Martin, Mary (Virginia)

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Martin, Mary (Virginia)

Martin, Mary (Virginia), endearing American singer, actress, and dancer; b. Weatherford, Tex., Dec. 1, 1913; d. Rancho Mirage, Calif., Nov. 4, 1990. Martin ranked with Ethel Merman as one of the most successful musical comedy performers of the 1940s and 1950s. She starred in two long-running musicals with songs by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, South Pacific and The Sound of Music, and appeared in a series of other theatrical works on Broadway, in the West End, and on tour from 1938 to 1987. She sang in a warm soprano and acted in an engaging manner that lent her characters a friendly wholesomeness, whether she was portraying the mischievous postulant in The Sound of Music or the kept woman who sang “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in her first show, Leave It to Me! She also performed successfully in films, on radio, records, and television.

Martin’s father, Preston Martin, was a lawyer. Her mother, Juanita Presley Martin, was a violin teacher, and Mary took violin lessons from age five. At age 12 she began studying voice with Helen Fouts Cahoon in Fort Worth. (She resumed studying with Cahoon in N.Y. in the late 1930s and studied with William Herman in the 1950s.) On Nov. 3, 1930, she married Benjamin Jackson Hagman, an accountant who later became a lawyer. Their son, Larry Hagman, became a successful actor on television. The couple divorced in 1937.

Martin opened a dancing school in Weatherford and began studying dance locally, then at the Fanchon and Marco School of Theatre in Hollywood. Determining to pursue a career as an entertainer, she moved to Hollywood, where she struggled for several years while studying voice with Dr. Stetson Humphrey. She sang on local radio and found minor film work, but her break did not come until she participated in a talent contest at the Trocadero nightclub where she was seen by theatrical producer Lawrence Schwab, who signed her to a contract and moved her to N.Y.

Martin was cast in the Cole Porter musical Leave It to Me! (N.Y., Nov. 9, 1938) and created a sensation singing the risqué song “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” She recorded the song for Brunswick Records but soon after signed to Decca. On Jan. 11, 1939, she began an eightweek engagement at the Rainbow Room nightclub while continuing to perform on Broadway

Martin signed a contract with Paramount Pictures and returned to Hollywood, where she made three films, The Great Victor Herbert (released December 1939), Rhythm on the River (August 1940), and Love Thy Neighbor (December 1940). She appeared on the radio variety series The Tuesday Night Party from September to December 1939. Unhappy with making movies, she accepted a part in a stage musical, Nice Goin’, which opened a tryout in New Haven, Conn., Oct. 21, 1939, but closed Nov. 4 in Boston without reaching Broadway. She returned to Hollywood and acted in the films Kiss the Boys Goodbye (August 1941), New York Town (November 1941), Birth of the Blues (December 1941), Star Spangled Rhythm (December 1942), Happy Go Lucky (March 1943), and True to Life (October 1943). She recorded her first album, Mary Martin in an Album of Cole Porter Songs, released by Decca in 1940.

On May 5, 1940, Martin married Paramount’s West Coast story editor, Richard Halliday (real name, John Hope Hammond), who became her manager and coproduced some of the musicals in which she later appeared. They had a daughter, Mary Heller Halliday, who sometimes performed with her mother. Martin was a regular on the radio series Good News of 1940 and on the Kraft Music Hall, starring Bing Crosby, during 1942.

Martin again left Hollywood to appear in the Broadway-bound musical Dancing in the Streets, which opened a tryout in Boston on March 23, 1943, and closed on April 10 without getting to N.Y. She finally achieved a starring role in a successful Broadway musical by playing the title character in Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s One Touch of Venus (N.Y., Oct. 7, 1943). Martin stayed with the show for more than a year, then appeared in the national tour from February to June 1945. Meanwhile, she recorded “I’ll Walk Alone” (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sammy Cahn), which peaked in the Top Ten in October 1944.

Martin returned to Hollywood briefly to make a featured appearance as herself in the Cole Porter film biography Night and Day (released July 1946), then took up her second starring role on Broadway in Lute Song (N.Y., Feb. 6, 1946). It ran 142 performances, after which Martin went to England to costar with Noël Coward in his show Pacific 1860 (London, Dec. 19, 1946); it ran 129 performances. Returning to the U.S., Martin took the title role in the national tour of Annie Get Your Gun, which opened March 10, 1947, in Dallas and ran 11 months. She received her first Tony Award in 1948 for the performance.

Martin’s third starring role on Broadway, in South Pacific (N.Y., April 7, 1949) brought her greatest triumph. She won the Tony Award for Outstanding Musical Actress and performed in the show for more than two years in N.Y., then, starting Nov. 1, 1951, in London. The original Broadway cast album, released by Columbia Records in May 1949, had the longest #1 run of any album in history and remained in the charts more than seven years, selling several million copies. Martin switched to Columbia as a recording artist and peaked in the Top Ten in April 1950 in a duet with Arthur Godfrey of the novelty song “Go to Sleep, Go to Sleep, Go to Sleep” (music by Fred Spielman, lyrics by Sammy Cahn). She also made a series of studio cast recreations of vintage Broadway musicals for the label, The Band Wagon (1951), Anything Goes (1951), Girl Crazy (1952), and Babes in Arms (1952).

