Merman was the most successful musical comedy performer of her generation. Known for her loud, clear voice and excellent enunciation, she was a favorite of such songwriters as George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin, and she introduced some of their most popular songs, including “I Got Rhythm,” “You’re the Top,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Merman reached her zenith as Rose, the overbearing mother of Gypsy Rose Lee in Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s “Gypsy,” singing such songs as “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” She appeared in vaudeville and in nightclubs, gave concerts, made records, and performed on radio, on television, and in films. Her primary achievement was in the 13 roles she created on Broadway between 1930 and 1959.
Merman was the daughter of Edward Zimmermann, a bookkeeper and amateur keyboard player, and Agnes Gardner Zimmermann. She began singing in public as a child. During World War I she entertained at local military camps. After graduating from high school she became a secretary but moonlighted as a nightclub singer. Shortening her name to Merman, she became successful in vaudeville, performing at the Palace Theatre in N.Y. in September 1930 before turning to the legitimate stage in the Gershwins’ musical “Girl Crazy” (N.Y., Oct. 14, 1930). It played 272 performances, and during its run she also appeared at the Central Park Casino and began making films at the Paramount studio, then located in N.Y. Many of these films were shorts or cartoons; her first appearance in a feature film came with FOLLOW THE LEADER, released in December 1930.Merman’s second Broadway show was the 11th edition of the revue “George White’s Scandals” (N.Y., Sept. 14, 1931), which ran 202 performances. She had her first record hit with “How Deep Is the Ocean?” (music and lyrics by Irving Berlin) in November 1932. The same month, she opened in her third Broadway show, “Take a Chance” (N.Y., Nov. 26, 1932), with songs by composers Richard Whiting and Nacio Herb Brown and lyricist B. G. DeSylva. Chance ran 243 performances, and Merman scored a hit with “Eadie Was a Lady” from the score in January 1933.
Merman went to Hollywood in September 1933 and costarred with Bing Crosby in the film WE’RE NOT DRESSING, released in April 1934, and with Eddie Cantor in KID MILLIONS, released in November 1934. (Her cameo in BIG BROADCAST OF 1936, released in September 1935, was actually an outtake from WE’RE NOT DRESSING.) She scored a hit in November 1934 with “An Earful of Music” (music by Walter Donaldson, lyrics by Gus Kahn) from KID MILLIONS. She returned to Broadway-and to her greatest success yet-in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” (N.Y., Nov. 21, 1934), which ran 420 performances with a score that included “You’re the Top” and “I Get a Kick Out of You,” both of which she recorded for hits.
Merman left the show to return to Hollywood and make a second film with Eddie Cantor, STRIKE ME PINK, released in January 1936, and a movie adaptation of ANYTHING GOES with Bing Crosby, released in February 1936. She returned to N.Y. for Cole Porter’s next show, “Red, Hot and Blue!” (N.Y., Oct. 29, 1936), which ran only 183 performances, then signed a new movie contract with 20th Century-Fox and appeared in three films released in 1938: HAPPY LANDING IN JANUARY, the Irving Berlin anthology ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND in August, and STRAIGHT, PLACE AND SHOW in October. This marked the end of her full-time film career, though she continued to make movies occasionally.
On Nov. 15, 1940, Merman married William Jacob Smith, a theatrical agent, but the couple divorced the following year. She then married newspaperman Robert Daniels Levitt, and they had two children: Ethel, b. July 20, 1942; and Robert Jr., b. Aug. 11, 1945. In between she starred in her fifth Cole Porter musical, “Something for the Boys” (N.Y., Jan. 7, 1943), which ran 422 performances, and she made a cameo appearance in the all-star film STAGE DOOR CANTEEN, released in June 1943.
Merman enjoyed her longest-running musical with Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” (N.Y., May 16, 1946), which played 1,147 performances; she stayed in it until it closed on Feb. 19, 1949. The cast album became a Top Ten hit. During 1949 she had her own network radio series, THE ETHEL MERMAN SHOW. She returned to Broadway in Berlin’s “Call Me Madam” (N.Y., Oct. 12, 1950), which ran 644 performances; she won a Tony Award for her role. Since RCA Victor had rights to the cast album and Merman was contracted exclusively to Decca, she recorded the show’s songs with Dick Haymes, and their “Call Me Madam” LP hit the Top Ten while “You’re Just in Love” made the singles charts.
Merman and her second husband were divorced in June 1952. On March 9, 1953, she married Continental Airlines president Robert F. Six. That same month she starred in a film adaptation of CALL ME MADAM, her first major movie role in 15 years. From this point on she divided her time between the theater, television, and film. She appeared in a series of TV specials: THE FORD 50TH ANNIVERSARY SHOW (June 15, 1953), on which she duetted with Broadway’s other leading female star, Mary Martin, and small-screen adaptations of ANYTHING GOES (Feb. 28, 1954), with Frank Sinatra, and PANAMA HATTIE (Nov. 10, 1954). In December 1954 she starred in another Irving Berlin anthology film, THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS; the soundtrack album made the Top Ten.
- "Annie Get Your Gun"
"Call Me Madam"
- "Du Barry Was a Lady"
- "Hello, Dolly!"
- "George White's Scandals"
- "Girl Crazy"
- "Panama Hattie"
- "Red, Hot and Blue!"
- "Stars in Your Eyes"
- "Something for the Boys"
- Irving Berlin
- Ray Bolger
- George Gershwin
- Ira Gershwin
- Jerry Herman
- Bert Lahr
- Arthur Laurents
- David Merrick
- Cole Porter
- Jule Styne
- George White
Merman divorced her third husband in December 1960. She married actor Ernest Borgnine on June 26, 1964, but they separated after 38 days and divorced in November 1965. During the 1960s she returned to nightclub performing (making her Las Vegas debut in October 1962), appeared on television, and had small roles in the films IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963) and THE ART OF LOVE (1965). She also starred in a Broadway revival of “Annie Get Your Gun” (N.Y., May 31, 1966) that led to a chart album and a television adaptation (March 19, 1967), and she toured in “Call Me Madam” in the latter part of the decade.
On March 28, 1970, Merman became the eighth person to play the title role in the long-running musical “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway, and she stayed with the show until it closed. During the 1970s and early 1980s she continued to appear on television and had a few minor movie roles (JOURNEY BACK TO OZ [voice only; 1974], WON TON TON, THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD , AIRPLANE! ). She also gave concerts, notably one at Carnegie Hall on May 10, 1982. She died of a brain tumor in 1984.
Source: Excerpted from the BAKER’S BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF MUSICIANS®, Centennial Edition. Nicolas Slonimsky, Editor Emeritus. Schirmer, 2001.
Photo credits: Photofest and the New York Public Library