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Merman Biography - Part II
by John Kenrick
Merman all dolled up as Panama Hattie (1940), yet another Cole Porter
Through the 1940s, Merman continued her unbroken string of
She introduced "Let's Be Buddies" in Cole
Porter's Panama Hattie (1940 - 501), a comic romp
which cast Merman as a tough bar owner who cleans up her act when she falls in love with a
high society diplomat. The first show in more than a decade to top 500 performances,
its ensemble included future film stars as
Betty Hutton and
Merman's fifth and final Porter musical was Something
For the Boys (1943 - 422), a mindless bit of wartime fluff that
included the hit "Hey Good Lookin'." The plot
involved three cousins inheriting a Texas ranch that happens to sit next
to a military base. As one of the lucky trio, Merman discovers her molar
fillings can pick up radio signals, and she uses this bizarre talent to
save a crippled airplane -- while winning the love of a
bandleader-turned-soldier. This convoluted silliness gave Merman plenty of comic opportunities
SOLDIER: (Admiring Merman's legs) Boy, look at those drumsticks.
MERMAN: How would you like a kick in the teeth from one of those drumsticks?
SOLDIER: How do you like that? And this is the womanhood I'm fighting to protect?
MERMAN: And this is the womanhood I'm fighting to protect!
Merman spent most of World War II working on Broadway,
giving war bond concerts and performing for troops in the New York area.
She also appeared in Stage Door Canteen, a film set in the Manhattan
nightclub where stars performed for a military-only audience
throughout the war.
By the time the war was over, Richard Rodgers
and Oscar Hammerstein II's
Oklahoma! had changed Broadway forever. The mindless musical comedies of the past
were being eclipsed by better crafted shows that integrated story, songs and
When librettists Herbert and Dorothy Fields came up with the idea of a musical
based on the life of famed Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley, the great
Jerome Kern agreed to
compose the score, and Rodgers and Hammerstein stepped in as producers.
Kern's unexpected death might have derailed the project, but Irving Berlin was persuaded to give
the new kind of musical a try.
Annie Get Your Gun (1946 -
1,147) was one of the biggest musical comedy hits of all time, the
longest running show that Ethel Merman or Irving Berlin would ever be
associated with. The score was a virtual one-man hit parade, including
"Doin' What Comes Natur'ally," "You Can't Get a Man With a
Gun," "They Say It's Wonderful," and "Anything You Can
Do." Merman became identified with the role of Annie
Oakley, as well as the theatrical anthem "There's No Business Like
Show Business." She would perform the song to uninterrupted acclaim for
the rest of her career.
Merman had reached her creative peak, and would stay there for years
to come. The $28 a week stenographer was now commanding $4,700 a week
more than any other performer on Broadway. Some of Broadway's finest composers
were doing some of their finest work
for her, and they tended to rave about what she brought to their work.
Irving Berlin said, "You'd better not write a bad lyric for
Merman because people will hear it in the second balcony." Cole Porter
called her "La Merman" and said she sounded "like a band going
by." When illness forced Porter out of the public eye in his later
years, Merman was one of the very few friends welcomed into his home.
Merman's circle of friends extended from childhood chums
still living in Astoria to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. No matter
who Ethel was with, her earthy, street smart approach was the same. When
the Duchess danced the night away with an admirer, Merman tapped the
former King of England on the shoulder and said, "Hey Duke, get off
your royal a** and dance with your wife!" Instead of being offended
by such coarse language, the Duke complied. Although a loving
mother, Merman had her limits. When her daughter paged through a comic
book during a rehearsal of Annie Get Your Gun, Merman snatched the
magazine away, saying, "When I'm on stage, nobody reads."
Ethel Merman and Russel Nype stopped
Call Me Madam (1950) cold with Irving Berlin's "You're Just in
Call Me Madam (1950 - 644)
spoofed Cold War politics by casting Merman as Sally Adams, a Washington
socialite appointed ambassador to a small
European principality. There she finds romance and sets off a few
political firestorms, all set to songs by Irving Berlin. Merman had
"Hostess With the Mostess" and shared the counterpoint
showstopper "You're Just in Love" with newcomer Russell Nype. For
once, her performance was considered so irreplaceable that she got to
repeat her role in the delightful 1953 film version.
Merman's duet with Mary
Martin on a 1953 television special drew record ratings and
resulted in a best-selling recording. From that point on, Merman
remained a popular guest artist on TV specials and variety shows. She
starred in abbreviated TV versions of several of her Broadway hits,
including Anything Goes (NBC - 1954) and Panama Hattie
(NBC - 1954). A lifelong Republican, Merman was a frequent guest at the
White House during the Eisenhower administration,
As Merman's career moved along with surefire success, her personal
life followed a somewhat rockier path. Each of her four marriages ended in divorce.
