American actress and singer. Known primarily for her powerful voice and roles in musical theatre, she has been called "the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage." Among the many standards introduced by Merman in Broadway musicals are "I Got Rhythm", "Everything's Coming Up Roses", "I Get a Kick Out of You", "It's De-Lovely", "Friendship", "You're the Top", "Anything Goes", and "There's No Business Like Show Business", which later became her theme song.
Early lifeMerman was born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann in her maternal grandmother's house located at 26-5 4th Street in Astoria, Queens, in New York City in 1908, though she would later emphatically declare that it was actually 1912. Her father, Edward Zimmermann (1879–1977), was an accountant with James H. Dunham & Company, a Manhattan wholesale dry-goods company, and her mother, Agnes (née Gardner; 1883–1974), was a school teacher. Zimmermann had been raised in the Dutch Reformed Church and his wife was Presbyterian, but shortly after they were wed they joined the Episcopalian congregation at Church of the Redeemer, where Merman was baptized. Her parents were strict about church attendance, and every Sunday she spent the day there, first at morning services, followed by Sunday school, an afternoon prayer meeting, and an evening study group for children.
Merman attended P.S. 4 and William Cullen Bryant High School (which later named its auditorium in her honor), where she pursued a commercial course that offered secretarial training. She was active in numerous extracurricular activities, including the school magazine, the speakers' club, and student council, and she frequented the local music store to peruse the weekly arrivals of new sheet music. On Friday nights the Zimmermann family would take the subway into Manhattan to see the vaudeville show at the Palace Theatre, where Merman discovered Blossom Seeley, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, and Nora Bayes. At home she would try to emulate their singing styles, but her own distinct voice was difficult to disguise.
After graduating from Bryant in 1924, Merman was hired as a stenographer by the Boyce-Ite Company. One day during her lunch break, she met Vic Kliesrath, who offered her a job at the Bragg-Kliesrath Corporation for a $5 increase above the weekly $23 salary she was earning, and Merman accepted the offer. She eventually was made personal secretary to company president Caleb Smith Bragg, whose frequent lengthy absences from the office allowed her to catch up on the sleep she had lost the previous night when she was out late performing at private parties. During this period Merman also began appearing in nightclubs, and it was at this time she decided the name Ethel Zimmermann was too long for a theater marquee. She considered combining Ethel with Gardner or Hunter, her grandmother's maiden name, but finally abbreviated Zimmermann to Merman to appease her father.
Early careerDuring a two-week engagement at Little Russia, a club in midtown-Manhattan, Merman met agent Lou Irwin, who arranged for her to audition for Archie Mayo, a contract director at Warner Bros. He offered her an exclusive six-month contract, starting at $125 per week, and Merman quit her day job, only to find herself idle for weeks while waiting to be cast in a film. She finally urged Irwin to try to cancel her agreement with Mayo; instead, he negotiated her a better deal allowing her to perform in clubs while remaining on the Warners payroll. 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. Soon after Merman underwent a tonsillectomy she feared might damage her voice, but after recovering she discovered it was more powerful than ever.
While performing on the prestigious Keith Circuit, Merman was signed to replace Ruth Etting in the Paramount film Follow the Leader, starring Ed Wynn and Ginger Rogers. Following a successful seven-week run at the Brooklyn Paramount, she was signed to perform at the Palace for $500 per week. During the run, theatre producer Vinton Freedley saw her perform and invited her 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 Gershwins immediately cast her, and Merman began juggling daytime rehearsals with her matinee and evening performance schedule at the Palace.
Girl Crazy opened on October 14, 1930 at the Alvin Theatre, where it ran for 272 performances. The New York Times noted Merman sang "with dash, authority, good voice and just the right knowing style," while The New Yorker called her "imitative of no one." Merman was fairly blasé about her notices, prompting George Gershwin to ask her mother, "Have you ever seen a person so unconcerned as Ethel?", and he made her promise never to work with a singing teacher.
Paramount Theatre, and a return engagement at the Palace. As soon as Girl Crazy closed, she and her parents departed for a much-needed vacation in Lake George in Upstate New York, but after their first day there Merman was summoned to Atlantic City to help salvage the troubled latest edition of George White's Scandals. Because she was still under contract to Freedley, White was forced to pay the producer $10,000 for her services, in addition to her weekly $1,500 salary. Following the Atlantic City run, the show played in Newark and then Brooklyn before opening 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 the following month. Producer Buddy DeSylva, who also had written the book and lyrics, was certain it could be reworked into a success and, with a revamped script and additional songs by Vincent Youmans, it opened with the new title Take a Chance on November 26 at the Apollo, where it ran for 243 performances. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times called it "fast, loud, and funny" and added Merman "has never loosed herself with quite so much abandon." Following the Broadway run, she agreed to join the show on the road, but shortly after the Chicago opening she claimed the chlorine in the city's water supply was irritating her throat, and Merman returned to Manhattan.
