MERMAN - Biography Continued
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.
"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
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
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
Bert's Lahr offered
his son this frank assessment of what it was like to work with
"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
- as quoted by John Lahr in Notes on a Cowardly Lion (New York:
Limelight, 1984), pp. 207-208.
– 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
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 –
Merman's legs) Boy, look at those drumsticks.
MERMAN: How would you like a kick in the teeth from one of those
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,
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
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 #!&!
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
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.
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
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
Ethel Merman opened
a new career with this 1975 appearance with Arthur Fiedler and
the Boston Pops on PBS.
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