Merman, Ethel (1912–1984)
Merman, Ethel (1912–1984)
American entertainer, a fixture in Broadway musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, who starred in the original productions of Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam, and Gypsy. Born Ethel Agnes Zimmerman on January 16, 1912, in New York City; died in New York on February 15, 1984; daughter of Edward Zimmerman (an accountant) and Agnes Zimmerman; married William Smith, in 1940 (divorced 1941); married Robert Levitt, in 1941 (divorced 1952); married Robert Six, in 1953 (divorced 1960); married Ernest Borgnine (an actor), in 1964 (divorced the same year); children: (second marriage) Ethel Levitt (died 1967); Robert Levitt, Jr.
Although she never trained professionally as a singer, her powerful, exuberant singing style and flawless diction became locally famous when she began performing in small nightclubs while working during the day as a stenographer; discovered by a Broadway producer, made her stage debut in the Gershwins' Girl Crazy (1930); became a fixture of the Broadway musical stage (1940s and 1950s), starring in the original productions of such musicals as Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam, and Gypsy; also appeared in many film musicals (1940s–1950s); continued to work in non-musical films until just a few years before her death (1984).
Follow the Leader (1930); We're Not Dressing (1934); Kid Millions (1934); The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1936); Anything Goes (1936); Strike Me Pink (1936); Happy Landing (1938); Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938); Straight Place and Show (1938); Stage Door Canteen (1943); Call Me Madam (1953); There's No Business Like Show Business (1954); It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963); The Art of Love (1965); (voice only) Journey Back to Oz (1974); (cameo) Won Ton Ton—The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976); (cameo) Airplane (1980).
The young woman who arrived at George Gershwin's elegant Riverside Drive apartment in New York City one afternoon in 1930 seemed perfectly ordinary, one of the many young hopefuls the great composer had auditioned in past weeks for his new Broadway musical. As usual, he had prepared audition sheets for three songs from the show and, after the usual polite conversation, sat down at the piano and began playing. Gershwin later admitted he was unprepared for the voice which filled his living room and which would, over the next 30 years, be variously compared to a trumpet, a bulldozer, a freshly tapped gusher, and a cyclone. Gershwin was so impressed that afternoon that he offered to change anything in any of the songs that the young woman didn't like, even though she had never before appeared in a Broadway musical. "Oh, no, Mr. Gershwin, they'll do very nicely," Ethel Merman confidently replied, launching her career as the queen of the American musical stage. "Miss Merman is the Everest of American musical comedy simply because she's there," one reviewer wrote of her some years later. "Her presence has all the subtlety of a block of marble."
It would be tempting to tell a story of hardship and struggle on Ethel Merman's way to stardom, but the fact is that she became one of America's best-known celebrities with her first appearance on a Broadway stage, after being encouraged and nurtured by parents who had raised her in a comfortable middle-class setting in Astoria, just across the Queensboro Bridge from Manhattan. She was born on January 16, 1912—although for years her official birth year was listed as 1909, the year Merman adopted to convince the producers of her first show in 1930 that she was a legal 21. Neither of her parents—Agnes Zimmerman and Edward Zimmerman, an accountant—were from a show-business background, but both enjoyed going to the theater and often took their daughter on Friday nights to see the show at the venerable Palace Theater on Seventh Avenue, where Merman never forgot how effortlessly such vaudeville stars as Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker and Blossom Seeley held their audiences. "When they'd get on stage," Merman remembered, "I'd think—oh, boy, I could do that." Then there was Paramount's Astoria Studios just blocks from Merman's house in Queens, where glimpses of the day's movie stars could be had by poking a hole in the wall surrounding the lot. It was obvious to both parents that their daughter was as fascinated as they were by the entertainment world and, further, had a knack for belting out a song at amateur theatrical nights at the Astoria Republican Club, of which they were proud members. Throughout her childhood, "Little Ethel Zimmerman" was a popular attraction at gatherings of the Knights of Columbus, the Masons and, during World War I, at the Army's training camp in Queens, often accompanied by her father on the piano on such snappy little numbers as "Since Maggie Dooley Did the Hooley-Hooley."
