Ethel Merman - Biography

By J Poet

Ethel Merman’s powerful voice and over the top personality made her an anachronism after the rise of rock’n’roll, but during the 1930s and 1940s hers was the most authoritative voice on Broadway, a woman who could belt out a song and bring down the house. She was the greatest musical comedy star of the 20th Century, starring in 13 shows with music by Cole Porter, the Gershwins and Irving Berlin. She was an “all round entertainer” active on stage, screen, radio, television and on record. Many of her albums are now out of print, but her original cast albums offer a glimpse of the spunk she brought to every role she played. Merman wrote two memoirs, Who Could Ask for Anything More (1955 and Merman (1978) and died of brain cancer in 1984.


Merman was born Ethel Agnes Zimmerman in Astoria, Queens, New York City in 1908. She lived near the Famous Players-Lasky's Astoria Studios, the home of the movie business before the move to Hollywood and dreamed of being a star. She had a powerful voice even as a child and was a featured soloist at the Holy Redeemer Episcopal Church. She wanted to take singing lesson, but her parents didn’t want her in show business, and she worked as a stenographer after getting out of high school. She started singing at private parties and nightclubs, and was so successful her parents eventually gave in and let her pursue a singing career. When she got signed to Warner Brothers, she shortened her last name to Merman, but the studio never gave he any roles so she quit.


She went back to club work in New York where her ability to belt out a song made soon made her a local star. She was “discovered” by Broadway producer Vinton Freedley in 1930 at a gig singing between films at the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre. He introduced her to George and Ira Gershwin who put her in their show Girl Crazy. When she belted out “I Got Rhythm” on opening night, the show stopped and she had to sing it several more times to appease the audience. An overnight star, she appeared in George White's Scandals (1931), then Take A Chance (1932) bringing down the house again with “Edie Was a Lady.”


She made a two films in1934, We're Not Dressing with Bing Crosby and Kid Millions (1934) with Eddie Cantor, but returned for another Broadway triumph in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, where she delivered “Blow Gabriel Blow”, “I Get a Kick Out of You.” and “You're the Top”. She appeared in the film version of Anything Goes (1936) with Bing Crosby and Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), but she wasn’t “pretty enough” for Hollywood. She returned to Broadway. The soundtrack recording of Alexander's Ragtime Band is available on CD from Howard’s International Records.


Merman’s Broadway success continued with Cole Porter’s DuBarry was a Lady (1939) with Bert Lahr singing “But in the Morning, No” and “Friendship”. In 1940 she was in Porter’s Panama Hattie with Betty Hutton and June Allyson, as well as Porter’s Something For the Boys (1943). During the war she performed benefit concerts for the military, and in 1946 had her biggest hit yet with Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (1946) which include “Doin' What Comes Natur’ally”, “They Say It's Wonderful”, and “There's No Business Like Show Business”, which became her signature song. The Original cast album on Decca was a hit, and came out on CD in 2000. Many of her hit show tunes also appeared on Ethel Mermen: Songs She Has Made Famous (1947 Decca).


In 1950 Berlin wrote Call Me Madam, and Merman added two more standards to her repertoire, "Hostess With the Mostess" and "You're Just in Love". She shared a top rated TV special with Mary martin in 1953, and appeared in TV versions of Anything Goes and Panama Hattie on NBC. Her last big Broadway role was as Mama Rose, the mother of Gypsy Rose Lee in  Gypsy (1959). (Original cast album 1999 Columbia.) Her rendition of “Everything's Coming Up Roses” was another show stopping moment. She was offered the lead in Hello Dolly in 1966, but declined. Rock’n’roll was changing show biz and she was tired of the five night a week grind, but she went on to a successful nightclub career in Las Vegas and signed with Reprise Records. They released Her Greatest (1961 Reprise), tunes she made famous with modern arrangements and Merman in Vegas (1963 Reprise) a live greatest hits collection.


In the 1970s she appeared as the villain Lola Lasagna on Batman, and as herself on The Lucy Show and That Girl.  She went back perform in Hello Dolly during its closing months in 1970 and sang with the Boston Pops in 1975. Merman Sings Merman (1972 London UK, 2001 Polygram) was another greatest hits outing, while on Ethel's Riding High (1975 Decca) she applied her pipes to tunes she’s never sung before, including Anthony Newley’s “What Kind of Fool Am I?” She also cut a new version of the score for Annie Get Your Gun (1973 London). Merman had a great sense of humor which she proved when she cut The Ethel Merman Disco Album (1979 A&M), the old songs set to a disco beat, and not as bad as people thought it was at the time. She also appeared in the comedy Airplane (1980), playing a shell-shocked hospital patient who “thinks he's Ethel Merman” singing a few a capella bars of “Everything's Coming Up Roses.” Her last New York performance was at Carnegie Hall in 1982, a benefit for the Museum of the City of New York’s theater collection. In April of 1983 she collapsed and was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. She died a year later in February 1984. Posthumous collections include two live recordings  Mermania (1999 Harbinger) and Mermania, Vol 2 (2001 Harbinger)


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