Merman returned to Hollywood to appear in We're Not Dressing, a 1934 screwball comedy based on the J. M. Barrie play The Admirable Crichton. Despite working with a cast that included Bing Crosby, Carole Lombard, and Burns and Allen, under the direction of Academy Award–winning director Norman Taurog, Merman was unhappy with the experience, and she was dismayed to discover one of her musical numbers had been cut when she attended the New York opening with her family and friends. That same year she also appeared on screen with Eddie Cantor in Kid Millions, but it was her return to Broadway that would establish her as a major star and cement her image as a tough girl with a soft heart.
Anything Goes proved to be the first of five Cole Porter musicals in which Merman starred. In addition to the title song, the score included "I Get a Kick Out of You", "You're the Top", and "Blow Gabriel Blow". It opened on November 21, 1934 at the Alvin Theatre, and the New York Post called Merman "vivacious and ingratiating in her comedy moments, and the embodiment of poise and technical adroitness" when singing "as only she knows how to do." Although Merman always had remained with a show until the end of its run, she left Anything Goes after eight months to appear with Eddie Cantor in the film Strike Me Pink. She was replaced by Benay Venuta, with whom she enjoyed a long but frequently tempestuous friendship.
Merman initially was overlooked for the 1936 screen adaptation of Anything Goes when Bing Crosby insisted his wife Dixie Lee be cast as Reno Sweeney opposite his Billy Crocker, but when she unexpectedly dropped out of the project Merman was given the opportunity to reprise the role she had originated on stage. From the beginning, it was clear to Merman the film would not be the enjoyable experience she had hoped it would be. The focus was shifted to Crosby, leaving her very much in a supporting role. Many of Porter's ribald lyrics were altered to conform to the guidelines of the Motion Picture Production Code, and "Blow Gabriel Blow" was eliminated completely, replaced by a song Merman was forced to perform in a headdress made of peacock feathers while surrounded by dancers dressed as Chinese slave girls. The film was completed $201,000 over budget and seventeen days behind schedule, and Richard Watts, Jr. of the New York Herald Tribune described it as "dull and commonplace," with Merman doing "as well as possible" but unable to register "on the screen as magnificently as she does on the stage."
Bob Hope in the cast, Red, Hot and Blue closed after less than six months. Back in Hollywood, Merman was featured in Happy Landing, a minor comedy with Cesar Romero, Don Ameche, and Sonja Henie; the box office hit Alexander's Ragtime Band, a pastiche of Irving Berlin songs interpolated into a plot that vaguely paralleled the composer's life; and Straight, Place or Show, a critical and commercial flop starring the Ritz Brothers. She returned to the stage in Stars in Your Eyes, which struggled to survive while the public flocked to the 1939 New York World's Fair instead and finally closed short of four months.Merman followed this with two more Porter musicals. DuBarry Was a Lady, with Bert Lahr and Betty Grable, ran for a year, and Panama Hattie, with Betty Hutton, June Allyson, and Arthur Treacher, fared even better, lasting slightly more than fourteen months.
Shortly after the opening of the latter, Merman—still despondent about the end of her affair with Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley—married her first husband, Treacher's agent William Smith. She later said she knew on their wedding night she had made "a dreadful mistake," and two months later she filed for divorce on grounds of desertion. Shortly after she met and married Robert D. Levitt, promotion director for the New York Journal-American. The two eventually had two children and divorced in 1952 due to his excessive drinking and erratic behavior.
In 1943, Merman was a featured performer in the film Stage Door Canteen and opened in another Porter musical, Something for the Boys, produced by Michael Todd. Her next project was Sadie Thompson, a Vernon Duke/Howard Dietz musical adaptation of a W. Somerset Maugham short story, but Merman found she was unable to retain the lyrics and resigned twelve days after rehearsals began.
In August 1945, while in the hospital recovering from the Caesarean birth of her second child, Merman was visited by Dorothy Fields, who proposed she star as Annie Oakley in a musical she and her husband Herbert were writing with Jerome Kern. Merman accepted, but in November Kern suffered a stroke while in New York City visiting Rodgers and Hammerstein (the producers of the show) and died a few days later. Producers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II invited Irving Berlin to replace him, and the result was Annie Get Your Gun, which opened on May 16, 1946 at the Imperial Theatre, where it ran for nearly three years and 1,147 performances. During that time, Merman took only two vacations and missed only two performances due to illness. Merman lost the film version to Judy Garland, who eventually was replaced by Betty Hutton, but she did star in a Broadway revival two decades later.
