Remembering Broadway: Leading Women…The Woman With A Big Voice Ethel Merman

Ethel Merman has been called “the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage”. She is known for her performances in shows such as Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun, Gypsy, and Hello, Dolly!

She is also known for her film roles in Anything Goes (1936), Call Me Madam (1953), There’s No Business Like Show Business(1954), and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). She received the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in Call Me Madam, a Grammy Award for Gypsy and Drama Desk Award for Hello, Dolly!

Among the many standards introduced by Merman in Broadway musicals are “I Got Rhythm” (from Girl Crazy); “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, “Some People”, and “Rose’s Turn” (from Gypsy—Merman starred as Rose in the original 1959 Broadway production); and the Cole Porter songs “It’s De-Lovely” (from Red, Hot and Blue), “Friendship” (from Du Barry Was a Lady), and “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “You’re the Top”, and “Anything Goes” (from Anything Goes). The Irving Berlin song “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, written for the musical Annie Get Your Gun, became Merman’s signature song.

During a two-week engagement at a club in midtown Manhattan called Little Russia, Merman auditioned for a film director under contract at Warner Bros. He offered her an exclusive six-month contract, starting at $125 per week. Merman was hired as a torch singer at Les Ambassadeurs, where the headliner was Jimmy Durante, and the two became lifelong friends. She caught the attention of columnists such as Walter Winchell and Mark Hellinger, who began giving her publicity. Merman was signed to replace Ruth Etting in the Paramount film Follow the Leader (1930), starring Ed Wynn and Ginger Rogers. While performing at the Palace for $500 per weeks was invited to audition for the role of San Francisco café singer Kate Fothergill in the new George and Ira Gershwin musical Girl Crazy. Upon hearing her sing “I Got Rhythm”, the Gershwin’s immediately cast her.

Girl Crazy
opened on October 14, 1930, at the Alvin Theatre, where it ran for 272 performances. During the run of Girl Crazy, Paramount signed Merman to appear in a series of 10 short musical films, most of which allowed her to sing a rousing number as well as a ballad. She also performed at the Central Park Casino, the Paramount Theatre, and a return engagement at the Palace. As soon as Girl Crazy closed. Merman was summoned to Atlantic City, to help salvage the troubled latest edition of George White’s Scandals. It opened on Broadway, where it ran for 202 performances.

Merman’s next show, Humpty Dumpty, began rehearsals in August 1932 and opened—and immediately closed—in Pittsburgh. Vincent Youmans, reworked the show and it opened with the new title Take a Chance at the 42nd Street Apollo Theatre, where it ran for 243 performances. Merman returned to Hollywood to appear in We’re Not Dressing (1934), that her musical numbers had been cut. She also appeared on screen with Eddie Cantor in Kid Millions (also 1934), but her return to Broadway established her as a major star.

Anything Goes was 
the first of five Cole Porter musicals in which Merman starred. She left Anything Goes after eight months to appear with Eddie Cantor in the film Strike Me Pink. Merman initially was overlooked for the film version of Anything Goes (1936). Bing Crosby insisted his wife Dixie Lee be cast as Reno Sweeney, but when she unexpectedly dropped out of the project, Merman was cast in the role she had originated on stage. The focus was shifted to Crosby, leaving her very much in a supporting role.

Merman returned to Broadway for another Porter musical, with Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope called  Red, Hot and Blue, which closed after less than six months. Back in Hollywood, Merman was featured in Happy Landing, one of the top 10 box-office hits of 1938 comedy with Sonja Henie, Cesar Romero and Don Ameche. Then the box-office hit Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and Straight Place and Show, starring the Ritz Brothers. She returned to the stage in Stars in Your Eyes, then two more Porter musicals. DuBarry Was a Lady, with Bert Lahr and Betty Grable and Panama Hattie, with Betty Hutton (whose musical numbers were cut from the show on opening night at Merman’s insistence).

In 1943, Merman was a featured performer in the film Stage Door Canteen and opened in another Porter musical, Something for the Boys. 

In 1945  Annie Get Your Gun, which ran for nearly three years and 1,147 performances. Merman lost the film version to Judy Garland, who eventually was replaced by Betty Hutton.

Merman and Berlin reunited for Call Me Madam in 1950, for which she won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, and she starred in the 1953 screen adaptation as well, winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for her performance. The following year, she appeared as the matriarch of the singing and dancing Donahue family in There’s No Business Like Show Business, a film with a Berlin score.

Merman returned to Broadway in Happy Hunting. She lost the Tony Award to Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing, and the show closed after 412 performances.

Merman starred in Gypsy to rave reviews, but lost the Tony Award to her close friend Mary Martin in The Sound of Music. Throughout the 702-performance run of Gypsy, Mervyn LeRoy repeatedly assured Merman that he planned to cast her in the film adaptation he was preparing. but announced that Rosalind Russell instead had been signed to star. Russell’s husband, theatre producer Frederick Brisson (whom Merman later called “the lizard of Roz”), had sold the screen rights to the Leonard Spigelgass play A Majority of One to Warner Bros. with the stipulation his wife would star in both films. Merman was devastated at this turn of events and called the loss of the role “the greatest professional disappointment of my life.”

In 1963, Merman starred in the ensemble comedy film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Merman also starred in The Art of Love. She made dozens of television appearances on variety series hosted by Perry Como, Red Skelton, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, Ed Sullivan, and Carol Burnett, talk shows with Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett, and Merv Griffin, and in episodes of That Girl, The Lucy Show, Match Game, Batman, Tarzan, and others.

Producer David Merrick encouraged Jerry Herman to compose Hello, Dolly! specifically for Merman’s vocal range, but when he offered her the role, she declined it. She finally joined the cast on March 28, 1970, six years after the production opened.

Merman received the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance for what proved to be her last appearance on Broadway.

In 1979, she recorded The Ethel Merman Disco Album, with many of her signature songs set to a disco beat.

She was a guest host in season 1 of The Muppet Show. Her last screen role was a self-parody in the 1980 comedy film Airplane!. She also appeared in several episodes of The Love Boat (playing Gopher’s mother), guest-starred on a CBS tribute to George Gershwin, did a summer comedy/concert tour with Carroll O’Connor, played a two-week engagement at the London Palladium, performed with Mary Martin in a concert benefiting the theatre and museum collection of the Museum of the City of New York, and frequently appeared as a soloist with symphony orchestras. She also volunteered at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center (now Mount Sinai West) working in the gift shop or visiting patients.

On February 15, 1984, ten months after she was diagnosed with brain cancer, Merman died at her home in Manhattan at the age of 76. On the evening of Merman’s death, all 36 theatres on Broadway dimmed their lights at 9 pm in her honor.

Merman left an estate estimated to be worth $1.5 million.

On October 10, 1984, an auction of her personal effects, including furniture, artwork, and theatre memorabilia, earned in excess of $120,000 at Christie’s East. The 56th Academy Awards, held on April 2, 1984, ended with a performance of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in tribute to Merman.

Merman was among the hundreds of artists whose material was destroyed in the 2008 Universal Studios fire.

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