Ethel Merman

American Music Icon

As the First Lady of American musical theater, and as an unredoubtable Broadway legend,  Ethel Merman’s position is secure. Her loud, brash and brassy voice was frequently imitated and even occasionally mocked. A critic once said of her. “She has the magnificent vitality of a steam calliope in red and gold, loping down a circus midway, playing the ‘Entry Of The Gladiators’.“  More elegantly, Cole Porter once said that a Merman performance was “like a band going by.”

But the finest composers, such as Porter, George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin, all loved Ethel Merman’s ability to “belt it out.” In an era when there was no such thing as a microphone or sound re-enforcement equipment in the theater, Ethel could project her voice against the most deafening of orchestras.

Beyond that, she was able to interject her indomitable personality into her performances, as well as to demonstrate a mastery of the craft of vocalization. Familiar with her presentation in both the live and the studio formats, a Decca Records executive once remarked, “She’s a songwriter’s dream. Her timing is unbelievable, her phrasing is perfect, and she can cut through any orchestra like a brass horn.”

Ethel Merman was one of the greatest stars to emerge from what was considered to be the “Golden Age” of American musical theater. In a well-known excerpt from her second autobiography, published in 1978, Ethel modestly, but quite accurately assessed her place in the music business- a business that had changed irrevocably, never again to be what it once had been.

“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.”

Ethel Merman’s beginnings were modest. She was born, Ethel Agnes Zimmerman in the bedroom of her grandmother’s third-floor apartment, on January 16th, 1909, in Astoria, Queens, New York. She was the only child of Edward Zimmerman, who worked as an accountant, and his wife Agnes, who had herself once sung in the school choir.

Ethel’s family lived just up the street from Lasky’s Famous Player- Astoria studios. As a child, she often saw silent movie stars drive by in their expensive automobiles and she dreamed of one day becoming a star herself. She attended public school, graduating from Bryant High School in Queens. Even as a child Ethel had a big voice, drawing attention in the church choir. As a youngster, during World War I, she sang for the troops at Camp Mills on Long Island. A career as a singer and performer seemed imminent.

But her parents were very practical. They insisted that Ethel receive training as a stenographer, in case her aspirations for stardom fell through. Her stenographic skills were such that, after graduating from high school, she became the secretary for industrialist Caleb S. Bragg, who happened to have a number of influential acquaintances in the theater. At the same time, Ethel continued to sing at parties and in nightclubs. Eventually she gave up her job, in order to sing full-time.

It was not long before she was under contract with Warner Brothers studios, for an impressive two hundred dollar a week salary. But, with the advent of “talking pictures,” the studio was in such disarray, that her services were rarely used. Ethel shortened her name and began working with the arranger and pianist Al Siegel, who had helped several other singers to achieve success. Despite a frightening attack of tonsillitis in 1929, Ethel’s incisive voice was unaffected. She had a small part in the 1930 film release Follow The Leader, with Ed Wynn.

In 1930, while performing between film screenings at the gigantic Paramount Theatre in Brooklyn, Ethel was discovered by Broadway producer Vinton Freedley, who gave her a very high-profile role in the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy, which starred Ginger Rogers. Ethel sang the songs “Sam And Delilah” and “I Got Rhythm.” On opening night, her rendition of “I Got Rhythm,” which included her spontaneously holding a note for sixteen bars, brought down the house, with the audience demanding numerous encores.

In an intermission, between acts, George Gershwin stormed into her dressing room, inquiring, “Ethel, do you know what you are doing?” She replied that she did not and Gershwin departed, advising her, “Well, never go near a singing teacher and never forget your shorthand.” Ethel once said of herself. “I can hold a note as long as the Chase National Bank.”

Ethel became an overnight Broadway sensation, and would continue to star in musical comedy hits over the course of the next forty years. She stole the show in both  George White’s Scandals of 1931(in which she co-starred with Rudy Vallee) and Take A Chance in 1932. In 1934 she appeared in two films, We’re Not Dressing, with Bing Crosby and Kid Millions with Eddie Cantor. However, neither vehicle succeeded and she returned to Broadway, convinced that Hollywood might never know what to do with her skills.

In the depths of the Depression, and needing a hit show, Freedley enlisted Ethel’s services in staging Cole Porter’sAnything Goes (the most frequently revived musical of the ‘30s), the first of five Porter musicals in which she would eventually appear. In the role of evangelist-turned-nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, she sang not only the mischievous title tune, but the hit “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” as well. She went on to star with Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope in Porter’sRed, Hot And Blue in 1936.

Also in 1936, Ethel was the only Broadway cast member to reprise her role in the film adaptation of Anything Goes, which starred Bing Crosby. However the film version was weak and diluted, with Cole Porter’s often racy lyrics, hopelessly excised of their pith and punch.

Once again, her hopes for film stardom were dashed. Even her critically lauded performance in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, in 1938, failed to bring any decent film offers. So, Ethel again returned to Broadway, where she was the top-draw star throughout the remainder of the decade. In 1939, she starred with Bert Lahr in Cole Porter’s DuBarry Was A Lady, in which the pair brought down the house with their rousing version of the popular song “Friendship.” In 1940, Ethel again teamed with Porter for Panama Hattie, the first show in over a decade to exceed the five hundred consecutive performance mark.

In 1943, she performed in her fifth and final Cole Porter musical, Something For The Boys, a wartime piece of propaganda, whose big hit was “Hey Good Lookin’.” Ethel made her contribution to the war effort in the mid-‘40s by performing at war bond concerts and singing for the troops. She also appeared in Stage Door Canteen, a film representation of the Manhattan night spot where, throughout the war, stars would frequently perform for strictly military audiences.