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 went on to star 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 at the behest of her third husband, Continental Airlines executive Robert Six, who was upset she had chosen to become a Colorado housewife following their wedding in 1953. He expected her public appearances to engender publicity for the airline, and her decision to forgo the limelight did not sit well with him. He urged her to accept the lead in Happy Hunting, with a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (who had written Call Me Madam) and a score by the unknown team of Harold Karr and Matt Dubey. Merman acquiesced to her husband's demands, although she clashed with the composers from the start and soon was at odds with co-star Fernando Lamas and his wife Arlene Dahl, who frequently attended rehearsals. Based on the Merman name, the show opened in New York with an advance sale of $1.5 million and, despite the star's dissatisfaction with it, garnered respectable reviews. Although Brooks Atkinson thought the score was "hardly more than adequate", he called Merman "as brassy as ever, glowing like a neon light whenever she steps on the stage." Several months into the run, she insisted two of her least favorite numbers be replaced by songs written by her friend Roger Edens who, because of his exclusive contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, credited them to Kay Thompson. She lost the Tony Award to Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing, and the show closed after 412 performances, with Merman happy to see what she considered "a dreary obligation" finally come to an end.
Later careerWhat many consider Merman's greatest triumph as a stage performer opened on May 21, 1959 at The Broadway Theatre. Gypsy was based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee and starred Merman as her domineering stage mother Rose Hovick. Although Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, was deeply unhappy with her interpretation of the role, she was lauded by the critics. In the New York Post, Richard Watts called her "a brilliant actress," and Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times said "she gives an indomitable performance, both as actress and singer." Despite the acclaim, Merman lost the Tony Award to her close friend Mary Martin in The Sound of Music and jokingly quipped, "How are you going to buck a nun?" Shortly after she divorced Six when his affair with television actress Audrey Meadows became public, and she found solace in her work.
Throughout the 702-performance run of Gypsy, Mervyn LeRoy saw it numerous times, and he repeatedly assured Merman he planned to cast her in the film adaptation he was preparing. Shortly prior to the show's closing, however, it was announced Rosalind Russell had been signed to star instead. 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 star in both films. Because Russell was still a major box office draw, with the success of Auntie Mame a few years earlier, and Merman never having established herself as a popular screen presence, the studio agreed to Brisson's terms. Merman was devastated at this turn of events and called the loss of the role "the greatest professional disappointment of her life."
Los Angeles run, LeRoy visited her backstage and claimed Russell was so ill "I think you're going to end up getting this part." Believing the film version of Gypsy was within her grasp, she generously gave him the many house seats he requested for friends and industry colleagues, only to discover she had been duped.
Over the next several years, Merman was featured in two films, the wildly successful It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the flop The Art of Love, and made dozens of television appearances, guesting on variety series hosted by Perry Como, Red Skelton, Dean Martin, Ed Sullivan, and Carol Burnett, on talk shows with Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett, and Merv Griffin, and in episodes of That Girl, The Lucy Show, Batman, and Tarzan, among 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. On her opening night, her performance continually was brought to a halt by prolonged standing ovations, and the critics unanimously heralded her return to the New York stage. Walter Kerr described her voice "exactly as trumpet-clean, exactly as pennywhistle-piercing, exactly as Wurlitzer-wonderful as it always was." The seventh actress to portray the scheming matchmaker, she remained with the musical for 210 performances until it closed on December 27. She received the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance for what proved to be her last appearance on Broadway.
For the remainder of her career, Merman worked as frequently as offers were made. In 1979, she recorded The Ethel Merman Disco Album, with many of her signature show-stoppers set to a disco beat. Her last screen role was a self-parody in the 1980 comedy film Airplane!, in which she portrayed Lieutenant Hurwitz, a shell shocked soldier who thinks he is Ethel Merman. In the cameo appearance, Merman leaps out of bed singing Everything's Coming Up Roses as orderlies restrain her. She appeared in multiple episodes of The Love Boat, guested on a CBS Television 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 benefitting 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, working in the gift shop or visiting patients.
Later life and deathUnfortunately, with advancing age, Merman began to become forgetful, and on occasion had difficulty with her speech, and at times her behavior was erratic, causing concern among her friends.
On April 7, 1983, she was preparing to leave for Los Angeles to appear on the 55th Academy Awards telecast when she collapsed in her apartment. She was diagnosed with glioblastoma and underwent brain surgery to have the malignant tumor removed.
