Ethel Merman


Ethel Merman (January 16, 1908February 15, 1984) was an American actress and singer for musical theatre, well known for her powerful voice, often hailed by critics as "The Grande Dame of the Broadway stage".


Early life

Merman was born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann in her maternal grandmother's house at 359 6th Avenue, Astoria, Queens, New York. Her father, Edward Zimmermann, was an accountant, and her mother, Agnes (née Gardner), was a school teacher. Merman's father was German American and Lutheran, and her mother was Scottish American and Presbyterian; she was baptized Episcopalian. She attended PS 9 on Steinway Street in Astoria. She used to stand outside the Famous Players-Lasky Studios and wait to see her favorite Broadway star, Alice Brady. Ethel loved to sing songs like "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" while her adoring father accompanied her on the piano and the flute but he hated the clarinet. William Cullen Bryant High School in Astoria named its auditorium Ethel Merman Theater.

Performance style

Merman was known for her powerful, belting mezzo-soprano voice, precise enunciation and pitch. Because stage singers performed without microphones when she began singing professionally, she had great advantages in show business, despite the fact that she never received any singing lessons. In fact, Broadway lore holds that George Gershwin warned her never to take a singing lesson after seeing her opening reviews for Girl Crazy. Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics for Merman's Gypsy, remembered that she could become "mechanical" after a while. "She performed the dickens out of the show when the critics were there," he said. He added, "or if she thought there was a celebrity in the audience. So we used to spread a rumor that Frank Sinatra was out front. That whoever, Judy Garland was out front. I'll tell you one thing [Merman] did do, she steadily upstaged everybody. Every night, she would be about one more foot upstage, so finally they were all playing with their backs to the audience. I don't think it was conscious. Ethel was not big on brains. But she sure knew her way around a stage, and it was all instinctive.


Merman began singing while working as a secretary for the B-K Booster (automobile) Vacuum Brake Company in Queens. She eventually became a full time vaudeville performer and played the pinnacle of vaudeville, the Palace Theatre in New York City. She had already been engaged for Girl Crazy, a musical with songs by George and Ira Gershwin, which also starred a very young Ginger Rogers (19 years old) in 1930. Although third billed, her rendition of "I Got Rhythm" in the show was popular, and by the late 1930s, she had become the first lady of the Broadway musical stage. Many consider her the leading Broadway musical performer of the Twentieth century, with her signature song being "There's No Business Like Show Business" (from Annie Get Your Gun).

Merman starred in five Cole Porter musicals, among them Anything Goes in 1934, where she introduced "I Get a Kick Out of You", "Blow Gabriel Blow", and the title song. Her next musical with Porter was Red, Hot and Blue, in which she co-starred with Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante and introduced "It's Delovely" and "Down in the Depths (on the 90th floor)". In 1939s DuBarry Was a Lady, Porter provided Merman with a "can you top this" duet with Bert Lahr, "Friendship". Like "You're the Top" in Anything Goes, this kind of duet became one of her signatures. Porter's lyrics also helped showcase her comic talents in duets in Panama Hattie ("Let's Be Buddies", "I've Still Got My Health"), and Something for the Boys ("By the Mississinewah", "Hey Good Lookin'").

Irving Berlin supplied Merman with equally memorable duets, including counterpoint songs "An Old-Fashioned Wedding" with Bruce Yarnell, written for the 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun, and "You're Just in Love" with Russell Nype in Call Me Madam. Merman won the 1951 Tony Award for Best Actress for her performance as Sally Adams in Call Me Madam. She reprised her role in the lively Walter Lang film version.

Perhaps Merman's most revered performance was in Gypsy as Gypsy Rose Lee's mother Rose. Merman introduced Everything's Coming Up Roses and Some People and ended the show with the wrenching Rose's Turn. Critics and audiences saw her creation of Madame Rose as the performance of her career. She did not get the role in the movie version, however, which went to movie actress Rosalind Russell, and an infuriated Merman was quoted as saying: "There's a name for women like her but it's seldom used in society outside [of] a kennel." (Since this is a line from the film The Women, in which Russell appeared, the story may be apocryphal). She also insulted Russell's husband, Freddie Brisson, by calling him the "Lizard of Roz". [citation needed] Merman decided to take Gypsy on the road and trumped the motion picture as a result.

Merman lost the Tony Award to Mary Martin, who was playing Maria in The Sound of Music. "How can you buck a nun?" mused Merman. The competitiveness notwithstanding, Merman and Martin were friends off stage and starred in a legendary musical special on television and, in 1977, in a one-night-only concert, "Ethel Merman and Mary Martin, Together on Broadway" at the Broadway Theatre in New York.

Merman retired from Broadway in 1970, when she appeared as the last Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, a show initially written for her. No longer willing to "take the veil," as she described being in a Broadway role, Merman preferred to act in television specials and movies. "Broadway," said Merman, "has been very good to me. But then, I've been very good to Broadway."