While proud of Ethel's natural gift, the Zimmermans regarded show business as a perilous way to make a living and insisted that Merman enroll in a stenographic course after graduating from high school in 1928. They further insisted that she take a job offered to her at the Bragg-Kliesrath Vacuum Booster Brake Company in Long Island City. Ethel was delighted to discover, however, that her boss was another theater enthusiast and, even better, had numerous friends in the business. Through his influence, Merman spent several evenings a week appearing in small nightclubs, registering with theatrical agents and browsing the shelves at music publishers for the latest songs of the day. In 1929, little more than a year after beginning her nocturnal career, Merman signed a contract with agent Lou Irwin, who had been impressed that he could clearly hear every word she sang through the din and bustle of a well-known club called Little Russia, just off Sixth Avenue in what was then Manhattan's thriving club district. Irwin, who represented such notables as Helen Morgan and the Ritz Brothers, soon found her a contract with Warner Bros. to appear in short musical films for $125 a week, more than three times what she earned as a stenographer. Merman was equally impressed by the fact that Warner Bros. had to pay her even if she didn't work in any given week. Further, Irwin teamed her with Jimmy Durante in a wellreceived cabaret act. By late 1929, even though the stock market lay in ruins and the Great Depression had begun to grip the nation, Merman had made it to the Palace in the company of a pianist Irwin had found for her with whom she had worked up a vaudeville act. Discovering that Zimmerman was too long to fit on a theater marquee, Ethel removed the first syllable of her surname and became Ethel Merman.
In the audience one evening was Vinton Freedley, a producer then in the midst of mounting a new Broadway musical called Girl Crazy, with a score by George Gershwin and his brother Ira. It was Freedley who arranged for Merman's audition with Gershwin that afternoon and who ultimately cast her in the role of the sassy nightclub singer Kate Fothergill. The authors of the musical's book, Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, became such Merman fans that they enlarged her role and personally coached Ethel in playing to a big Broadway house. The audience on opening night, lulled by the familiar romantic intimacy of a Gershwin show, was electrified halfway into the first act when Merman strode on stage in a red blouse and black, slit satin skirt to belt out "Sam and Delilah," Gershwin's decidedly modern retelling of the famous lovers' story:
Delilah was a floozy, She didn't give a damn.
"The audience yelped with surprise and pleasure," Merman later reported. "To be truthful, I thought my garter had snapped or I'd lost something." But that was only for starters, as the audience discovered just before the curtain rang down for intermission, when Ethel gave them "I Got Rhythm," the first time that Broadway anthem was heard in public and the first time any Broadway audience had heard a singer precisely hit a high C and hold it effortlessly, at full volume, for 16 bars. "Miss Merman can hold a note longer than the Chase Manhattan Bank," one critic wrote in the next morning's reviews. Gershwin had rushed to Merman's dressing room as soon as the curtain went down and pleaded with her never to go near a professional singing teacher.
Merman's overnight reputation as an electrifying showstopper became the talk of Broadway and produced her second job offer, for a show which had been having trouble in out-of-town tryouts and desperately needed some adrenaline. It was the 11th edition of George White's Scandals, a rival revue to Flo Ziegfeld's even longer-running Follies. Merman, who went into rehearsal with the show in Atlantic City, first appeared in the Newark production in September 1931 and opened in a much-improved Broadway version the next month in a cast that included Rudy Vallee, Alice Faye , and Ray Bolger. Merman's rendition of "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" for Scandals promptly became another overnight hit. Even more treasures were in store for the 1934 production of Cole Porter's Anything Goes, most of which were sung by Merman in her role as Reno Sweeney; along with the title tune, she belted out "You're the Top," "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," and "I Get a Kick Out of You." The show gave Ethel her longest run on Broadway to date, at 420 performances, and reviews that firmly installed her in the pantheon of musical-comedy goddesses. "Miss Merman reigns supreme as the exponent of a style she seems to have invented," wrote one critic. Anything Goes was followed by two more Cole Porter vehicles, Red, Hot and Blue in 1936, and 1939's DuBarry Was a Lady, playing opposite Bert Lahr. Neither show is much remembered, and even Merman referred to DuBarry Was a Lady as a "tired businessman's entertainment." Even so, Ethel's boisterous handling of "Eadie Was a Lady" in the first show, and her work with Bert Lahr singing "Friendship" in the second, added two more songs to her growing list of musical milestones.
America beyond Broadway got to know Merman by way of a string of big-budget Hollywood musicals during the 1930s and early 1940s, starting with 1930's Follow the Leader and 1934's We're Not Dressing, in which Ethel was required to sing a number called "It's the Animal in Me" while a chorus line of elephants plodded through a dance behind her. The song was mercifully cut from the final version of that picture but was inserted in The Big Broadcast of 1936 even though Merman never set foot on the lot during shooting of the later film. The fact that she was paid for two films while actually working in only one did little to improve Merman's low opinion of film work. "Everything seemed fake," she later wrote. "Worse still, there
seemed to be no reason for the way things were done. I liked to be in control. You couldn't be in films." However lukewarm, Merman's relationship with Hollywood nonetheless continued through much of her career, while radio and recordings brought her into even more homes. Her early recordings were from the scores of her Broadway hits, but soon she was producing albums of popular standards and new works written especially for the studio. Radio audiences listened to her on "Rhythm at Eight," a short-lived network radio show which aired for four months in 1935, as well as guest appearances on more well-known broadcasts like "The Fleischman's Hour," hosted by Rudy Vallee.
