On October 13, 1930 an 18-year-old singer named Ethel Agnes Zimmermann came on the stage at Broadway’s Alvin Theater and introduced “I’ve Got Rhythm” in George Gershwin’s new musical, Girl Crazy and changed Broadway forever. A few minutes before she had entertained the crowd with her version of “Sam and Delilah,” which had attracted attention, but when she began to sing “I’ve Got Rhythm” near the end of the first act using her voice to transmit a single note for an entire 16-bar chorus, the audience was certain that a new star had been born. She was later characterized as being able to hold a note longer than the Chase Manhattan Bank.
Born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann on January 16, 1909 in Astoria Long Island, New York, Ethel Merman made her debut as a five year old at the Astoria, Long Island Republican Club. Accompanied by her father, she was billed as Little Ethel Zimmermann. Before long she was appearing for civic, fraternal and philanthropic organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, the Masons, and the Long Island Society for the Prevention and Relief of Tuberculosis. She also appeared at Camp Yaphank on Long Island during a period when Irving Berlin was also helping to cheer World War I soldiers. Although she never had any formal voice training, she sang in the choir of the Dutch Reformed Church and herfathertaught her to read music and play the piano.
Merman took a four year business course at William Cullen Bryant High School and became proficient in typing, shorthand, and bookkeeping. Upon graduation she obtained a $23 a week job as a stenographer at an automobile anti-f reeze business and later was hired as a secretary to Caleeb Bragg, President of the Bragg Kliesrath Corporation, a manufacturer of early vacuum brakes. She continued to sing at social events and company outings, which soon led to singing in local clubs. Her boss got her an opportunity to sing on Broadway with George White, the famed producer, but when she was offered work in the chorus only, she declined the offer indicating she only wanted a singing job.
She continued to perform at local clubs including Jimmy Durante’s Les Ambassadeurs Club on Broadway, where the two became life long friends. In addition, Merman performed at the Ritz Theater in Elizabeth, New Jersey on weekends and during the week at the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn. She was noticed at the Paramount by Vinton Freedley, who obtained an audition for her with George Gershwin in his penthouse apartment. The audition led to her Broadway debut in the 1930 Gershwin Broadway musical Girl Crazy, where she stopped the show. Ginger Rogers singled her out for the part when
Born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann on January 16, 1909, in Astoria Long Island, NY, (died February 15, 1984, New York, NY); daughter of Edward (an accountant) and Agnes Gardner Merman, (homemaker and choir singer); married William B. Smith (a theatrical agent) November 15, 1940, (divorced 1941); married Robert D. Levitt (newspaper executive) 1941, (divorced June 7, 1952); married Robert F. Six (airline executive) 1953, (divorced 1960); married Ernest Borgnine (actor) June 26, 1964, (divorced November 1965); children (with second husband): Ethel born July 20, 1942 (died 1967) and Robert Daniels Jr. born August 11, 1945.
Made Broadway debut in Girl Crazy, 1930; also starred in other Broadway performances including Annie Get Your Gun, 1946; Call Me Madam, 1950; and Gypsy, 1959; performed on KNK radio with her two sisters calling themselves the Stafford Sisters, 1935; formed the Pied Pipers 1938; performed with Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra, 1939; joined the Johnny Mercer Show, 1944; signed with Capitol Records 1944; had a series of radio shows 1944-1949; broadcast for Radio Luxembourg (Europe) and Voice of America 1950; Jo Stafford Show-CBS-TV 1954;
Awards: Special Tony Award, 1974; New York Drama Critics Awards for Something for the Boys; Annie Get Your Gun; and Gypsy; Tony Award for Call Me Madam, Drama Desk Award for Hello Dolly; Donaldson Award for Annie Get Your Gun.
she saw Merman’s act in a night club in White Plains, New York.
After Girl Crazy, Merman appeared in George White’s Scandals with Rudy Vallee, Alice Faye and Ray Bolger. Scandals closed after seven months and 202 performances, and the show introduced such notable songs such as “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and “The Thrill is Gone.” After Scandals Merman became a vaudeville head liner until she returned to Broadway in November of 1932 in the show Take a Chance.
