“It is not enough that I should succeed – others should fail.” Thus the legendary David Merrick (b. St. Louis, MO, 27 November 1911; d. London, England, 25 April 2000) is reported to have grandly represented himself. “The Abominable Showman,” as he became known, produced almost ninety plays and musicals on Broadway over his long career, including Fanny (1954), Jamaica (1957), La Plume de Ma Tante (1958), Gypsy (1959), Take Me Along (1959), Do Re Mi (1960), Irma la Douce (1960), Carnival! (1961), Oliver! (1963), Oh What a Lovely War (1964), I Do! I Do! (1966), How Now, Dow Jones (1967), The Happy Time (1968), Promises, Promises (1968), Sugar (1972), Mack & Mabel (1974), and the revival of Loot (1986), while chalking up seven “Best” Tony Awards® for Becket (1960), Luther (1963), Hello, Dolly! (1964), Marat/Sade (1965), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967), Travesties (1975), and 42nd Street (1980). In addition, two Special Tonys® were awarded him for his achievements, as well as 26 more nominations for “Bests” and uncountable other awards.
A notorious prankster and puller of outrageous publicity stunts, he had a knack for staying in the headlines (despite his reputed shyness and mean spirit), and thus helped to establish the credentials of innumerable theatrical luminaries: Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Jule Styne, Harold Arlen, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Kander and Ebb, Schmidt and Jones. He was a tireless promoter of playwrights John Osborne, Tennessee Williams, and Tom Stoppard as well as William Shakespeare. For Merrick, there was no such thing as taking on too much: he was known to start as many as four new projects in a single month.
Born David Margulois, the youngest of four children of a grocery salesman, he was shunted about among family members after his parents divorced when he was seven. He did well at Central High School in St. Louis and won a scholarship to earn his undergraduate degree at Washington University. He went on to get a law degree at St. Louis University, taking part in amateur theatricals in his spare time. After a few years of lawyering in his native city, he moved abruptly in 1939 to New York, where besides practicing his regular profession, he took the plunge into theatrical producing under the name of Merrick – after the famous eighteenth-century Irish actor David Garrick.
His first coup was to walk into the office of Herman Shumlin, the prominent Broadway producer, and buy a $5,000 share in James Thurber’s and Elliot Nugent’s The Male Animal. The investment paid off handsomely and Merrick went to work for Shumlin. Years later, when asked a question about his early life, Merrick claimed that life had not really begun for him until November 4, 1954, the opening night of Fanny, his first truly successful production.
Fanny was the occasion of one of Merrick’s best publicity campaigns: he had little stickers made up: “Have you seen Fanny?” and plastered them on to men’s room mirrors all over midtown. He had little slips inserted into the fortune cookies at Chinese bakeries: “Have you seen Fanny?” He took out the first-ever full-page ad for a Broadway show and ran radio and television spots. He hired a sculptor to make a full-size nude statue of the show’s belly dancer and set it up in Central Park, then called the newspapers and the police to come and discover it at dawn. So even though the critics, and Merrick himself, were disappointed in the production, Fanny turned out to be the most profitable show in history at the time. It was followed by four hits in succession: Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (1955), John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (October 1957), Peter Ustinov’s Romanoff and Juliet (October 1957), and the musical Jamaica (October 1957) with Lena Horne.
The most well-known of Merrick’s stunts came to the rescue of Subways Are for Sleeping in 1961 – though he had been planning it for many years. He found seven New York residents, each of whom shared a name coincidentally with a leading New York drama critic. (He had had to wait for Brooks Atkinson to retire, since he could not find a match.) Each contributed a glowing short review under his name to an ad for the failing show. The ad was soon spotted as a hoax, but it did appear in one newspaper, and generated enough publicity to guarantee that Subways would run long enough to almost break even.
When David Merrick’s face appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1966 it was estimated that twenty percent of the Broadway work force was in his employ. Producing an average of six plays and musicals each season, he had a record of success that has been unmatched by any single New York impresario before or since. Yet he wasted no energy making or keeping friends: Anthony Newley, the British star of Stop the World – I Want To Get Off (1962) remarked of him, “Hitler didn’t die at the end of World War II. He went into show business.”
Merrick did not entirely neglect the movies; he produced exactly four (Child’s Play 1972, The Great Gatsby 1974, Semi-Tough 1977, Rough Cut 1980), but it is obvious that the medium did not inspire him.
In February 1983 Merrick suffered a devastating stroke that left him speech impaired and in a wheelchair. He made several attempts to keep his hand in the business, including bringing suit against the Tony Awards® Committee in 1997 and establishing the David Merrick Arts Foundation in 1998, but for the most part he survived for seventeen years requiring constant assistance. He died in his sleep at age 88 at St. George’s Rest Home in London.
Merrick was married six times, twice to the same woman.
In 2001 David Merrick was inducted into the Walk of Fame in St. Louis, a city he had avoided since 1939.
– EB / LEC