By the end of the war, Broadway had dramatically changed. The superfluous musical comedies of the ‘20s and ‘30s were supplanted by more cerebral fare, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 production of Oklahoma, which featured songs with lyrics that were fully integrated into the plot line. That there even was a plot line was something of a new convention in Broadway musicals, where revues long ruled the day.  The new trend was quickly adopted by other producers. Famed librettists Herbert and Dorothy Fields developed the idea of a musical based on the life of Annie Oakley, the flamboyant Wild West sharpshooter.

They first approached Jerome Kern to compose the score. But his untimely death compelled the Fields to approach Irving Berlin, who eventually agreed to compose for the new form of musical. Annie Get Your Gun, which debuted in 1946, would become the longest running musical with which either Berlin or Ethel Merman would ever be associated- with a run nearly twelve hundred performances. The wonderful songs, “Doin’ What Comes Natur’aly,” “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” “They Say It’s Wonderful,” and “Anything You Can Do” became a permanent part of the public vernacular. Ethel was forever after associated with the role of Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun. Her show-stopping rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” would henceforth become her personal theme song.

After three years with Annie Get Your Gun, Ethel starred in Irving Berlin’s next vehicle, and her eleventh musical,Call Me Madam– a cold war satire based loosely on the life of  Perle Mesta, who was the US Ambassador to Luxembourg. As Sally Adams, ambassador to the mythical country of Lichtenberg, Ethel again triumphed, garnering critical acclaim for her acting as well as for her singing.

Her performance in Call Me Madam was so unique that she was enlisted to reprise her role in the 1953 film version, which co-starred George Sanders and Donald O‘Connor.

In 1953, Ethel drew record ratings when she teamed with her close friend Mary Martin for the historic “Ford 50th Anniversary” television special. Of Mary Martin, Ethel once said, “She’s okay, if you like talent.” Ethel was a frequent guest on all the popular television variety shows. She also starred in condensed television versions of her Broadway hitsAnything Goes and Panama Hattie, in 1954.

That same year, she starred as the mother of a theatrical family in There’s No Business Like Show Business, with Dan Dailey, Donald O‘Connor and Marilyn Monroe. Though it was a splendid showcase for  her abundant talents, loaded with Irving Berlin hits and obviously blessed with a strong cast, the movie was a miserable box office failure. Yet again, Ethel was forced to forsake her dream of becoming a film star.

And, after a year spent exploring a few other, lesser film roles, she returned, yet again, to the stage.  In 1956 Ethel starred in the rather poorly received Happy Hunting, a send-up of Grace Kelly’s marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco. Her simmering feud with co-star Fernando Lamas, was a constant source irritation during the year-long run of that production.

In 1959, Ethel reached what is considered to be the pinnacle of her career, with her role in Gypsy, as Mama Rose, the overbearing stage-mother depicted in the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Among a host of other top-notch songs, written by lyricist Jules Styne and composer Stephen Sondheim, Ethel celebrated yet another hit; one with which she would forever be associated, the jubilant anthem “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

The original production of Gypsy ran for two years, closing in March of 1961. The rigors of nearly eight hundred and fifty performances during that time had been physically draining for Ethel- so much so, that she turned down the opportunity to star in the original production of Hello Dolly! in January 1964, complaining that she was just too exhausted to undertake another show.

However, she did find the energy to again accept several film parts, including the critically applauded role as the acquisitive Mrs. Marcus in It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, released in 1963; and again as a madam in a French brothel, in the 1965 release The Art Of Love. Ethel continued to be a regular guest on all the popular variety shows, belting out triumphant versions of her trademark hits, with her customary boldness and enthusiasm- an icon of the American stage, a show business legend.

Nearing the age of sixty, and with the golden age of the American musical drawing to a close, Ethel Merman never again starred in an original Broadway production. She did star, in a 1966 limited-run revival of Annie Get Your Gun. Her performances were greeted with warm responses from enthusiastic audiences, leading producers to extend the run of the show. Later, the production was broadcast on network television.

In her final full-time Broadway turn, Ethel took over the lead in  Hello Dolly! for a three month run, in 1970. A riotous opening night performance concluded with countless curtain calls- while receiving superlative critical reviews. Playing nightly to packed houses so greatly pleased her, that Ethel decided to stay with the production for an additional six months, making Hello Dolly!, at nearly six years, the longest running musical, up to that point.

In the ‘70s, Ethel continued to guest in various film and television productions, including an unforgettable evening with Miss Piggy and Kermit The Frog, singing show tunes on “The Muppet Show.” In 1975, a successful performance with the Boston Pops, led to a string of highly praised concert appearances; culminating in her memorable 1977 reunion concert with Mary Martin. She also released a campy disco album of some of her greatest hits, that found for Ethel a whole new audience within the burgeoning gay community.

In 1980, in her final film performance, she spoofed herself, playing Lieutenant Hurwitz in Airplane!, a deranged soldier who thinks he is Ethel Merman. In 1982 Ethel made her final major concert appearance at a benefit at Carnegie Hall. In April of 1983, while preparing to leave New York to sing with Mary Martin an Irving Berlin tribute medley at the Academy Awards presentation in Los Angeles, Ethel suffered a stroke. She never fully recovered and died on February 15th, 1984.

Ethel Merman’s place is firmly fixed as one of the all-time greats of the American stage. As she so accurately foresaw in her autobiography, no artist has yet come along to displace her- most likely, none ever will. At the same time, it seems certain that, as long as recordings exist of her singing those classic Broadway show tunes with that magnificently loud and clear voice, Ethel Merman’s name will remain legend.