Biographical Sketch - Part III
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 2000, Revised 2003)
(The images below are thumbnails click on them
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Merman took over the lead in
Hello Dolly! during its final year, helping it achieve a
record-breaking run. This was appropriate, since the show had originally
been written for her.
Merman was nonchalant
about her talents. "Hell, I just sing! I open my mouth and it happens,
what can I tell you?" She never admitted to stage fright, saying instead,
"If they could do what I can do, they'd be up here and I'd be out there."
It was in that spirit that Merman agreed to star in a limited run revival of
Annie Get Your Gun (1966). Broadway audiences greeted her like a long-lost
friend, forcing her to encore Irving Berlin's new song "Old Fashioned
Wedding" at every performance. The run was extended, and the production
was later restaged for network television.
But personal tragedy soon overshadowed this public
triumph. Merman's daughter Ethel had suffered from a series of emotional problems
in the 1960s, but no one expected her death due to an overdose of
prescribed medication in 1967. Inconsolable, Merman soon returned to
work with TV appearances and several regional tours of Call
Merman agreed to take over the lead in Hello Dolly!
for a three month run in 1970. Her tumultuous opening night ended with a dozen curtain
calls and loving reviews from the critics. Playing to sold-out houses, a gratified
Merman stayed on for nine months, making Hello Dolly! the longest running musical
up to that time. Although Merman enjoyed the adulation, this production
marked her last fulltime run on Broadway.
Merman remained active in nightclubs, film and television. She provided the
voice for the evil witch Mombi in the animated feature Journey Back
to Oz (1971), and fictional gossip columnist Hedda Parsons in the ill-conceived
comedy Ron Ton Ton (1976). On television, she played a singing missionary
in Tarzan, was the comic criminal Lola Lasagna on Batman, portrayed
herself on The Lucy Show and That Girl, and starred in an
unsuccessful sitcom pilot. Merman's candid opinions made her an ongoing favorite
on national and local talk shows, and she made a memorable guest appearance
on The Muppet Show, singing showtunes with Kermit and the gang.
Never one to
shrink from challenges, Merman continued singing. A successful solo appearance with
The Boston Pops in 1975 led to a series of acclaimed concert appearances. Her
1977 reunion concert with Mary Martin
(photo at left) proved to be one of the
theatrical events of the decade. Her amusing autobiography was published in 1978,
offering some frank opinions about the people and events of her
Proving Merman's sense of humor, she spoofed herself in the
feature film Airplane (1980), playing a deranged hospital patient
who "thinks he's Ethel Merman." She also turned out a
disco album of her classic showstoppers. Fans found it rather campy, but
were delighted to hear her voice ring out over the
driving dance beat. Despite a pronounced vibrato that marked her singing
in these years, her singing remained unerringly on pitch.
Some changes in popular culture were too much for
Merman. Although she loved salty language and adult jokes in private conversation,
she could not accept hearing them onstage. After seeing Kander and Ebb's Chicago
in 1975, she complained to her friend Rose Marie, "You know what Gwen Verdon says
right at the beginning? 'I gotta pee!' Can you imagine that in a musical? Jeez, that
ain't Broadway." However, when Merman attended a performance of the
Tony-winning Torch Song Trilogy, playwright/star Harvey Fierstein
asked what she thought of the show, and has quoted her as responding
with, "I thought it was a piece of s***, but the audience laughed
and cried, so what the ***k do I know?"
Liberated from the discipline of regular performances, Merman
enjoyed an active social life. Always an enthusiastic drinker, she switched to wine
when the hard stuff became too much for her. By day, she loved needlepoint, and
spent hours gossiping with friends. Often seen near her home on Manhattan's Upper
East Side, Merman avoided autograph seekers and the other trappings
of fame. She remained an active letter writer, and maintained spectacular detailed
scrapbooks covering her full career with typewritten notes to credit every
clipping. Merman's later years were marked by a shortened temper
and the abrupt ending of some friendships. She also had to endure the deaths
of her beloved parents in the 1970s.
Ethel Merman opened a new career with this 1975 appearance
with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops on PBS.
Merman continued to work on television. She joined
former co-star Bob Hope to perform "It's De-Lovely" on a Cole
Porter tribute, and did a memorable guest shot with on the Muppet
show. She appeared several times on the popular Love Boat series,
including an all-star episode with Ann Miller, Carol Channing and Della
Her last New York performance took place at Carnegie Hall in 1982
as a benefit for the Museum of the City of New York's theater collection. She held forth
for an hour in top form, belting out hit after hit with a power that belied her
seventy four years. She made one of her last recorded appearances at a PBS benefit stopping
the all star show with "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "They Say It's
Wonderful." The video of that evening shows her offering the same no-nonsense,
"plant both feet and sing" delivery she always had, and both solos bring the
audience to its feet with wild cheers not out of sympathy, but in a genuine response
to her still thrilling talents.
In the Spring of 1982, Merman appeared on Mary Martin's
PBS talk show Over Easy, where they joined forces to sing "Anything
You Can Do" from their mutual hit, Annie Get Your Gun. Almost
thirty years after their historic duet on the Ford show, Merman and
Martin once again caused a sensation, and they were invited to repeat
the number as part of a tribute to Irving Berlin at the next Academy
Awards. An exciting prospect, but it was not to be.
Merman as she appeared on the cover of her 1979 disco album a
campy but entertaining collection of her hit songs set to a driving club
Merman was at home in her New York apartment when a sudden
flash of pain left her incoherent and unable to walk in April of 1983.
Thinking it was a stroke, doctors soon discovered the cause to be an inoperable brain
tumor. Ethel rallied for several months and was cheered by visits from a few longtime
friends like Benay Venuta and Mary Martin, but an inexorable decline forced her to
remain in seclusion. Towards the end, she was unable to speak, or even to recognize
herself on television. To an independent woman who had known exceptional
good health, helplessness must have been the ultimate nightmare. Cared for by her
devoted son Bobby, Ethel Merman died on
February 15, 1984.
Several years before, in her second autobiography, Merman wrote
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.
- Merman: An Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster,
1978) p. 264.
How right she was! Ethel Merman came on the scene at just the
right time, providing one of the brightest talents to emerge during the golden age
of American musical theatre. Belting out her songs with merry abandon, she helped
electrify the Broadway musical. Although she often insisted that her success
was a matter of luck, her talent remains the stuff of legend. Those who
laugh at Merman's outsized personality and all-out performance style
do not understand. When the theater had no sound designers, here was a star
who could sell a song all the way up to the second balcony, and win laughs
to boot. There has never been anyone else quite like her, and doubtless never
will be again. Ethel Merman was irreplaceable. As epitaphs go, who could ask for
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