Martin turned to television in 1951, appearing March 4 on the special Richard Rodgers’ Jubilee Show, a tribute to the composer. On June 15, 1953, her joint appearance with Ethel Merman on The Ford 50th Anniversary Show, broadcast simultaneously on NBC and CBS, drew 60 million viewers, the largest television audience in history up to that time. In October 1953 she made her final film appearance, again as herself, in Main Street to Broadway. She returned to the N.Y. stage in a nonsinging role in the comedy Kind Sir (N.Y., Nov. 4, 1953), which ran 166 performances, through March 27, 1954. On March 28, 1954, she emceed the TV special The Rodgers and Hammerstein Cavalcade, broadcast on all four networks to an audience of 70 million.

During the summer of 1954, Martin starred in the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Company’s production of a musical version of Peter Pan, containing songs with music by Mark “Moose” Charlap and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh. The show was revised, adding songs with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, for its Broadway opening on Oct. 24. On March 7, 1955, Martin and the cast performed the show live on television, again setting a record for the most-watched TV program. The broadcast curtailed ticket sales, and the show closed after 152 performances. But Martin won her third Tony Award as well as an Emmy Award for Best Actress—Single Performance. The original cast album, released by RCA Victor in March 1955, was a Top Ten hit.

Martin again took on a non-singing stage role when she appeared in a production of The Skin of Our Teeth in 1955. The play ran in Paris, Washington, D.C., and N.Y. before a live broadcast on television on Sept. 11. On Oct. 22, Martin was back on television, doing a special with Noël Coward, Together with Music. She moved to a ranch in Anápolis, Brazil, in 1955 and did not take on another long-term commitment to a stage musical for several years. On Jan. 9, 1956, she repeated her performance in Peter Pan live on television. She was back on television Oct. 28 starring in the straight play Born Yesterday. Signing to RCA Victor, she recorded the album Mary Martin Sings, Richard Rodgers Plays in April 1957. After appearing in Annie Get Your Gun and South Pacific in repertory in San Francisco and Los Angeles for 10 weeks starting in August, she did Annie Get Your Gun as a television special on Nov. 27, and the TV soundtrack album, released in December, spent several weeks in the charts.

Martin embarked on a three-month national concert tour during the winter of 1958–59. In each of the 87 cities in which she played, she performed a children’s matinee, called Magic with Mary Martin, that featured songs with music by Linda Melnick Rogers and lyrics by Mary Rodgers, and an evening show, Music with Mary Martin, devoted to familiar songs from her musicals. On Easter Sunday, March 29, 1959, she performed both concerts live on television. She recorded the songs from the children’s show, along with songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein television musical Cinderella, for an RCA album, Three to Make Music/Cinderella, which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Recording for Children.

Martin returned to Broadway for the first time in more than four years in The Sound of Music (N.Y., Nov. 16, 1959), second only to South Pacific as her most successful venture. She was the major investor in the show, and she appeared in it for more than two years,winning her fourth Tony Award for her performance. The original Broadway cast album became the most successful LP of 1960, topping the charts, selling more than two million copies, and winning the Grammy Award for Best Cast Album. On Dec. 8, 1960, Martin made her third live television appearance as Peter Pan, a performance that was taped and rebroadcast frequently thereafter.

Martin appeared in her sixth starring role in a Broadway musical with Jennie (N.Y., Oct. 17, 1963), containing songs with music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Howard Dietz. Her least successful effort, the show ran only 82 performances, though the cast album charted for several weeks. She was nominated for a 1964 Grammy Award for Best Recording for Children for the album A Spoonful of Sugar. In April 1965 she embarked on a tour with Hello, Dolly!, performing in North America and the Far East and entertaining American troops in Vietnam before opening in London on Dec. 2. On April 3, 1966, she starred in the television special Mary Martin at Eastertime with the Radio City Music Hall.

Martin’s final starring role in a Broadway musical came with the two- character show I Do! I Do! (N.Y, Dec. 5, 1966), featuring songs with music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones. The cast album spent four months in the charts. Martin toured with the show in 1968–69, then retired to Brazil. Her husband died on March 3, 1973, and she moved back to the U.S. in 1974. In 1977–78 she toured and briefly played on Broadway in the straight play Do You Turn Somersaults? She appeared in a television movie, Valentine, on Dec. 7, 1979. In 1981 she became the co-host of a daily public affairs program for senior citizens, Over Easy, on public television. She was injured in an automobile accident on Sept. 5, 1982, but returned to the show and acted as a guest star in television series in the mid- 1980s. In 1986–87 she toured the U.S. in the play Legends. In April 1989 it was announced that she would appear in a tour of Grover’s Corners, a musical adaptation of Our Town, but she was diagnosed with cancer the following month. She died of the disease at age 76 in November 1990.


My Heart Belongs (N.Y., 1976).


S. Newman, M. M. on Stage (Philadelphia, 1969); J. Kirkwood, Diary of a Mad Playwright: How I Toured with M. M. and Carol Channing and Lived to Tell About It (1989); B. Rivadue, M. M.:A Bio- Bibliography (Westport, Conn., 1991).

—William Ruhlmann

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Martin, Mary (Virginia)

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