The first, to Hollywood agent Bill Smith, was Ethel's way of
escaping from a scandalous affair with married Stork Club owner Sherman
Billingsley it ended in a cordial divorce after less than six months.
Next came newspaper executive Robert Levitt, with whom Merman had two children
Bobby and Ethel. A series of business difficulties
made it impossible for Levitt to deal with Ethel's success living out
a 20th Century cliché, he was called
"Mr. Merman" too often. Several years after they divorced, Levitt took his
own life, leaving Merman to raise the children on her own.
By that time, Merman had married airline executive Bob Six. Hoping
to give her children some semblance of a normal life, Merman announced her retirement
and became a fulltime Denver housewife. But this arrangement soon palled, and Merman
returned to work. Hollywood cast her as the mother of a theatrical family in
There's No Business Like Show Business (1954), a lavish showcase for
a trunk load of old Irving Berlin songs. Despite a stellar cast, the film
was a box office disappointment.
With big musical fading from Hollywood
production schedules, Merman headed back to Broadway. He much-heralded
return vehicle was the
thrilling Happy Hunting (1956 - 412), a spoof of Grace Kelly's royal
Monaco wedding that included the catchy "Mutual Admiration Society." Merman's
relationship with co-star Fernando Lamas turned so acrimonious that he tried to embarrass
her during performances, upstaging her (ie - standing upstage, forcing
Merman to turn her back on the audience) and wiping his mouth after their
on-stage kisses -- while still in full view of the audience. Merman and the producers were appalled, and gossip columns
fed the scandal. In a rare move, Actor's Equity (the stage actor's union) sanctioned Lamas
and his behavior improved. Happy Hunting ran on, and the two stars
countered their onstage romance with unconcealed offstage hostility.
Merman divorced Six after concluding that he had married her for publicity purposes. While on the
rebound, Merman was wooed by actor Ernest Borgnine, the Oscar-winning
star of Marty and the popular TV comedy McHale's Navy.
Their 1964 marriage ended within days.
Neither Merman nor Borgnine ever explained to the public what drove them apart.
She filed for divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty. In Merman's autobiography, the marriage rated a special chapter one
blank page. She was so embittered by the experience that she never married again.
On With the Show
Although many critics underestimated Merman's acting
talents, she won universal praise as Mama Rose, the ruthless stage
mother in Gypsy (1959), a musical based on the
memoirs of striptease star Gypsy Rose Lee. Along with a searing libretto by
Arthur Laurents, there was a brilliant score
with music by Jule Styne
and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Merman's
sizzling renditions of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's
Turn" became the stuff of theatrical legend.
Stories about Merman's performance in Gypsy vary.
Many recall it with awe as one of the great events in musical stage history.
Others have complained that her dialogue sometimes took on a mechanical quality -- only
her singing was uniformly socko. Merman's backstage behavior has also inspired contrasted
tales. Co-star Jack Klugman praised Merman for her kindness and
professional support. Others claim that young actress Sandra Church
(the original Louise somehow got on Merman's bad side
during the run. When producer David Merrick asked Merman if
she was still speaking to Church, Merman reputedly said, "Of course I
speak to her! Every night when the curtain goes down, I say 'Go #!&!
Merman must have been disappointed when the Tony went to
Mary Martin for The Sound of Music. There have been any number of
idiotic Tony decisions over the years, but it is inconceivable that
anyone playing Maria Von Trapp could possibly outclass Merman's Mamma
Rose. But Oscar Hammerstein's death made Sound of Music such a
sentimental favorite with Tony voters that Gypsy's powerhouse book
and score did not even receive the courtesy of nominations.
Few would have believed that Mama Rose was the last stage
role Merman would originate. But the demands of eight
performances a week were becoming too much, forcing Merman to so limit her
life that it was "like taking the veil." When offered the chance
to star in the new musical Hello Dolly!, Merman declined, saying she
was too tired to take on another show. She took on several films,
including an acclaimed performance as the greedy Mrs. Marcus in director Stanley
Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). She gave another
hilarious performance as a French whorehouse madam in director Norman
Jewison's comedy The Art of Love (1965).
The bulk of Merman's legendary career was behind her at a
time when popular culture was undergoing massive change. Merman had the
task of carrying on as something more than a great performer she had
the burden of being a living Broadway legend in a world that was paying less attention to Broadway.
Next: Bio - Part III