Over the span of her career Merman appeared in five of Cole Porter’s legendary shows including Anything Goes with Victor Moore in November of 1934, Red Hot and Blue in October of 1936 with Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope, and DuBarry was a Lady in 1939. She also performed in Panama Hattie in October of 1940 and referred to herself as “Iron Lungs Merman” and Something for the Boys in 1943. Porter once described her as a “brass band going by” and she became dubbed as “The Queen of Broadway.” In fact, one of the most uncomfortable times in Porter’s life came when he and producers were trying to recruit Merman for one of his new productions. Merman refused to sign a contract until Porter came to her mother’s apartment and played and sang his songs for the entire Zimmermann family. He came and eventually performed many of his songs including “You’re the Top,” “All Through the Night,” “Anything Goes,” and “I Get a Kick out of You.” Afterwards, she signed the contract.
Merman was a kid at heart and in her apartment she collected Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, which sat in a rocking chair; she even had Raggedy Ann stationery. She also kept a small Christmas tree in the foyer in her home in Queens, and every night she lit its lights because she felt it kept the wonderful spirit of Christmas throughout the year. Merman also volunteered her time every Wednesday at the Roosevelt Hospital in New York because she was very pleased with the care her parents had received there. She worked in the hospital’s gift department.
Irving Berlin wrote two of Merman’s most memorable plays, Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam. Annie Get Your Gun opened on Broadway in May of 1946 and ran for 1, 147 performances. The show co-starred Ray Middleton. It was the biggest hit of both Berlin and Merman and received rave reviews by New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson citing “her brass band voice, infectious sense of rhythm and her razzle dazzle performance gave her songs a remarkable beat and relish.” Berlin had replaced Jerome Kern who had died of a heart attack when he was about to begi n work on the play. The play was a huge success and Berlin and his wife, Ellin, celebrated their twentieth anniversary by going on a cruise after receiving a telegram from Merman after the show. It read “Thanks”. In 1966, she returned for a brief revival of Annie Get Your Gun and although her voice was still powerful and pleasing, critics questioned a 59 year old woman playing a love struck girl.
The second major collaboration between Merman and Berlin was the introduction of his Broadway musical comedy Call Me Madam, that opened in October of 1950 and ran for 644 performances. It was a satire based on former United States President Harry S. Truman appointing Washingtonian party giver Perle Mesta to the Ambassadorship to Luxembourg and co-starred Paul Lukas and Russell Nype. Merman let everyone know that she would not accept any changes in her songs less than a week before opening. When Berlin came to her with some changes in one song’s lyrics she bluntly turned him down saying “Call me Miss Birds Eye. It’s frozen.” During the preparation of Call Me Madam, Berlin struggled with the second act and overnight he wrote a new song “You’re Just in Love” which revitalized the act and became a popular standard. It marked the first time in 36 years that Berlin had introduced a two part number, and at age 62, he was very delighted to have another major hit production.
Her favorite role and perhaps her most important contribution to Broadway musical theater was her role as the ruthless mother of stripper Gypsy Rose, Lee, in Gypsy. It opened in May of 1959 and brought Merman out of semi-retirement. Gypsy ran for 702 performances and co-starred Jack Klugman with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Jerome Robbins the director of Gypsy wanted Sondheim to write the music but Merman, who exercised considerable control over the show, felt he was too inexperienced and insisted on Styne instead. She lateragreed to let Sondheim write the lyrics. Merman’s role as Mama Rose was the last she created and the first she took on tour. The tour lasted from March through December of 1961.
In July 1965, Merman revived Call Me Madam in Los Angeles at the Valley Theater, and in 1966, she revived Annie Get Your Gun at the New York State Theater, and laterbrought it back to Broadway. In 1968, she appeared in Call Me Madam at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami and, in March of 1970, she took over the lead role of Dolly Levi Gallagher in Hello Dolly.
