broadway audiences greeted her like a long-lost friend, forcing her to encore Irving Berlin's new song "Old Fashioned Wedding" at every performance. The run was extended, and the production was eventually broadcast on network television.

But personal tragedy soon overshadowed this public triumph. Merman's daughter Ethel had suffered from a series of emotional problems in the 1960s, but no one expected her death due to an overdose of prescribed medication in 1967. Inconsolable, Merman gradually returned to work with TV appearances and several regional tours of Call Me Madam.

Merman agreed to take over the lead in Hello Dolly! for a three month run in 1970. Her tumultuous opening night ended with a dozen curtain calls and loving reviews from the critics. Playing to sold-out houses, a gratified Merman stayed on for nine months, making Hello Dolly! the longest running musical up to that time. Although Merman enjoyed the adulation, this production marked her last fulltime run on Broadway.
Final Years
Merman remained active in nightclubs, film and television. She provided the voice for the evil witch Mombi in the animated feature Journey Back to Oz (1971), and fictional gossip columnist Hedda Parsons in the ill-conceived comedy Ron Ton Ton (1976). On television, she played a singing missionary in Tarzan, was the comic criminal Lola Lasagna on Batman, portrayed herself on The Lucy Show and That Girl, and starred in an unsuccessful sitcom pilot. Merman's candid opinions made her an ongoing favorite on national and local talk shows, and she made a memorable guest appearance on The Muppet Show, singing showtunes with Kermit and the gang.

Never one to shrink from challenges, Merman continued singing. A successful solo appearance with The Boston Pops in 1975 led to a series of acclaimed concert appearances. Her 1977 reunion concert with Mary Martin proved to be one of the theatrical events of the decade. Her amusing autobiography was published in 1978, offering some surprisingly frank opinions about the people and events of her past. Proving her sense of humor, she willingly spoofed herself in the feature film Airplane (1980), playing a mentally deranged military man who "thinks he's Ethel Merman." She also turned out a disco album of her classic showstoppers. Fans found it rather campy, but were delighted to hear her voice ring out effortlessly over the driving dance beat. Despite the pronounced vibrato that marked her singing in these years, her voice remained unerringly on pitch.

Some changes in popular culture were simply too much for Merman to bear. Although she loved salty language and adult jokes in private conversation, she could not accept hearing them onstage. After seeing Kander and Ebb's Chicago in 1975, she complained to her friend Rose Marie, "You know what Gwen Verdon says right at the beginning? 'I gotta pee!' Can you imagine that in a musical? Jeez, that ain't Broadway." However, when Merman attended a performance of the Tony-winning Torch Song Trilogy, playwright/star Harvey Fierstein asked what she thought of the show, and has quoted her as responding with, "I thought it was a piece of ****, but the audience laughed and cried, so what the **** do I know?"

Liberated from the discipline of regular performances, Merman enjoyed an active social life. Always an enthusiastic drinker, she switched to wine when the hard stuff became too much for her. By day, she loved needlepoint, and spent hours gossiping with friends. Often seen near her home on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Merman actively avoided autograph seekers and the other trappings of fame. She remained an active letter writer, and maintained spectacularly detailed scrapbooks covering her full career with typewritten notes to credit every clipping. Merman's later years were marked by a shortened temper and the abrupt ending of some friendships. She also had to endure the deaths of her beloved parents in the 1970s.

Ethel Merman opened a new career with this 1975 appearance with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops on PBS.

Merman continued to work on television. She joined former co-star Bob Hope to perform "It's De-Lovely" on a Gershwin tribute, and did a memorable guest shot with on the Muppet show. She appeared several times on the popular Love Boat series, including an all-star episode with Ann Miller, Carol Channing and Della Reese.

Her last New York performance took place at Carnegie Hall in 1982 as a benefit for the Museum of the City of New York's theater collection. She held forth for an hour in top form, belting out hit after hit with a power that belied her seventy four years. She made one of her last recorded appearances at a PBS benefit stopping the all star show with "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "They Say It's Wonderful." The video of that evening shows her offering the same no-nonsense, "plant both feet and sing" delivery she always had, and both solos bring the audience to its feet with wild cheers – not out of sympathy, but in a genuine response to her still thrilling talents.

In the Spring of 1982, Merman appeared on Mary Martin's PBS talk show Over Easy, where they joined forces to sing "Anything You Can Do" from their mutual hit, Annie Get Your Gun. Almost thirty years after their historic duet on the Ford show, Merman and Martin once again caused a sensation, and they were invited to repeat the number as part of a tribute to Irving Berlin at the next Academy Awards. An exciting prospect, but it was not to be.

Merman as she appeared on the cover of her 1979 disco album – a campy but entertaining collection of her hit songs set to a driving club beat.

Merman was at home in her New York apartment when a sudden flash of pain left her incoherent and unable to walk in April of 1983. Thinking it was a stroke, doctors soon discovered the cause to be an inoperable brain tumor. Ethel rallied for several months and was cheered by visits from a few longtime friends like Benay Venuta and Mary Martin, but an inexorable decline forced her to remain in seclusion. Towards the end, she was unable to speak, or even to recognize herself on television. To a fiercely independent woman who had known extraordinarily good health, such helplessness must have been particularly nightmarish. Lovingly cared for by her son Bobby, Ethel Merman died on February 15, 1984.

Several years before, in her second autobiography, Merman wrote –
I don't want to sound pretentious, but in a funny way I feel I'm the last of a kind. I don't mean that there aren't some girls out there somewhere who are just as talented as I was. But even if they are, where will they find the shows like Girl Crazy, Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam and Gypsy? They just don't produce those vehicles anymore.

- Merman: An Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978) p. 264. How right she was! Ethel Merman came on the scene at just the right time, providing one of the brightest talents to emerge during the golden age of American musical theatre. Belting out her songs with merry abandon, she helped electrify the Broadway musical. Although she often insisted that her success was mostly a matter of luck, her talent remains the stuff of legend. Those who laugh at Merman's outsized personality and all-out performance style simply do not understand. When the theater had no sound designers, here was a star who could sell a song all the way up to the second balcony, and win laughs to boot. There has never been anyone else quite like her, and doubtless never will be again. Ethel Merman was irreplaceable. As epitaphs go, who could ask for anything more?


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