Early on the morning of February 15, 1984, she died in her sleep. Her private funeral service was held in a chapel at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, where she frequently had worshiped. 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.
Performance styleMerman was known for her powerful, belting mezzo-soprano voice, precise enunciation and pitch.Because stage singers performed without microphones when Merman began singing professionally, she had a great advantage, despite the fact that she never took any singing lessons. In fact, Broadway lore holds that George Gershwin advised her never to take a singing lesson after she opened in his Girl Crazy. Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics for Merman's Gypsy, remembered that she could become "mechanical" after a while. "She performed the dickens out of the show when the critics were there," he said. He added, "or if she thought there was a celebrity in the audience. So we used to spread a rumor that Frank Sinatra was out front. That night however, Judy Garland was out front. I'll tell you one thing [Merman] did do, she steadily upstaged everybody. Every night, she would be about one more foot upstage, so finally they were all playing with their backs to the audience. I don't think it was conscious. But she sure knew her way around a stage, and it was all instinctive."
- William Smith, theatrical agent (1940–1941)
- Robert Levitt, a newspaper executive (1941–1952)
- Robert Six, President, Continental Airlines (1953–1960)
- Ernest Borgnine, the actor, in 1964. Merman filed for divorce 32 days later.
Merman co-wrote two memoirs, Who Could Ask for Anything More? (1955) and Merman (1978). In a radio interview, Merman commented on her many marriages, saying that "We all make mistakes, that's why they put rubbers on pencils, and that's what I did. I made a few loo-loos!" In the latter book, the chapter entitled "My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine" consists of one blank page.
Merman was notorious for her love of vulgar jokes. She delighted in telling dirty jokes and vulgar stories at public parties; she once shouted a dirty joke across the room at José Ferrer during a formal reception. Merman also enjoyed sending out greeting cards with obscene jokes in them. Reportedly, the first time she heard the title of the song "Everything's Coming Up Roses," she quipped "Everything's coming up Rose's what?" Merman was known for swearing during rehearsals and meetings. While rehearsing a guest appearance on The Loretta Young Show, she was told she had to pay $1 each time she swore since Young could not abide foul language. As she was being shoehorned into an ill fitting gown for the next number Merman exclaimed, "Oh shit, this damn thing's too tight." Young advanced on her waving her curse box and said, "Come on Ethel, put a dollar in. You know my rules." Merman's retort reportedly was, "Ah, honey, how much will it cost me to tell you to go fuck yourself?!?"
Girl Crazy (1930)
George White's Scandals of 1931 (1931)
Take a Chance (1932)
Anything Goes (1934)
Red, Hot and Blue (1936)
Stars in Your Eyes (1939)
DuBarry Was a Lady (1939)
Panama Hattie (1940)
Something for the Boys (1943)
Sadie Thompson (1944) (left during rehearsals; replaced by June Havoc)
Annie Get Your Gun (1946)
Call Me Madam (1950)
Happy Hunting (1956)
Annie Get Your Gun (1966) (revival)
Call Me Madam (1968) (revival) (summer stock)
Hello, Dolly! (1970) (replacement)
Mary Martin & Ethel Merman: Together On Broadway (1977) (benefit concert)
In the film Stage Door Canteen (1943)
Follow the Leader (1930)
Let Me Call You Sweetheart (1932)
We're Not Dressing (1934)
Kid Millions (1934)
The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935)
Strike Me Pink (1936)
Anything Goes (1936)
Happy Landing (1938)
Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938)
Straight, Place or 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)
Journey Back to Oz (1974) (voice)
Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976)
Ethel Merman in a trailer for Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938)
The Ford 50th Anniversary Show (1953)
Panama Hattie (1954)
Merman On Broadway (1961)
The Lucy Show, two-parter, as herself (1963)
The Judy Garland Show, two episodes (1963)
Maggie Brown (1963) (unsold pilot)
An Evening with Ethel Merman (1965)
Annie Get Your Gun (1967)
Tarzan and the Mountains of the Moon (1967)
Batman, "The Sport of Penguins", two-parter as Lola Lasagne (1967)
That Girl, two episodes, as herself (1967–1968)
'S Wonderful, 'S Marvelous, 'S Gershwin (1972)
Ed Sullivan's Broadway (1973)
The Muppet Show (1976)
Match Game PM (1976), (1978)
You're Gonna Love It Here (1977) (unsold pilot)
A Salute to American Imagination (1978)
A Special Sesame Street Christmas (1978)
Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979) (voice)
The Love Boat, five episodes, (1979–1982)
Night of 100 Stars (1982)