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Martin, Mary (1913–1990)

Martin, Mary (1913–1990)

Tony-Award winning actress, singer, dancer, and leading lady of the American musical comedy stage, best known for her portrayal of Peter Pan on stage and television . Born Mary Virginia Martin on December 1, 1913, in Weatherford, Texas; died of cancer in California on November 4, 1990; daughter of Preston Martin and Juanita (Presley) Martin; had one older sister, Geraldine Martin; married Benjamin Hagman, in 1930 (divorced around 1936); married Richard Halliday (a story editor at Paramount), in 1940; children: (first marriage) one son, actor Larry Hagman (b.1931); (second marriage) one daughter, Heller Halliday (b. 1941).

Taught dancing in her hometown before entering show business in Los Angeles as a nightclub singer; first appeared on Broadway (1938); created the roles of Nellie Forbush in Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific (1949), Peter Pan in Jerome Robbins' musical production of Peter Pan (1954), and Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1959).

Selected filmography:

Rage of Paris (1938); The Great Victor Herbert (1939); Rhythm on the River (1940); Love Thy Neighbor (1940); New York Town (1941); Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1941); Birth of the Blues (1941); Star Spangled Rhythm (1942); True to Life (1943); Happy Go Lucky (1943); Night and Day (1946); Main Street to Broadway (1953).

Stage:

appeared in Leave It to Me, One Touch of Venus, Lute Song, Pacific 1860 (U.K.), Annie Get Your Gun (tour), South Pacific, Kind Sir, Skin of Our Teeth, Jenny, Peter Pan, The Sound of Music, I Do!, I Do!, Legends.

On any school day during the early 1920s, the residents of Weatherford, Texas, would be treated to the spectacle of a slim young girl cartwheeling downhill from Weatherford's only school to a trim farmhouse two blocks away. Everyone in town, numbering a few thousand, knew it was the daughter of Preston and Juanita Martin who gave them this acrobatic display, and that Mary Virginia Martin was a musical child, indeed.

"From the time I was born," Mary Martin would say many years later, "I could hear notes and reproduce them," and it was true that she had been exposed to music from the day of her birth, on December 1, 1913. Her mother was a music teacher and taught her daughter early on to play the violin. Even before she entered first grade, Martin was singing with the Weatherford band on Saturday nights in the town square, being especially remembered for her renditions of "Moonlight and Roses" and "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin' Along." From her father, a lawyer, she learned a certain dramatic style, for Preston Martin was known for his stirring elocution at the town's courthouse and would attract a good turnout when he was arguing a case. Then, too, there was the Weatherford movie house, whose owner, a client of her father, gave her passes to all the films that came to town. Before long, Mary had added imitations of Ruby Keeler , Bing Crosby, and other movie stars to her repertoire and won prizes for them at local affairs.

After spending a childhood in relative freedom on a very large farm in a very small town, Martin was sent off to a girls' finishing school in Nashville, Tennessee, when she was 14. Cut off from the open fields and blue skies of home and, even worse, from her childhood sweetheart, Ben Hagman, Mary spent a miserable two years broken only by short visits from her mother and the occasional vacation trip back home. She finally persuaded her mother to bring Ben to visit her in Nashville, and it was then that Juanita learned of Mary's determination to marry Ben, a plan hatched in a flurry of surreptitious letters between the two young people. Juanita gave in after several days of pleading and, barely a month before her 17th birthday, on November 3, 1930, Mary became Mrs. Benjamin Hagman. The plan had the added benefit of getting her expelled from school. She returned to Weatherford, where she and Ben lived with her parents. A son, whom they named Lawrence, was born in September of the following year.

Marriage, however, failed to meet the rosy expectations of a 17-year-old farm girl. After Ben left for law school, Mary grew restless and hit upon a plan to open a dancing school in the hayloft of her uncle's barn. Thirty pupils enrolled, enough to convince Martin that some formal training could bring her even more business. Once again, after several days of Mary's pleading, Juanita agreed to look after the baby and Preston agreed to finance a semester at a school in Hollywood, California, that Mary had read about—The Fanchon and Marco School of the Dance. After she returned home with new routines and techniques, Martin's school flourished. She was able to open a branch in a town some 20 miles from Weatherford and soon had enough students to form a troupe, The Martinettes, which toured Prince County. Excited by the prospects of an even larger school with classrooms throughout Texas, Martin returned to Hollywood for more training, this time with her mother and four-year-old Larry, and before long was assigned as a singer to the Fanchon and Marco School's troupe, The Fanchonettes. The school was just then forming a road show that would appear in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Martin found herself riding the bus north to her first paying job in show business, at $75 a week, including costume. The school neglected to mention that she would be singing from the wings while the rest of the troupe danced on stage, the costume only being necessary for curtain calls. Still, it was enough to attract her to the world of show business and make-believe.

