Famous Like Me > Singer > M > Ethel Merman
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Profile of Ethel Merman
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|Also Know As:
|Date of Birth:
||15th February 1908
|Place of Birth:
||Astoria, Queens, New York
Ethel Merman (January 16, 1908 - February 15, 1984) was a star of stage and film musicals, well known for her incredible vocal range and diction, and comic acting (although she could do drama also).
She was born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann, in Astoria, Queens, New York, of a German Lutheran father and Scottish Presbyterian mother, although many people long assumed she was Jewish because of her pre-stage last name (which is common among non-Jewish Germans as well, particularly when there are two "n"s at the end of the name) along with the fact that she was from New York, New York. She was raised a Protestant.
Merman was married and divorced five times:
- Bill Smith, Theatrical agent
- Robert Levitt, Newspaper executive. The couple had two children; divorced in 1952
- Robert Six, airline executive, 1953-1960 (he married Audrey Meadows afterwards)
- Ernest Borgnine, (Actor), in 1964. They announced the impending nuptials at P.J. Clarke's, a legendary night spot in New York, but Merman filed for divorce after just 32 days.
- Jason Mulgrew, marketeer, in 1966. Merman was offended by an inappropriate joke his friend made.
She was known for her powerful (belting) alto voice, exact enunciation, and accurate pitch. Because stage singers performed without microphones when she began singing professionally, she had great advantages in show business, despite the fact that she never received any singing lessons. In fact, Broadway lore holds that George Gershwin warned her to never take a lesson after seeing her opening reviews for Girl Crazy.
She began singing while working as a secretary. She eventually became a full time vaudeville performer, and played the pinnacle of vaudeville, the Palace Theatre in New York City. She had already been engaged for Girl Crazy, a musical with songs by George and Ira Gershwin, which also starred a very young Ginger Rogers (19 years old) in 1930. Her rendition of I Got Rhythm in the show was popular, and by the late 1930s she had become the first lady of the Broadway musical stage. Many consider her the leading Broadway musical performer of the twentieth century with her signature song being "There's No Business Like Show Business".
Merman starred in five Cole Porter musicals, among them "Anything Goes" in 1934 where she introduced "I Get a Kick Out of You", "Blow Gabriel Blow", and the title song. Her next musical with Porter was Red, Hot and Blue in which she co-starred with Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante and introduced "It's Delovely" and "Down in the Depths." In 1939's "DuBarry Was A Lady", Porter provided Merman with a "can you top this" duet with Bert Lahr, "Friendship". Like "You're the Top" in "Anything Goes", this kind of duet became one of her signatures. Porter's lyrics also helped showcase her comic talents in duets in "Panama Hattie" ("Let's be Buddies"), and "Something for the Boys", ("By the Mississinewah").
Irving Berlin supplied Merman with equally memorable duets, including "Anything You Can Do" with Ray Middleton in Annie Get Your Gun and "You're Just in Love" with Russell Nype in Call Me Madam.
In 1951, Merman won the 1951 Best Actress Tony Award for her performance as Sally Adams in Call Me Madam.
Perhaps Merman's most revered performance was in Gypsy as Gypsy Rose Lee's mother Rose. Merman introduced Everything's Coming Up Roses, Some People, and ended the show with the wrenching Rose's Turn, gaining standing ovations for her work. She did not get the role in the movie version, however, which went to movie actress Rosalind Russell, and Merman was quoted as saying: "I know her sort, I can't say...but it rhymes with 'witch' and you'll find her sort in a kennel". [Since this is a line from the film "The Women", in which Russell appeared, the story may be apocryphal] She also insulted Russell's husband, Freddie Brisson, by calling him the "Lizard of Roz".
Ironically, Merman lost the Tony Award to Mary Martin, who was playing Maria in The Sound of Music. "How can you beat a nun?", philosophized Merman. The competitiveness notwithstanding, Merman and Martin were friends off stage and starred in two musical specials on television (unfortunately the two shared something else in common -- they would both die of cancer-related illnesses at the age of 76).
