ETHEL MERMAN Biography - Actors and Actresses


Biography » actors and actresses » ethel merman


Name: Ethel Merman                                                                         
Birth name: Ethel Agnes Zimmermann                                                         
Born: 16 January 1908 Astoria, Queens, New York, United States                             
Died: 15 February 1984 New York City, New York, United States                             
Ethel Merman (January 16, 1908 – February 15, 1984) was a Tony Award- and Grammy         
Award-winning American star of stage and film musicals, well known for her                 
powerful voice and vocal range, often hailed by critics as "The Grande Dame of             
the Broadway stage".                                                                       
Merman was born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann in her maternal grandmother's house at             
359 4th 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 6 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. William Cullen Bryant               
High School in Astoria named its auditorium Ethel Merman Theater.                         
Merman was known for her powerful, belting mezzo-soprano – alto 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 1939's 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".  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.                                                   
in the film trailer for There's No Business Like Show Business (1954)                     
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. Despite having a reputation for a salty tongue             
and having introduced ribald Cole Porter lyrics, Merman was known to dislike               
1970s theatre fare like Oh! Calcutta! for being lewd.                                     
Merman's film career was not as distinguished as her stage roles.                         
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, Freddie 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.