Ising honest. Loud, but honest.
But the stage remained her first love. If a musical wasn't on offer, Merman was more than willing to appear in the lavish musical revues that were all that remained of a dying vaudeville, sharing the bill with such stars as George Jessel and Jack Haley. Such was her standing by 1937 that 25,000 turned out to hear her sing at an outdoor memorial concert for George Gershwin, who had died of a brain tumor at the height of his career. The 1940s were her most successful decade, opening with her first solo billing as Hattie Malone—"a brassy broad who hung out with sailors and didn't speak correct," as Merman described her—in Panama Hattie. She created the role of the equally brassy Blossom Hart in her fourth Cole Porter show, 1943's Something for the Boys. Her blend of brilliant technical expertise with Porter's earthy lyrics led one reviewer to call her "the bridge between Lily Pons and Mae West ."
It was Irving Berlin, however, who provided Merman with the triumph of her career to that point as the sharp-shooting Annie Oakley in Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun. Among the numbers Berlin entrusted to Ethel's handling were "There's No Business Like Show Business," "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," and "They Say It's Wonderful." The show opened to great acclaim in 1946 and became the first Broadway musical to run more than 1,000 performances, racking up 1,147 of them before closing in 1947. "With all due respect to the Gershwins and Cole," Merman later said, "Irving gave me range, allowing me a kind of vulnerability that was missing in girls like Blossom Hart and Hattie Malone." Her respect for Berlin was gratefully returned. "You make even a lousy song sound good," Berlin told her, and promptly set about creating the score for a second collaboration: 1950's Call Me Madam. Based on the life of Washington socialite Perle Mesta , it featured a book by her Girl Crazy collaborators Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, whose habit of tinkering with a show long after it should have been "frozen" began to annoy Merman. Such was her clout by now that she was able to stop the habit cold. "Boys, as of right now I am Miss Birdseye of 1950," she famously told them after the show had been finalized in tryouts and was on its way to Broadway. "I am frozen," she warned them. "Not a comma." Although the show was less of a success than Annie Get Your Gun, Merman's growing expertise as an actress, and not just the singer with the leather lungs, made critics sit up and take notice. "She has such a fine grasp of the art of comic acting that she practically has it by the throat," one of them said; while another declared that "when Ethel sang, you could see it and feel it."
While Merman established herself with relative ease as the reigning diva of mid-century Broadway, her private life was less smooth. "The truth is, I'm very unhappy when I'm in love," Merman said, and her four marriages seemed to bear this out. Her first marriage in 1940 to a Hollywood agent named Robert Smith lasted less than a year. With her career just beginning its upward climb, Merman was unwilling to join Smith in California and the couple never even lived together after their wedding in New York. (After their divorce in 1941, Smith reportedly quipped to a friend, "How much 'I Got Rhythm' can a man take before breakfast?") Her second marriage in 1941 to journalist and publisher Robert D. Levitt was the most successful of her four marriages, perhaps because Levitt had no interest in the theater and kept his distance from her professional life. "For all the interest he showed in my career, I could have been a secretary," Merman recalled. The marriage produced a daughter, also named Ethel, and a son, Robert Jr., before it started to unravel and ended in divorce in 1952. The following year, Merman married Robert Six, an airline executive and the only person who managed to convince her to retire from show business and settle down as a housewife in Denver, Colorado. Merman survived this domestic episode until 1956, when she returned to the stage in Happy Hunting, a musical based on the romance and marriage of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III of Monaco. Although it brought her first Tony nomination, even Merman admitted that the show was "a jeep among limousines. If you didn't mind the bumpy ride," she said, "it got you there." In 1960, amid charges that Six had misused her money and had indulged in numerous affairs, Merman filed for divorce. She refused to speak in public about her fourth marriage to actor Ernest Borgnine in 1964, which lasted all of 38 days. In her autobiography, the chapter bearing the title "My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine" is a blank page.
