Ethel Merman (b. Queens, NY, January 16, 1908; d. New York City, February 15, 1984) was probably the most successful musical comedy performer of the twentieth century. Admired for her brassy, dauntless mezzo-soprano, precision pitch, and crystal-clear diction, she was a favorite of songwriters George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter, who wrote some of their best songs specifically for her: “I Got Rhythm,” “You’re the Top,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and her signature “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Between 1930 and 1959 she created thirteen roles on Broadway, among them Reno Sweeney, Annie Oakley, Sally Adams, and Mama Rose. Although when these roles migrated to the big screen Merman was usually not called upon to play them, she did make about twenty movies and, in later years, appeared frequently on television.
Ethel Agnes Zimmermann was born in her maternal grandmother’s house in Astoria, Queens. Her father, a Lutheran, was an accountant and amateur keyboard player, and her mother, a Scottish Presbyterian, taught school. Ethel was brought up Episcopalian. Although she never had music lessons, she began performing while still a child: during World War I she would sing for soldiers at local military installations. She attended public schools, and after graduating from high school became a secretary (for the B-K Booster Vacuum Brake Company) – but moonlighted in nightclubs as a singer. Removing some letters from her last name, she went into vaudeville, playing the Palace Theatre in New York, and made her debut on the legitimate stage in 1930, in George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy.
While the show was in its 272-performance run, Merman began to make short films at Paramount’s cartoon studio, then located in Astoria. At the end of 1930, her first feature-length movie, Follow the Leader, was released. By 1933 she had appeared in three successful Broadway shows and had scored two hit records (“How Deep Is the Ocean,” “Eadie Was a Lady”). She was ready for Hollywood. She starred with Bing Crosby in We’re Not Dressing (1934) and with Eddie Cantor in Kid Millions (1934), which gave her another hit song.
Back on Broadway she had her greatest success to date in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (1934), introducing “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Blow Gabriel Blow,” and the title song. Ethel Merman would star in four more Cole Porter shows, Red, Hot and Blue (with Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante, 1936), DuBarry Was a Lady (1939), Panama Hattie (1940), and Something for the Boys (1943).
Commuting between the coasts until the end of 1938, Merman made another film with Eddie Cantor, a movie version of Anything Goes with Bing Crosby, and three films for 20th-Century Fox, including Irving Berlin’s anthology Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Then turning her back on the film industry, she returned to Broadway; successes like Panama Hattie were followed by ever greater triumphs, Annie Get Your Gun (1946–49) and Call Me Madam, for which she won the 1951 Tony Award® for Best Actress.
The songs for the latter two shows, as well as those for another Merman film vehicle, There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), were by the great and long-lived Irving Berlin, who always contributed a show-stopping duet for his stars, like “Anything You Can Do” in Annie Get Your Gun (as well as “An Old-Fashioned Wedding” for its 1966 revival), or “You’re Just in Love” in Call Me Madam. Clearly, although Merman was notorious for upstaging her fellow actors, she was dynamite as a duettist. Merman first appeared on television in 1953 in The Ford 50th Anniversary Show, singing a duet with her friend and rival Mary Martin. Many years later Merman and Martin starred together in a one-night-only concert in New York, Ethel Merman and Mary Martin, Together on Broadway.
Merman’s 1960 performance as Mama Rose in Gypsy (“Everything’s Coming Up Roses”), both on Broadway in 1960 and on a subsequent national tour, is rated by some as her greatest triumph, but she lost the Tony® that year to Martin, who was playing Maria in The Sound of Music. In the ’60s she returned to nightclub performing, playing Las Vegas in 1962, had two small roles in films, appeared many times on television, led the revival of Annie Get Your Gun, and toured in Call Me Madam. In 1976 she appeared in Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood and in 1980, Airplane! – both of these were small parody roles.
Merman married William Jacob Smith, a theatrical agent, in 1940, but the marriage lasted hardly a year. Newspaperman Robert Levitt was her second husband, and the father of her two children, Ethel (1942) and Robert, Jr. (1945). She and Levitt were divorced in 1952, whereupon she married Continental Airlines president Robert F. Six. This marriage lasted nearly eight years; her fourth and last, to actor Ernest Borgnine in 1964, lasted only thirty-eight days.
In 1970 as the eighth and last Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, a show that had been written with her in mind, Merman said farewell to Broadway: “Broadway has been very good to me. But then, I’ve been very good to Broadway.” She was honored in 1972 with a Special Tony® Award. She continued to make television appearances, released the infamous and unexpectedly popular Ethel Merman Disco Album in 1979, and sang at Carnegie Hall in 1982. She died in 1984 of a brain tumor.