It was Broadway entrepreneur Billy Rose who inadvertently propelled her into the business for good. On her return to Texas, Martin learned that Rose was bringing a touring musical revue to Fort Worth and would be holding casting sessions for chorus girls and incidental dancers to back up his major stars. Mary hustled her Martinettes on a bus to Fort Worth and after their audition, with Martin as lead singer and dancer, a telegram arrived inviting her to Rose's hotel room. The good news: the Martinettes

were hired. The bad news: Mary Martin was not. Apprised of her son and husband, Rose told Martin: "My advice to you is to tend to them. Tend to the family, the diapers. Stay out of show business." The depth of her heartbreak told Martin that she wanted the exact opposite. She talked with her parents and then with Ben, who amicably agreed to a divorce in a year's time. In 1935, Martin left Weatherford for good, moving permanently to Hollywood and leaving five-year-old Larry in her mother's care until she could find an agent and work.

At first, it seemed as if she had made the right decision. She did, indeed, find an agent who got her a non-paying job on a national radio show and sent her out on a round of auditions that got her introductions to some of the leading names in musical comedy of the day, if not actual jobs. Among those she met were Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, with whom she would form a particularly close relationship that would prove important a decade later. Nonetheless, those first two years in Hollywood were financially disastrous. Even her agent began calling her "Audition Mary." After a bleak two years, Martin finally found a paying job at the Cinegrille in Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel, where she sang nightly for $40 a week and began a career on the nightclub circuit that provided a measure of financial security. With a day job as a dancing coach at Universal, she was earning enough by 1937 to allow Larry and her mother to join her in California. When young fans would ask her many years later how the big break in show business happens, she would remember these early times in Hollywood and reply, "Work and work and work. Be ready for when the break comes."

Martin's break came because of a song a rehearsal pianist at Universal had taught her, an Italian love ballad called "Il Bacio" (The Kiss). The pianist suggested she spice the tune up by doing it in swingtime, and Martin developed the number for a talent audition to be held at The Trocadero, a Los Angeles night spot. She began the song traditionally, almost operatically, but gradually turned it into a swing tune worthy of Benny Goodman. The audience, including an admiring Jack Benny, gave her a standing ovation. Within ten minutes, Benny had introduced her to producer Lawrence Schwab, who offered her the lead in a Broadway musical he was preparing, along with the train fare to Broadway and hotel accommodations. Martin felt that those ten minutes had made the last two years worth it.

Just as she was boarding the train for New York, however, the bad news arrived. A telegram from Schwab told her that the financing for his show had fallen through and the project had been scrapped. But he urged her to come to New York anyway, and after the celebrations and goodbyes to her friends in California, Mary was reluctant to tell anyone what had happened. She kept her silence even when she stopped in Weatherford to leave Larry with her mother, and was welcomed as the local girl who had made it to Broadway. She arrived in New York in 1937 as she had arrived in Los Angeles in 1935—with no work and no prospects. But Schwab did not let her down. He paid her expenses while sending her out on auditions until, in 1938, she was cast in Cole Porter's new musical, Leave It to Me, which he had written as a vehicle for the legendary Sophie Tucker . Martin played the enterprising mistress of a succession of admiring young men unaware of her particular attachment to a much-older benefactor. She was given the number that would make her the talk of Broadway, "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," a sly song with such typically Porter-esque lyrics as, "If I invite/a boy some night/To dine on my fine finnan haddie."

Martin later claimed that she was naive enough at the time to entirely miss the double entendres peppered throughout the song, but it was precisely her innocence that sold the song and made her a star, even though the crowded theater marquee only had room for "M. Martin." She became known as "The Daddy Girl," not to mention gaining a reputation from a carefully choreographed striptease in the third act that left her on stage in nothing but a pink silk chemise—her "Teddy Bare," soon copied in lingerie shops all over New York. "Texas Girl Hits New York with a Storm!" wrote Walter Winchell the day after the show opened. Life featured her in a major article, and a film contract from Paramount started her on a string of movie musicals lasting into the 1950s.

While working at Paramount, Martin fell in love with a young story editor named Richard Halliday and married him in 1940, in a civil ceremony in Los Angeles. A daughter Heller Halliday was born in 1941; "heller," Mary explained, was a Texas term for a rambunctious young hellian. Halliday would be her constant companion for the next 30 years, although the success of her next show tested the relationship.