Happy Hunting may have been a mediocre vehicle for her return to the stage, but Merman's next role was the one for which she is chiefly remembered and which she herself considered the peak of her career. Approached by producer Arthur Laurents with a show he said was completely unlike her usual material, Merman seized on the opportunity. "I want to act," she told Laurents, who thereupon invited her to composer Jule Styne's apartment to listen to the score for a new musical Styne had just written with a young Stephen Sondheim. It was a show Styne described to her not as a musical, but as a drama with music. Merman burst into tears after first hearing the score of Gypsy, based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee . "These were dramatic songs with dimension," she later said of Styne's work. "He was reaching out, stretching himself, just as I wanted to do."
As Laurents had promised, Merman's creation of the formidable, terrifying Mama Rose was a new experience for her, and for her audience. Mama Rose has eight numbers in the show, culminating in the ferociously bitter "Rose's Turn" rather than the traditional starry-eyed show closer which Broadway expected. None of the numbers were intended to be the usual Merman showstopper, none of them had what Ethel always called a "sock ending," and most were bookended by tightly integrated dialogue, reducing applause that could disrupt the story's momentum. Rose's first entrance at the top of the show was even more startling. Instead of striding on stage as usual and belting out her first number, Merman entered the theater from the rear as Mama Rose, interrupting a vaudeville rehearsal of a number starring Rose's daughter, Louise (based on Lee). "I came stalking down the aisle like a jungle mother," Merman later said, "wearing my old coat with the big collar and the belt way down below my waist, and the funny hat with the big bow. I was carrying my dog Chowsie, swinging the big old pocketbook, and looking most unattractive … shouting 'Sing out, Louise!' It was new and it was terrific and it immediately told you what kind of person Mama Rose was." Gypsy took Broadway by storm when it opened in 1959 and brought Merman a New York Drama Critics Circle award as Best Actress, although she lost her second Tony nomination to Mary Martin for The Sound of Music. ("How're you going to buck a nun?" Ethel joked to friends.)
Gypsy proved to be the last of Merman's original Broadway creations. Apart from a revival of Annie Get Your Gun in 1966, and a brief tour of duty as one of several actresses who replaced Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! during 1970, Merman never again headlined a Broadway musical. But by now she was a national institution. She sang at the White House and drew enormous crowds during her tour of the United States and Europe with her own Ethel Merman Show during the mid-1970s. She had always been comfortable in front of a television camera, having first appeared in that medium back in 1953 in a program marking Ford Motor Company's 50th anniversary. Now, in late career, she wasn't above appearing as a singing missionary in an episode of "Tarzan" during the 1960s, as a next door neighbor in "That Girl" during the 1970s, and as a love-struck widow on an installment of "The Love Boat" in the 1980s. Although the blockbuster film musicals of 30 years before were long gone, Ethel found work as the loudmouthed Mrs. Marcus in Stanley Kramer's 1963 It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and as a bordello madam in 1965's The Art of Love. Broadway paid tribute to her accomplishments with a Special Achievement Award in 1972. Five years later, Merman made her final Broadway appearance in a review called Together on Broadway, appearing with her old friend Mary Martin.
When she wasn't working, Ethel frequented the flea markets which were her favorite form of relaxation and which added to the collection of Raggedy Ann dolls she had been building since her early days in the theater. She published a volume of memoirs in 1978, in which she spoke of the deep religious faith that had seen her through the death of her daughter in 1967 from an overdose of a prescribed medication for depression—an accident, Merman claimed, and not the suicide at which the media had hinted. (Her son became a respected theatrical lighting designer.) But by the time of her Ethel Merman in Concert performance at Carnegie Hall in May 1982, friends had noticed a decline in Merman's usually robust health. There were troubling fainting spells, a bout with the painful nerve disease sciatica and, most troubling, periods of unpredictable behavior and memory loss. Finally, after collapsing in her New York apartment in April 1983, the cause of Merman's ailments was traced to an inoperable brain tumor. Nine months later, on February 15, 1984, Ethel Merman died in a New York hospital.
Broadway's sparkling lights were dimmed in her memory on the evening of February 20 in silent tribute to the woman whose vitality and boundless enthusiasm for show business had sent her clarion voice into the farthest reaches of the biggest houses on the Great White Way, in productions from which the fabric of Broadway legend was woven. She had, she admitted, been lucky enough to be part of an extraordinary chapter in American musical theater. "In a way, I'm the last of a kind," Merman wrote six years before her death, declaring that the creative talent which produced shows like Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun, and Gypsy no longer existed. "I wouldn't change one thing about my professional life," she wrote with satisfaction. "I'm the gal who makes Cinderella a sob story."
Bryan, George. Ethel Merman: A Bio-Bibliography. NY: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Merman, Ethel, with George Eells. Merman. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1978.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York