Born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann on January 16, 1909, in Astoria Long Island, NY, (died February 15, 1984, New York, NY); daughter of Edward (an accountant) and Agnes Gardner Merman, (homemaker and choir singer); married William B. Smith (a theatrical agent) November 15, 1940, (divorced 1941); married Robert D. Levitt (newspaper executive ) 1941, (divorced June 7, 1952); married Robert F. Six (airline executive) 1953, (divorced 1960); married Ernest Borgnine (actor) June 26, 1964, (divorced November 1965); children (with second husband): Ethel born July 20, 1942 (died 1967) and Robert Daniels Jr. born August 11, 1945.
On October 13, 1930 an 18-year-old singer named Ethel Agnes Zimmermann came on the stage at Broadway's Alvin Theater and introduced "I've Got Rhythm" in George Gershwin's new musical, Girl Crazy and changed Broadway forever. A few minutes before she had entertained the crowd with her version of "Sam and Delilah," which had attracted attention, but when she began to sing "I've Got Rhythm" near the end of the first act using her voice to transmit a single note for an entire 16-bar chorus, the audience was certain that a new star had been born. She was later characterized as being able to hold a note longer than the Chase Manhattan Bank.
Born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann on January 16, 1909 in Astoria Long Island, New York, Ethel Merman made her debut as a five year old at the Astoria, Long Island Republican Club. Accompanied by her father, she was billed as Little Ethel Zimmermann. Before long she was appearing for civic, fraternal and philanthropic organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, the Masons, and the Long Island Society for the Prevention and Relief of Tuberculosis. She also appeared at Camp Yaphank on Long Island during a period when Irving Berlin was also helping to cheer World War I soldiers. Although she never had any formal voice training, she sang in the choir of the Dutch Reformed Church and her father taught her to read music and play the piano.
Merman took a four year business course at William Cullen Bryant High School and became proficient in typing, shorthand, and bookkeeping. Upon graduation she obtained a $23 a week job as a stenographer at an automobile anti-freeze business and later was hired as a secretary to Caleeb Bragg, President of the Bragg Kliesrath Corporation, a manufacturer of early vacuum brakes. She continued to sing at social events and company outings, which soon led to singing in local clubs. Her boss got her an opportunity to sing on Broadway with George White, the famed producer, but when she was offered work in the chorus only, she declined the offer indicating she only wanted a singing job.
She continued to perform at local clubs including Jimmy Durante's Les Ambassadeurs Club on Broadway, where the two became life long friends. In addition, Merman performed at the Ritz Theater in Elizabeth, New Jersey on weekends and during the week at the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn. She was noticed at the Paramount by Vinton Freedley, who obtained an audition for her with George Gershwin in his penthouse apartment. The audition led to her Broadway debut in the 1930 Gershwin Broadway musical Girl Crazy, where she stopped the show. Ginger Rogers singled her out for the part when she saw Merman's act in a night club in White Plains, New York.
After Girl Crazy, Merman appeared in George White's Scandals with Rudy Vallee, Alice Faye and Ray Bolger. Scandals closed after seven months and 202 performances, and the show introduced such notable songs such as "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" and "The Thrill is Gone." After Scandals Merman became a vaudeville head liner until she returned to Broadway in November of 1932 in the show Take a Chance.
Over the span of her career Merman appeared in five of Cole Porter's legendary shows including Anything Goes with Victor Moore in November of 1934, Red Hot and Blue in October of 1936 with Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope, and DuBarry was a Lady in 1939. She also performed in Panama Hattie in October of 1940 and referred to herself as "Iron Lungs Merman" and Something for the Boys in 1943. Porter once described her as a "brass band going by" and she became dubbed as "The Queen of Broadway." In fact, one of the most uncomfortable times in Porter's life came when he and producers were trying to recruit Merman for one of his new productions. Merman refused to sign a contract until Porter came to her mother's apartment and played and sang his songs for the entire Zimmermann family. He came and eventually performed many of his songs including "You're the Top," "All Through the Night," "Anything Goes," and "I Get a Kick out of You." Afterwards, she signed the contract.