Though she reprised her roles in Anything Goes and Call Me Madam, film executives would not select her for Annie Get Your Gun or Gypsy. Some critics state the reason for losing the roles was that her outsized stage persona did not fit well on the screen. Others have said that after her behavior on the set of Twentieth-Century Fox's There's No Business Like Show Business, Jack Warner refused to have her in any of his motion pictures, thereby causing her to lose the role of Rose in Gypsy, though some believe Rosalind Russell's husband and agent, Frederick Brisson, negotiated the rights away from Merman for his wife. Nonetheless, Stanley Kramer decided to cast her as the battle-axe Mrs. Marcus, mother-in-law of Milton Berle, in the madcap It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Merman's last movie role was a self-parody in the comedy movie Airplane!, appearing as a soldier, Lieutenant Hurwitz. Hurwitz is suffering from shell shock and thinks he is Ethel Merman. Merman sings "Everything's Coming Up Roses", while the nurses drag her back to bed and give her a sedative. In 1979, she recorded the infamous The Ethel Merman Disco Album, with many of her signature show-stoppers set to a disco beat.

Personal life

Merman was married and divorced four times:

  1. Bill Smith, theatrical agent (1940 - 1941)
  2. Robert Levitt, a newspaper executive (1941 - 1952)
  3. Robert Six, an airline executive (1953 – 1960)
  4. Ernest Borgnine, the actor, in 1964. They announced the impending nuptials at P.J. Clarke's, a legendary night spot in New York, but Merman filed for divorce after just 32 days. Johnny Carson soon quipped on his Tonight Show, "And they said it wouldn't last!"

With Levitt, Merman had two children: Ethel (born July 20, 1942). and Robert Jr. (born August 11, 1945), they divorced in 1952. Ethel Levitt died in 1967 of a drug overdose that was ruled accidental. Merman co-wrote two volumes of memoirs, Who Could Ask for Anything More in 1955 and Merman in 1978. In a radio interview, Merman commented on her many marriages, saying that "We all make mistakes, that's why they put rubbers on pencils, and that's what I did. I made a few loo-loos! In the latter book, the chapter entitled "My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine" consists of one blank page.


Merman was diagnosed with glioblastoma and underwent surgery in April 1983 to have the malignant tumor removed from her brain. Less than ten months later, in February 1984, the cancer had metastasized and she died.

Merman in popular culture

Merman had a cameo appearance in the movie Airplane! when a combat veteran suffering from "severe shell-shock" believed he was Ethel Merman. During the course of the joke she sat up in bed and sang a few bars of "Everything's Coming Up Roses".

The British Psychobilly band The Meteors recorded an instrumental called "Return Of The Ethel Merman" for their 1986 album Sewertime Blues.

Merman is mentioned a lot in the musical series Forbidden Broadway making fun of the wireless microphones and soft singing used in The Phantom of the Opera (1986 musical).

In the Musical 'Taboo' by Boy George, during the song Ich Bin Kunst, he states "I dressed up in the wardrobe of my mother (Ethel Merman)'

In the 1987 film Good Morning, Vietnam, Army radio disc jockey Adrian Cronauer (played by Robin Williams) alluded to Merman's distinctive, brassy style and powerful voice during one of his improvised comic news bulletins. "Ethel Merman has been used to jam Russian radar systems. {belting in imitation of Merman} 'I've got a feeling that love is here to stay!' When asked for a reply, the Russians said 'Vat de hell vas dat?'"

In the 2005 film The Producers, the actor playing the part of Adolf Hitler calls himself "the German Ethel Merman."

In the song "Change the World" by Nellie McKay, off her debut album "Get Away from Me", she sings "Please Ethel Merman help me out this jam".

In a year 2000 Episode of Saturday Night Live, a segment called "The Ladies Man" featuring Dwayne Johnson and Tim Meadows where Meadows was Leon Phelps described Johnson's cross-dressing undercover police lady character that when he first saw him "she" was dressed up like a young Ethel Merman. "It was wall to wall-- big sexy ladies" Meadows character Leon described. "Tell them who you were" said Leon and Johnson responded back "I was Ethel Merman". "A Young Ethel Merman, she was sexy!"

Audible samples of Ethel Merman

Courtesy of NPR Windows Media Player Required

Theatre performances



  • The Ford 50th Anniversary Show (1953)
  • Panama Hattie (1954)
  • Merman On Broadway (1961)
  • The Lucy Show, two-parter, as herself (1963)
  • Maggie Brown (1963) (unsold pilot)
  • An Evening with Ethel Merman (1965)
  • Annie Get Your Gun (1967)
  • Tarzan and the Mountains of the Moon (1967)
  • Batman, "The Sport of Penguins", two-parter as Lola Lasagne (1967)
  • That Girl, two episodes, as herself (1967-1968)
  • 'S Wonderful, 'S Marvelous, 'S Gershwin (1972)
  • Ed Sullivan's Broadway (1973)
  • The Muppet Show (1976)
  • Match Game PM (1976), (1978)
  • You're Gonna Love It Here (1977) (unsold pilot)
  • A Salute to American Imagination (1978)
  • A Special Sesame Street Christmas (1978)
  • Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979) (voice)
  • The Love Boat, five episodes, (1979-1982)
  • Night of 100 Stars (1982)


Thomas, Bob (1985). I Got Rhythm!The Ethel Merman Story. New York: G.P.Putnam's Sons. ISBN 0-399-13041-1.

External links

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