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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 Me Madam.
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.
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 past.
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.
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 Reese.
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 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
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 anything more?
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