Merman also appeared in fourteen musical films. Her major film credits include It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in 1963 with Spencer Tracy, Edie Adams and Milton Berle, The Art of Love in 1965, Airplane in 1980 with Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges, We’re Not Dressing and Kid Millions in 1934, Strike Me Pink, Alexander’s Ragtime Band in 1938, There’s No Business Like Show Business in 1954, Anything Goes in 1936 with Bing Crosby, Call Me Madam in 1953 with Vera Ellen, Donald O’Connor and George Sanders. “The Best Thing for You,” which was performed in Call Me Madam, also served as the theme song for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Presidential campaign helping to elect him to the White House. She also appeared in many television productions including a special in 1953 with Broadway star, Mary Martin. In addition she had a regular weekly radio program in New York on Radio Station WABC.
Merman was married and divorced four times including her third marriage to Robert Six, the President of Continental Airlines and her fourth marriage to Academy Award winning actor, Ernest Borgnine, which lasted only thirty eight days. Her first marriage to William Smith lasted three days only, but it was over a year before their Mexican divorce was finalized. She had two children Ethel and Robert Jr. with her second husband Robert D. Levitt.
Merman amassed over 6, 000 performances in fourteen Broadway hit shows and Lloyds of London once said she had the highest rating for health and dependability of any actress in the American theater. In her role in Call me Madam, which spanned over six years, she never missed a performance. After a career of over fifty years, her final performance was at a Carnegie Hall Benefit Concert in 1982. She died of a heart attack in 1984 in Manhattan ten months after undergoing brain surgery at Roosevelt Hospital; the same facility she had regularly worked as a volunteer. On May 5, 1989, William Cullen Bryant High School renamed its auditorium in honorof its famous alumna and in attendance was herson, Bob. A performance of Gypsy followed the ceremony.
The Ethel Merman Collection, Universal.
Victory Collection-The Smithsonian Remembers When America Went to War, RCA.
I Get a Kick Out of You, PAL
American Legends Series- You’re the Top, PRT.
Ethel Merman Collection, RZT.
There’s No Business Like Show Business: Ethel Merman Collection, RZT.
Songs She Made Famous, Decca.
On Stage, VIK.
Call Me Madam, MCA.
Annie Get Your Gun, Decca.
Barrett, Mary Ellin, Irving Berlin, A Daughters’ Memoir, Simon & Schuster 1994.
Bering, Rudiger, Musicals, Barron’s Educational Series Inc., 1998.
Frommer, Myrna Katz and Harvey Frommer, It Happened on Broadway, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1998.
Gammond, Peter, The Oxford Companion to Popi//arMusic, Oxford Univ. Press 1993.
Green, Stanley, Broadway Musicals, Show by Show, Hal Leonard Corp., 1996.
Maltin, Leonard, Movie and Video Guide 1995, Penguin Books Ltd., 1994.
Merman, Ethel, Merman An Autobiography, Simon and Schuster 1978.
Morley, Sheridan, The Great Stage Stars, Facts File Publications 1986.
Osborne, Jerry, Rockin Records, Osborne Publications 1999.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, St. Martin’s Press, 1966.
Young, William C., Famous Actors and Actresses of the American Stage-R. R. BowkerCo. New York and London, 1978.
Los Angeles Times, February 16, 1984
New York Times, November 22, 1934; February 16, 1984
“Ethel Merman,” A&EBiography, www.biography.com,(August 1999).
Additional information provided by Will Friedwald in the liner notes of The Ethel Merman Collection and a Jo Stafford interview in November of 1998.
—Francis D. McKinley
For more than fifty years singer and actress Ethel Merman (1909-1984) was a beloved legend of stage and screen. Her first musical appearance, in George and Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy in 1930, resulted in her instant rise from secretary and occasional club singer to Broadway singing sensation. Merman went on to star in a dozen more stage musicals and numerous films and continued to perform into her seventies.
Actress and singer Ethel Merman was born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann in Astoria, a suburb of New York City, on January 16, 1909. She later shortened her name to Merman because, she said, "If you put Zimmermann up in lights, you'd die from the heat." Merman showed an early interest in singing, and her parents, Edward and Agnes, encouraged her. Edward Merman, an accountant, loved to sit at the family piano and sing, and his daughter often joined him. Even then her voice showed signs of becoming a giant instrument; she noted later in a New Yorker interview that, "The neighbors used to hear me, of course." Merman made her public debut at the age of five, singing at a Red Cross camp.
