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Friday, December 22, 2017

ETHEL MERMAN: The First Lady of Broadway

Ethel Zimmermann was born in New York City on January 16, 1908, and passed away on February 15, 1984 at the age of 76, my age.  Her signature song was There's No Business Like Show Business (TNBLSB), written by Irving Berlin for Annie Get Your Gun.  She grew up watching Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker, and with no peer became the First Lady of Broadway.  There was something about her trill and spunk.

After graduating from high school, she started as a stenographer, but shortly quit her day job to to act and sing.  Then, she underwent tonsillectomy, but after recovery found her voice was more powerful than ever.

At the age of 22 she acted in Follow the Leader with Ed Wynn and Ginger Rogers.  George and Ira Gershwin signed her to sing I Got Rhythm for their Girl Crazy that same year, and the show ran for 272 performances.

After a few immemorable films, she appeared in Anything Goes, her first of five Cole Porter musicals.  The show also introduced I Get a Kick Out of You, You're the Top and Blow Gabriel Blow.  The movie with Bing Crosby in 1936 was all Bing.

1938 came Alexander's Ragtime Band, a film bio of Irving Berlin, and included the title song, BlueSkies, Heat Wave, Easter Parade (Don Ameche sings) and A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.

In 1946, she starred in Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun, from which came TNBLSB, Doin' What Comes Naturally, You Cant' Get a Man with a Gun, They Say It's Wonderful and Anything You Can Do.  Merman lost the film version to Judy Garland, who was replaced by Betty Hutton.

Irvin Berlin's Call Me Madam was produced in 1950 based on the life of Perle Mesta, who was Ambassador to Luxembourg.  Merman did both Broadway and the film, with You're Just in Love was the most popular song.

Her marriages were dreary, resulting in two children.  Her third to Robert Six, president of Continental Airlines, in 1951, was oppressive.

Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim wrote Gypsy in 1959, based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist.  Merman played Rose, a show business mother, but only on Broadway.  There were several hits, but Everything's Coming Up Roses and Let Me Entertain You were particularly memorable.

Her fourth marriage was to Ernest Borgnine in 1964.  They separated a few weeks later.

Her daughter died of a drug overdose, while the wife of her son, while estranged, was killed in a gang related incident.  Merman was a lifelong Republican.

David Merrick in 1964 produced Hello, Dolly! for Merman, but she declined.  Carol Channing opened on Broadway, and Barbra Streisand on film.  Merman made a Broadway appearance of this show in 1970.

She sang Everything's Coming Up Roses for John F. Kennedy in 1961, and, maybe her last best performance was singing  at Ronald Reagan's inauguration this same song.


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