In One Touch of Venus, Martin played a goddess whose statue comes to life in the New York City of the 1940s. The show's credentials were impeccable. Kurt Weill had written the score, Agnes de Mille was choreographer, and Elia Kazan, who would later make his mark in such films as On the Waterfront, was directing. The musical opened in October 1943, played to full houses during its run, and then went on the road. Halliday still had his editing work at Paramount, and the two missed each other terribly. While the show was playing Chicago, the couple realized one career was going to have to be sacrificed if the marriage were to survive. The decision was, as Mary put it, that "Richard would edit me, " by becoming her manager. It was to prove a fortuitous choice.

In late 1948, while Martin was touring as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, Halliday mentioned he had gotten a call from director Josh Logan about a new musical Logan and producer Leland Hayward were mounting, a show about an army nurse who falls in love with a French plantation owner on a Pacific island during World War II. It didn't sound promising to Mary, and she told Richard as much. But Logan called back with the news that her old friend from the "Audition Mary" days in Los Angeles, Oscar Hammerstein, was insisting on her for the part. Despite her initial skepticism, Martin would later say that South Pacific was the greatest thing that ever happened to her.

James Michener's book Tales of the South Pacific, on which the musical was based, stressed an ill-fated romance between an American navy lieutenant and a Polynesian woman. But Rodgers and Hammerstein thought this was too much like rewriting Madame Butterfly and decided to concentrate instead on the book's second, and more successful, romance between army nurse Nellie Forbush and the plantation owner, to be played by Italian baritone Ezio Pinza. The cast approached the New York opening nervously—not because of problems in tryouts but, rather, the opposite. The show had been such a smash in New Haven and Boston that it consistently ran 45 minutes long because of repeated demands for encores.

There were, however, mishaps. During Nellie's number "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy," for example, Martin had to cross from stage left to stage right, and a bit of stage business was needed to get her there. It was Mary's suggestion, much to Logan's surprise, that she cartwheel across the stage. It was, after all, a much shorter distance than those two blocks back in Weatherford, Texas, and she assured Logan she could cartwheel and sing at the same time, demonstrating on the spot—"I'm in love" (cartwheel) "I'm in love" (cartwheel) "I'm in love" (cartwheel) "with a WONDERFUL GUY!" It worked perfectly in rehearsal, but disaster struck at the show's first tryout performance in New Haven because no one had considered the difference between rehearsal lighting and the full lights of a performance. Mary, blinded by the glare, became disoriented and cartwheeled off the stage and into the orchestra pit, knocking herself, the conductor, and the piano player unconscious. Although everyone recovered, Martin had to wear a heavy body bandage under her costume for the rest of the New Haven run.

The show came to New York with a $500,000 advance sale, a record for the time. It opened in April 1949, ran for two years to packed houses and nearly universal critical acclaim, won Martin a Tony Award, and brought to the American musical comedy stage some of its most beloved show tunes, including "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," for which Martin washed her hair on stage eight times a week for three years (counting the year's tour after Broadway).

When the tour of South Pacific closed, Mary and Richard took a cruise to South America to recharge and were invited by friends to recuperate at a ranch in Brazil. This was the beginning of the Hallidays' infatuation with that country, and would lead to their purchase, in the mid-1950s, of their own Brazilian retreat, Nozza Fazenda, to which they would return whenever time allowed. Their South American sojourns were frequent during the 1950s, as Mary appeared in several shows that were unsuccessful and closed quickly, among them 1953's Kind Sir, with Charles Boyer ("When they review the clothes, you know something's wrong with the show," Mary noted), and a musical version of Thornton Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth in 1955.

All my life, when things seemed at lowest ebb, something good was waiting.

—Mary Martin

By then, Martin was preparing for the role she considered "perhaps the most important thing… I have ever done in the theater." Another friend from the "Audition Mary" days who had become the director of the San Francisco and Los Angeles Light Opera Company offered her the lead in a musical version of J.M. Barrie's 1905 classic, Peter Pan. The show had not been remounted since its premiere 50 years previous with Maude Adams and had never been done as a musical. The production, which had a score by Jule Styne, Adolph Green, and Betty Comden, Carolyn Leigh , and Mark Charlap, would be directed by Jerome Robbins, with British actor Cyril Ritchard cast as the venomous Captain Hook.