In high school Merman trained to be a secretary; even in later life, she insisted on taking her own notes at business meetings and handling her own correspondence. She became the secretary to the president of a New York City company, who had connections in the entertainment industry. He gave her a letter of introduction to George White, a theatrical producer. White offered Merman a place in the chorus line of Scandals, a long-running and highly popular Broadway revue; amazingly, she turned down this break because she preferred to sing. Merman continued to work as a secretary, but also began to sing at nightclubs. While singing at the Little Russia club, agent Lou Irwin noticed Merman and signed her to a six-month contract at Warner Brothers' New York studio. However, the closest she came to a film performance was as a bit player, wearing a leopard skin. Merman decided to keep singing at night clubs and soon had regular engagements.
At this point Merman elected to quit her day job and, in another stroke of good luck, she caught the attention of theatrical producer Vincent Freedley. In 1930 he arranged an audition with rising young composer George Gershwin, who was casting for a musical, Girl Crazy, cowritten with his brother Ira. Merman was hired and appeared on the program far down the cast list, as "Kate Fothergill," bride of a gambler. On opening night, while singing "I Got Rhythm," Merman held a high C for 16 bars. The audience went wild and she had to perform several encores. Her performance overshadowed the rest of the cast, including the musical's star, Ginger Rogers. George Gershwin, who was conducting the orchestra, reportedly ran backstage afterward and told Merman, "Don't ever let anyone give you a singing lesson; it'll ruin you." Merman became an instant star at the age of twenty-one, based on this single performance, and wisely followed Gershwin's advice. Girl Crazy ran for 272 performances, and Merman belted out "I Got Rhythm" eight times a week.
Teamed up with Cole Porter
After the success of Girl Crazy, Merman appeared in the eleventh edition of George White's Scandals. This time, however, rather than being offered a place in the chorus line, Merman was one of the headliners along with singer Rudy Vallee. She sang several numbers, and her solo rendition of "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" made the song a popular hit. Scandals ran on Broadway for 202 performances. After it closed in 1932, Merman then appeared on the road in Pittsburgh, in the musical Humpty Dumpty, a satire of American history. Unfortunately, this show was one of the few flops in Merman's career, and it soon closed without ever leaving Pittsburgh. However, by the next season Humpty Dumpty had been drastically rewritten and opened on Broadway as Take a Chance. Again Merman was a hit with audiences, which led to her being offered her first featured role in a Hollywood film.
The cast of the film We're Not Dressing included such major stars as Bing Crosby and Carole Lombard, but it did not give Merman a real chance to display her singing talent. Her biggest number was singing "The Animal in Me," which she shared with a "chorus line" of forty elephants. The song was cut from the final film and, after appearing in another minor film role in Kid Millions, Merman decided to return to the New York stage. These experiences foreshadowed what would be a major problem with Merman's screen appearances. She was not a typical screen beauty and, as she recalled later, the directors constantly told her to hold down her voice, her strong point.
In 1934 Merman starred in the musical comedy Anything Goes, which featured songs by Cole Porter. She sang several songs that are now among the most famous of show tunes, including "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," and the show's title song. Anything Goes was a major hit and ran for 420 performances. During its run Merman also was given a radio program of her own. Once again, she decided to try Hollywood, appearing in the film version of Anything Goes as well as several more forgettable roles. Again she was disappointed by her film career and returned to Broadway. Through the rest of the 1930s Merman continued to alternate stage and screen roles. She starred in three more Cole Porter stage musicals: Red, Hot and Blue!, Du Barry Was a Lady, and Panama Hattie; and in the films Happy Landing, Alexander's Ragtime Band, and Straight, Place, and Show. As usual, Merman found that she was a hit on stage, but her films were not as successful. Film executives began to feel the same; when Du Barry Was a Lady was filmed, Merman's role was given to Lucille Ball.
In 1943 Cole Porter turned to Merman once again when casting his new Broadway musical, Something for the Boys. Although the production was plagued by management problems and reviewers found Porter's new songs below his usual standards, Merman was stellar and the show ran for more than 400 performances. Something for the Boys marked one of the rare occasions when Merman missed a performance; several months into the show's run, she developed a severe case of laryngitis, and her understudy had to take over for a week. This musical also marked the fifth and last time that Merman would star in a Porter musical.