Merman was a kid at heart and in her apartment she collected Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, which sat in a rocking chair; she even had Raggedy Ann stationery. She also kept a small Christmas tree in the foyer in her home in Queens, and every night she lit its lights because she felt it kept the wonderful spirit of Christmas throughout the year. Merman also volunteered her time every Wednesday at the Roosevelt Hospital in New York because she was very pleased with the care her parents had received there. She worked in the hospital's gift department.
Irving Berlin wrote two of Merman's most memorable plays, Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam. Annie Get Your Gun opened on Broadway in May of 1946 and ran for 1, 147 performances. The show co-starred Ray Middleton. It was the biggest hit of both Berlin and Merman and received rave reviews by New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson citing "her brass band voice, infectious sense of rhythm and her razzle dazzle performance gave her songs a remarkable beat and relish." Berlin had replaced Jerome Kern who had died of a heart attack when he was about to begin work on the play. The play was a huge success and Berlin and his wife, Ellin, celebrated their twentieth anniversary by going on a cruise after receiving a telegram from Merman after the show. It read "Thanks". In 1966, she returned for a brief revival of Annie Get Your Gunand although her voice was still powerful and pleasing, critics questioned a 59 year old woman playing a love struck girl.
The second major collaboration between Merman and Berlin was the introduction of his Broadway musical comedy Call Me Madam, that opened in October of 1950 and ran for 644 performances. It was a satire based on former United States President Harry S. Truman appointing Washingtonian party giver Perle Mesta to the Ambassadorship to Luxembourg and co-starred Paul Lukas and Russell Nype. Merman let everyone know that she would not accept any changes in her songs less than a week before opening. When Berlin came to her with some changes in one song's lyrics she bluntly turned him down saying "Call me Miss Birds Eye. It's frozen." During the preparation of Call Me Madam, Berlin struggled with the second act and overnight he wrote a new song "You're Just in Love" which revitalized the act and became a popular standard. It marked the first time in 36 years that Berlin had introduced a two part number, and at age 62, he was very delighted to have another major hit production.
Her favorite role and perhaps her most important contribution to Broadway musical theater was her role as the ruthless mother of stripper Gypsy Rose, Lee, in Gypsy. It opened in May of 1959 and brought Merman out of semi-retirement. Gypsy ran for 702 performances and co-starred Jack Klugman with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Jerome Robbins the director of Gypsy wanted Sondheim to write the music but Merman, who exercised considerable control over the show, felt he was too inexperienced and insisted on Styne instead. She later agreed to let Sondheim write the lyrics. Merman's role as Mama Rose was the last she created and the first she took on tour. The tour lasted from March through December of 1961.
In July 1965, Merman revived Call Me Madam in Los Angeles at the Valley Theater, and in 1966, she revived Annie Get Your Gun at the New York State Theater, and later brought it back to Broadway. In 1968, she appeared in Call Me Madam at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami and, in March of 1970, she took over the lead role of Dolly Levi Gallagher in Hello Dolly.
Merman also appeared in fourteen musical films. Her major film credits include It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in 1963 with Spencer Tracy, Edie Adams and Milton Berle, The Art of Love in 1965, Airplane in 1980 with Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges, We're Not Dressing and Kid Millions in 1934, Strike Me Pink, Alexander's Ragtime Band in 1938, There's No Business Like Show Business in 1954, Anything Goes in 1936 with Bing Crosby, Call Me Madam in 1953 with Vera Ellen, Donald O'Connor and George Sanders. "The Best Thing for You," which was performed in Call Me Madam, also served as the theme song for Dwight D. Eisenhower's Presidential campaign helping to elect him to the White House. She also appeared in many television productions including a special in 1953 with Broadway star, Mary Martin. In addition she had a regular weekly radio program in New York on Radio Station WABC.
