Ethel Merman (Born Ethel Zimmerman) was born on January 16, 1908. She passed away on February 15, 1984.
Ethel Merman was born in Astoria New York. Merman got her big break in 1930. Previously to that she worked as a stenographer. Her father being a piratical man made Ethel acquire skills so she would have something to fall back on if her dream of becoming a profession performer did not work out.
The stenographer job paid the bills. She was lucky in her day time job as her employer spent most of his time out of town so Ethel could sleep in the office, this was perfect because in the evenings Ethel was performing in Nightclubs She was first hired by Lou Clayton, Jimmy Durante’s’ partner.
Merman was soon noticed and she was contracted to Warner Brothers, for $125.00 a week. A huge some at the time. In those days movie professionals did not go from project to project, being produced by different studios. In the 1930s it was the studio system. Actors and actresses would be hired by a single studio and only worked for them. They could occasionally be lent out to other studios, but basically you worked where you were hired.
She was cast in only one film during her time in Hollywood, which was Follow The Leader starring Ed Wynn and Ginger Rodgers. This film was produced by Paramount. In those days you were paid by the studio whether you worked or not, so Warner must have figured, since Ethel wasn’t doing anything for them, they might as well have her work some place. After the film Ethel began to get bored and so she again began performing in Night Clubs. It was during this time that she actually met Durante and the two would become lifelong friends.
Merman soon went back to New York. She was hired by The Palace Theater as a Torch Song singer. Merman’s voice was a powerful Mezzo Soprano and she could be heard throughout a theater without a microphone. She was paid $500.00 dollars a week for her work at the Palace. She was soon noticed by George and Ira Gershwin, two of the top composers of the time, and was hired to work in their new show Girl Crazy. Her show stopping number in the musical I Got Rhythm, is a song that would go on to be popular for many years..The New York Times noted Merman sang “with dash, authority, good voice and just the right knowing style”, while The New Yorker called her “imitative of no one.”
Merman was kept busy between Hollywood and New York for four years. In 1934, she was hired in her first starring role that of Reno Sweeney in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. This show spotlighted Merman’s talents both as an actress and as a singer Beside the title song, Merman had two other songs that would become standards, I Get A Kick Out Of You and You’re The Top. Anything Goes is still performed in professional, regional, community and High School Theaters.
From that point on Merman’s career was set, she would perform in many films and Broadway musicals but her next big hit was Annie Get Your Gun which opened in 1945.
Annie Get Your Gun is loosely based on the life of Annie Oakley a female sharp shooter who made name for herself working with Buffalo Bill Cody. Merman’s role of Annie gave her many memorable moments, You Can’t Get A Man With a Gun, Doing What comes naturally, and Anything You Can Do I can Do Better were a few of the big numbers performed by Merman. The big hit form the show and the song which Merman would perform the rest of her life was There’s No Business Like Show Business.
There’s No Business Like Show Business is performed mostly by the supporting cast, yet it would be forever associated with Merman, as well as becoming a sort of anthem for all stage performers. The song would have an entire movie wrapped around it which starred Merman, Dan Dailey, Donald O’Connor and the forever remembered Marilyn Monroe. The music and lyrics were composed by the great Irving Berlin who was at least one of, if not the most prolific song writer of the 20th century; many of his songs are recorded by artists even today, most notably White Christmas.
It is interesting to note that White Christmas was also written for another movie musical entitled, Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, but the song was so popular that it too would go on to have a life of it’s own and a movie named after it as well, again starring Crosby but this time the co-star was Danny Kaye
Ethel’s next big hit was the musical Call Me Madam again with a score by Irving Berlin. In this show Ethel played a ambassador to a small European country where she falls in love with one of the government officials which causes a scandal and sends her back to Washington. Of course all turns out right in the end. The songs from this show which are notable are You’re Not Sick You’re Just In Love, The Hostess With The Mostest and It’s A Lovely Day Today.
On May 21, 1959 Ethel Merman would again star in a show that is still performed today. Gypsy! Gypsy was based on the life on the world renowned Stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Though the show as was called Gypsy it was the story of the relationship between Gypsy and her mother Rose. Rose was the leading role, a scheming woman that would go to any lengths to make her girls stars. Merman’s Co-Star in this musical was Jack Klugman who would go on to make a name for himself in the TV shows The Odd Couple and Quincy. Three of standout numbers from this show were, Everything’s Coming Up Roses, Together and Small World.
Annie Get You’re Gun, Call Me Madam and Gypsy all had Hollywood adaptations the only one Merman was allowed to star in was Call Me Madam. The loss of the role of Rose in Gypsy to Rosalind Russell, according to Merman herself, was the most disappointing time in her career.
Merman would go on to star in revivals of her hit shows and the Broadway world still loved her. Merman was called “the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage.” In the 1960s, however music styles changed and The Beatles along with Elvis Presley and many others would soon reign over the musical scene while the Broadway style would fade into the back ground.
Merman however still continued to perform. She was featured in the Comedy It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World in the 1960s and in the 70’s she had a cameo appearance in the Movie Airplane. Where she sang Everything’s Coming Up Roses. This appearance gave her career a brief resurgence and she recorded a disco version of her hits.
She would be featured in many variety and other types of TV shows. Memorable performances were on such shows as The Lucy Show, That Girl and The Love Boat When her career slowed down Merman began to volunteer in a gift shop in a New York City Hospital. Merman died in her home at the age of 76 on February 15, 1984 from Brain Cancer. On the evening of her death all 36 theaters on Broadway dimmed their lights at 9 P.M. in her honor.