The show was a challenge for Martin, not only because she would be playing a boy of indeterminate age, but because Peter had to fly. Peter Foy, who had been rigging flying acts for circuses in Europe with great success, was brought from England. Martin told him she wanted Peter to fly "all over the place," and used her training from the Fanchon and Marco days to choreograph the aerial ballet that carries Peter, Wendy, and the boys to Never-Never Land—a technical nightmare for Foy that required the intricate coordination of five actors suspended on wires 20 feet or more over the stage. Yet another problem was singing while "flying," since voices tended to get lost in the flies overhead rather than being projected straight out to the audience. Peter Pan thus became the first musical to make use of specially designed wireless microphones concealed on the body.

The role was the most physically challenging Martin, now 42, had ever undertaken, but when she let out with her first "crow" in "I Gotta Crow" at the show's opening performance in San Francisco, she knew it was worth it. "Oh!," she would remember, "what joyous bedlam followed!," as everyone in the audience—and not only the children—crowed back, clapped their hands to revive Tinkerbelle, shouted warnings to Peter as Captain Hook closed in for the kidnapping, and stared in wonder as Peter soared overhead. Jerome Robbins complained that the tumult was preventing him from accurately assessing the show's rhythm and blocking, but Martin knew the "joyous bedlam" was precisely what Peter Pan was all about.

Given the technical hurdles, it is remarkable that there were so few accidents during the show's run. During one performance in Los Angeles, the wire attached to Martin's body harness slipped off its pully, dropping her 30 feet and then snatching her back up again. The whiplash injured her back, and she had to take painkillers in order to perform. Later, when she inadvertently assumed the wrong spot just before flying, there was a mid-air collision between Mary and the actress playing Wendy, Kathy Nolan . But Martin's enthusiasm was unflagging. "I think that after all that money and faith and anticipation," she said, "a few shots and a little pain are far less important than the performance." Peter Pan opened on Broadway in late 1954, toured the country the following year, was adapted for a live television broadcast, and remains a landmark memory for many a baby-boomer.

Martin called her next stage success a "triumph of audience over critics." The Sound of Music was too sticky-sweet for most critical tastes, but Mary loved the role of Maria von Trapp so much that she was a major investor in the show and spent three years preparing for it. She was proved right, appearing as Maria throughout the show's run from 1959 on Broadway until its close on tour in 1962.

Martin hadn't long to wait for her next hit show, I Do! I Do!, which had been adapted by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones from Jan de Hartog's The Four Poster. (Schmidt and Jones would later collaborate on The Fantasticks.) De Hartog's play followed a married couple from their wedding night through the next 50 years—a considerable acting exercise for Martin, her co-star Robert Preston, and their director, Gower Champion. It was a tribute to their skills that the show ran for more than a year after it opened in 1966—a remarkable run for a two-character musical. But on tour with the show, Martin suffered from colds, flu, and a persistent pain near her abdomen. Growing weaker and weaker as the tour neared its end, she was finally hospitalized and found to be in need of a hysterectomy. She and Halliday flew to Brazil after the operation for much needed rest.

Although Martin toured Southeast Asia in Hello, Dolly!, which she brought to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan during the Vietnamese war, the hectic pace of the past 20 years began to slow, with longer and longer periods spent at Nozza Fazenda. One morning in 1973, Halliday was found collapsed on the floor of his bathroom. He had suffered an intestinal blockage during the night, with such pain that he had been unable to call anyone for help. Rushed to Brasilia, he survived an operation but developed pneumonia and died. The Hallidays had been married for 33 years.

Devastated, Martin sold the ranch and moved back to California. It took her three more years before she could write: "I was always so busy living that I didn't have much time to think about [life itself]. We can learn, I am sure, until the day we die and I, for one, am looking forward to each new day, each new thought." Now she was able to take pleasure in the successful career of her son, Larry Hagman, soon to become notorious as "J.R." on "Dallas"; and she accepted the occasional television appearance or film cameo. But with the exception of an unsuccessful show called Legends, which she toured with Carol Channing , there were to be no more stages graced with her presence.

Mary Martin died of cancer on November 4, 1990, at her home in Rancho Mirage, California. She was 77 and had spent nearly 50 of those years bringing a special dignity and glamour to American musical comedy. She considered the stage her home where, like Peter Pan in Never-Never Land, she was free to live her dreams. "Neverland," she once said, "is the way I would like real life to be: timeless, free, mischievous, filled with gaiety, tenderness, and magic."

sources:

Atkinson, Brooks. Broadway. NY: Macmillan, 1970.

Martin, Mary. My Heart Belongs. NY: William Morrow, 1976.

Skouras, Thana. The Tale of South Pacific. NY: Lehman Books, 1958.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York

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