Thursday, April 29, 2021

Ethel Merman

"I can hold a note as long as the Chase National Bank."
   -- Ethel Merman

Ethel Merman was born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann in Queens, New York on January 16, 1908.  Her father was an accountant who worked for a dry goods business in Manhattan.  Her mother was a school teacher.  

On Friday nights, the family would go to the Palace Theatre in Manhattan, which was home to the vaudeville stage.  Inspired by the talents of Sophie Tucker, Nora Bayes and Fanny Brice, Merman aspired to be a singer herself.  Although she tried to emulate their singing abilities, it was obvious she had a style all her own.

During her high school years, Merman took secretarial training classes.  Upon graduation, she went to work as a stenographer at the Boyce-Ite Company, makers of fine antifreeze.  She later moved to the Bragg-Kliesrath Corporation, an automobile parts manufacturer, where she served as personal secretary to company president Caleb Bragg.

During this period, Merman began performing in nightclubs and at personal parties.  She was first hired by Lou Clayton, who was a business partner of Jimmy Durante.  As her career began to take off, she opted to shorten her name, believing Zimmermann too lengthy to appear on a theatre marquee.  

Her first theatrical role was in the 1930 film Follow the Leader starring Ed Wynn and Ginger Rogers.  That same year, she was discovered by George and Ira Gershwin, who asked Merman to audition for their new stage musical, Girl Crazy (right).  Upon hearing her rendition of the show's single "I Got Rhythm," the Gershwins signed her on to the show.  It was an overnight success, running for 272 performances.  

In August 1932, Merman signed on to the musical Humpty Dumpty in Pittsburgh.  The show closed in less than a month, but producer Buddy DeSylva was convinced it had commercial appeal.  Following an extensive re-write, it re-opened under the new title Take a Chance, and the audience did just that.  When it re-opened at the Apollo Theatre, it ran for 243 performances and all but made Ethel Merman a household name.

She returned to Hollywood in 1934 and appeared in the comedy We're Not Dressing with Bing Crosby and Carole Lombard.  It was a box office success, but Merman often dismissed the film and director Norman Taurog, whom she blamed for cutting one of her musical performances.

That same year, she returned to Broadway in the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes.  It was a huge success, prompting Hollywood to produce a theatrical version.  Merman was invited to re-create her role on the big screen alongside star Bing Crosby.  Although she had enjoyed the stage production, the film version was a great disappointment to her, as the focus shifted off her character and onto Crosby's, leaving her in more of a supporting role.  Audiences and critics were equally disappointed.

She rebounded nicely however, starring in two of the biggest hits of 1938, Happy Landing (left) and Alexander's Ragtime Band.  The films would be the highlight of her 1938, as her marriage to agent William Smith that year would end in divorce just two months later.  Strike one!

In 1939, she walked down the aisle once again, this time marrying Robert D. Levitt, a New York City promotional director.  Although the couple had two children, this marriage would also end in divorce, but not until 1952.  Strike two!

In 1946, Merman headlined the Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun, one of her most successful performances yet.  It ran for three years and 1,147 performances.  Despite this, Merman was not cast in the theatrical version, as her role went to Wizard of Oz star Judy Garland.

With a string of successful productions under her belt, Merman decided to relax and focus on her personal life.  In 1953, she married Robert Six, an executive with Continental Airlines.  They settled in Colorado and Merman assumed a new role, that of suburban housewife.  It didn't sit well with Six however, who had expected her appearances to generate publicity for the airline.  He encouraged her to return to the stage, so she accepted the lead in the Broadway musical Happy Hunting.  Although it was a modest success, Merman was reportedly disappointed with the production and frequently clashed with its producers.  It closed after 412 shows, which Merman described as "a dreary obligation."  The best was yet to come.

In 1959, Merman began her most remembered performance, that of Rose Hovick in the musical Gypsy (right).  It ran for 702 performances, earning Merman critical praise, both for her singing and acting abilities.  Despite this, she was once again passed over by Hollywood, when Rosalind Russell was cast in the film adaptation.  Additionally, Merman lost the Tony Award for best actress to her friend Mary Martin, who took home the trophy for her performance in The Sound of Music.  Merman later famously quipped "how are you going to buck a nun?"

During the run of Gypsy, Merman filed for divorce from Six after learning of his affair with Honeymooners star Audrey Meadows.  Strike three!

In 1963, Merman joined the ensemble cast of one of her best-remembered films, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (below).  It was something of a departure for her career, since the film was not a musical and relied solely on her acting abilities.  Those who've seen it know she played the part of the nagging mother-in-law to perfection.  It was a huge box office success, taking in nearly six times it's production budget.

Merman continued acting on stage throughout the 60s, and turned up on many popular television series as well, including The Carol Burnett ShowThe Lucy Show and That Girl.  She was also a frequent panelist on the game show Match Game, a show perfectly suited for her bawdy sense of humor.  And although not a series highlight, this blogger probably first saw Merman on the Adam West Batman series, playing special guest villain Lola Lasagna.

In 1980, Merman made her final appearance on the big screen, a cameo performance in the comedy hit Airplane!, wherein she sang her signature song "Everything's Coming Up Roses."

In 1983, Merman's health began to decline.  She was diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma and underwent brain surgery to have the tumor removed.  It turned out to be inoperable however, and Merman was given less than a year to live.  She eventually passed on February 15, 1984.  She was 76 years old.

Now this is where it gets interesting. Merman has a family tomb at the Shrine of Remembrance Mausoleum in Colorado Springs, Colorado (below).  According to an employee who this blogger spoke to, Merman's ashes may or may not be stored there.  Some believe that her ashes remain with her surviving family members, to be interred in Colorado at a later date.

Rest in peace, Lieutenant Hurwitz.


  • Although born in 1908, Merman would often cite her birth year as 1912.

  • Merman published two personal memoirs, Who Could Ask for Anything More? (1955) and Merman (1978).  Both are available from Amazon. 

  • Merman sang her hit song "Everything's Coming Up Roses" at two presidential inaugurations, first for John F. Kennedy in 1961, then for Ronald Reagan in 1981.  In her personal life, she was a lifelong republican and frequent guest at the Eisenhower White House.

  • Merman kept her Christmas tree up year round.  Purportedly this was due to her love of the holiday.  Right.

  • Merman has not one but two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for her singing abilities, the other for her roles in television and films.

  • In 1963, The U.S. Postal Service introduced ZIP codes (Zoning Improvement Plan) in an effort to make mail delivery more efficient.  No really.  Merman was hired to be the voice of a new PR campaign, singing a catchy jingle.  You can hear a clip of it here.  She comes in at the 1:50 mark.

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