Merman retired from Broadway in 1970 when she appeared as the last Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly, a show initially written for her. No longer willing to "take the veil" as she described being in a Broadway role, Merman preferred to act in television specials and movies. Despite having a reputation for a salty tongue, and having introduced ribald Cole Porter lyrics, Merman was known to dislike theatre fare in the 1970s like "Oh Calcutta" for being lewd.
She was predeceased by one of her 2 children, her daughter, Ethel (known as "Ethel, Jr,").
After Merman was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1983, she collapsed and died several weeks following the surgery at the age of 76 in 1984; she had been planning to go to Los Angeles to appear at the Oscars that year. On Februaury 20th, 1984, Ethel's son, Robert Levitt Jr. held his mothers ashes as he rode down Broadway. He passed the Imperial, the Broadway and the Majestic theatres where Ethel had performed all her life. Then, a minute before curtain up, all the marquees dimmed their lights in rememberence to the greatest star, Ms. Merman.
Merman co-wrote two volumes of memoirs, "Who Could Ask for Anything More" in 1952 and an additional volume in 1979.
- 1930 Girl Crazy
- 1931 George White's Scandals
- 1932 Humpty Dumpty
- 1932 Take a Chance
- 1934 Anything Goes
- 1936 Red, Hot and Blue
- 1939 Stars In Your Eyes
- 1939 Du Barry Was a Lady
- 1940 Panama Hattie
- 1943 Something for the Boys
- 1944 Sadie Thompson (replaced in previews)
- 1946 Annie Get Your Gun
- 1950 Call Me Madam
- 1956 Happy Hunting
- 1959 Gypsy
- 1970 Hello, Dolly! (replacement)
- 1966 Annie Get Your Gun
- 1975 A Gala Tribute to Joshua Logan
- 1977 Together on Broadway (Mary Martin & Ethel Merman)
- 1930 Follow the Leader
- 1930 The Cave Club
- 1931 The Devil Sea
- 1931 Roaming
- 1932 Let Me Call You Sweetheart
- 1932 You Try Somebody Else
- 1932 Time on My Hands
- 1932 Old Man Blues
- 1932 Ireno
- 1933 Song Shopping
- 1933 Be Like Me
- 1934 We're Not Dressing
- 1934. Kid Millions
- 1936 The Big Broadcast of 1936
- 1936 Strike Me Pink
- 1936 Anything Goes
- 1938 Happy Landing
- 1938 Alexander's Ragtime Band
- 1938 Straight, Place and Show
- 1943 Stage Door Canteen
- 1953 Call Me Madam
- 1954 There's No Business Like Show Business
- 1963 It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
- 1965 The Art of Love
- 1967 Tarzan and the Mountains of the Moon
- 1968 Around the World of Mike Todd
- 1971 Journey Back to Oz (voice)
- 1976 Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood
- 1978 A Salute to American Imagination
- 1979 Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July
- 1980 Airplane!
- 1981 Something a Little Less Serious
- 1953 The Ford 50th Anniversary Show
- 1954 There's No Business Like Show Business
- 1954 Anything Goes
- 1958 Panama Hattie
- 1961 Merman on Broadway
- 1962 The Lucille Ball Show (2 appearances)
- 1963 The Judy Garland Show (2 appearances)
- 1965 An Evening with Ethel Merman
- 1966 Batman (as "Lola Lasagne")
- 1967 Annie Get Your Gun
- 1967 That Girl
- 1967 The Carol Burnett Show
- 1970 Evening at Pops
- 1972 'S Wonderful, 'S Marvelous, 'S Gershwin
- 1975 Match Game PM
- 1976 The Muppet Show
- 1977 The Love Boat (5 episodes)
- 1978 A Special Sesame Street Christmas
- 1985 Judy Garland: The Concert Years (archival footage from The Judy Garland Show)
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