Greatest Hit Musicals Followed
After Something for the Boys closed, Merman was approached for the lead in a new musical to be produced by the famous team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Annie Get Your Gun. Equally famous composer Jerome Kern had agreed to write the show's songs; however, he died suddenly and Irving Berlin was convinced to step in. Merman's portrayal of Western marks woman Annie Oakley proved to be one of her most famous performances. With great Berlin songs like "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun" and "There's No Business Like Show Business," Annie Get Your Gun was a huge hit and ran for 1,147 performances. However, when the show was filmed in 1950, Merman's role went to Betty Hutton (who also had been given the film lead in Red, Hot and Blue! the previous year).
During the 1950s Merman starred in two more hit stage musicals, Call Me Madam and Gypsy. In Call Me Madam, another Berlin musical that opened in 1950, Merman portrayed a character based on noted Washington, D.C. hostess Perle Mesta. Merman took pride in always knowing her lines, but also did not like last minute changes. When Berlin asked her to learn new lyrics for the song "The Hostess with the Mostes"' she reportedly refused, saying, "Call me Miss Bird's Eye. It's frozen." Call Me Madam had advance sales of $1 million and ran for 644 performances. Merman also starred in the film version made in 1953.
Merman's last great stage hit was 1959's Gypsy, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. In this story of famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, Merman played the ultimate driven stage mother, Rose Hovick. Her number "Everything's Coming Up Roses" was an instant hit, as was the show itself; it ran for 702 performances. Merman considered the role of Rose Hovick her favorite, and "Everything's Coming Up Roses" became her anthem. She was deeply disappointed when her role in the 1962 film version went to Rosalind Russell. After Gypsy, Merman starred in a 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun and then joined the cast of Hello Dolly for three months during the seventh year of its run.
Tragedies Filled Personal Life
Despite Merman's flashy, self-confident stage and screen image, her personal life never matched the success of her professional life. She was married and divorced four times: to film agent William B. Smith; airline president Robert F. Six; publishing executive Robert D. Levitt; and, finally, actor Ernest Borgnine for 38 days in 1964. She had two children with Levitt, who committed suicide years after their divorce. Merman's daughter (nicknamed "Ethel Jr.") struggled with chronic depression and lost custody of her children to her husband after their divorce. She died in 1967 following a drug and alcohol overdose, in a vacation cabin with her visiting young children in the next room. "Ethel Jr.'s" death also was listed as a suicide, but Merman never accepted that verdict and insisted that her daughter had taken an accidental overdose of prescription medicine.
Merman continued to perform well into her seventies. She retired from Broadway in 1970, after starring in Hello Dolly, but during the 1960s and 1970s she frequently appeared on television programs. Merman was a guest on Judy Garland's variety show and also featured on Batman (as "Lola Lasagne"), The Love Boat, and The Muppet Show. Merman also made several films during this time, although none were the hit musicals that had made her famous. Among her later films were It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and Airplane (1980), in which she played an injured soldier who thought he was Ethel Merman. Her last major public appearance was at a Carnegie Hall benefit performance in 1982. The next year Merman underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor that was discovered after she suddenly collapsed in her apartment. However, the tumor was not operable and she continued to decline. Sadly, the woman with a giant singing voice and vibrant stage presence became bedridden and had to struggle to speak even a few words. Merman died in New York City, where she had lived her entire life, on February 15, 1984.
Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia, Penguin/Dutton, 1994.
Merman, Ethel, and George Eells, Merman: An Autobiography, Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Merman, Ethel, and Pete Martin, Who Could Ask for Anything More, Doubleday, 1955.
Thomas, Bob, I Got Rhythm: The Ethel Merman Story, Putnam's, 1985.
National Review, March 23, 1984, p. 16.
New Yorker, May 31, 1993, p. 73.
Time, February 27, 1984, p. 104.
Vanity Fair, February 1992, p. 174.
"Biography for Ethel Merman," Internet Movie Database,http://www.imdb.com(December 6, 2000). □