Merman was married and divorced four times including her third marriage to Robert Six, the President of Continental Airlines and her fourth marriage to Academy Award winning actor, Ernest Borgnine, which lasted only thirty eight days. Her first marriage to William Smith lasted three days only, but it was over a year before their Mexican divorce was finalized. She had two children Ethel and Robert Jr. with her second husband Robert D. Levitt.
Merman amassed over 6,000 performances in fourteen Broadway hit shows and Lloyds of London once said she had the highest rating for health and dependability of any actress in the American theater. In her role in Call me Madam, which spanned over six years, she never missed a performance. After a career of over fifty years, her final performance was at a Carnegie Hall Benefit Concert in 1982. She died of a heart attack in 1984 in Manhattan ten months after undergoing brain surgery at Roosevelt Hospital; the same facility she had regularly worked as a volunteer. On May 5, 1989, William Cullen Bryant High School renamed its auditorium in honor of its famous alumna and in attendance was her son, Bob. A performance of Gypsy followed the ceremony.
by Francis D. McKinley
Ethel Merman's Career
Made Broadway debut in Girl Crazy, 1930; also starred in other Broadway performances including Annie Get Your Gun, 1946; Call Me Madam, 1950; and Gypsy, 1959; performed on KNK radio with her two sisters calling themselves the Stafford Sisters, 1935; formed the Pied Pipers 1938; performed with Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra, 1939; joined the Johnny Mercer Show, 1944; signed with Capitol Records 1944; had a series of radio shows 1944-1949; broadcast for Radio Luxembourg (Europe) and Voice of America 1950; Jo Stafford Show-CBS-TV 1954;
Ethel Merman's Awards
Special Tony Award, 1974; New York Drama Critics Awards for Something for the Boys; Annie Get Your Gun; and Gypsy; Tony Award for Call Me Madam, Drama Desk Award for Hello Dolly; Donaldson Award for Annie Get Your Gun.
- Selected discography
- The Ethel Merman Collection , Universal.
- Victory Collection-The Smithsonian Remembers When America Went to War, RCA.
- I Get a Kick Out of You , PAL.
- American Legends Series- You're the Top , PRT.
- Ethel Merman Collection ,RZT.
- There's No Business Like Show Business: Ethel Merman Collection , RZT.
- Autobiography , Decca.
- Songs She Made Famous , Decca.
- Memories , Decca.
- On Stage , VIK.
- Gypsy , Columbia.
- Call Me Madam , MCA.
- Annie Get Your Gun , Decca.
- Barrett, Mary Ellin, Irving Berlin, A Daughters' Memoir, Simon & Schuster 1994.
- Bering, Rudiger, Musicals, Barron's Educational Series Inc., 1998.
- Frommer, Myrna Katz and Harvey Frommer, It Happened on Broadway,Harcourt Brace & Co., 1998.
- Gammond, Peter, The Oxford Companion to PopularMusic, Oxford Univ. Press 1993.
- Green, Stanley, Broadway Musicals, Show by Show, Hal Leonard Corp., 1996.
- Maltin, Leonard, Movie and Video Guide 1995, Penguin Books Ltd., 1994.
- Merman, Ethel, Merman An Autobiography, Simon and Schuster 1978.
- Morley, Sheridan, The Great Stage Stars, Facts File Publications 1986.
- Osborne, Jerry, Rockin Records,Osborne Publications 1999.
- Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, St. Martin's Press, 1966.
- Young, William C., Famous Actors and Actresses of the American Stage-R. R. Bowker Co. New York and London, 1978.
- Los Angeles Times, February 16, 1984
- New York Times, November 22, 1934; February 16, 1984
- "Ethel Merman," A&E Biography, www.biography.com, (August 1999).
- Additional information provided by Will Friedwald in the liner notes of The Ethel Merman Collection and a Jo Stafford interview in November of 1998.
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