No other Broadway performer embodies the spirit of the Great White Way better than Ethel Merman. Touted as “the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage,” she’s famous for her big, bold, brassy Broadway belt. She rose to prominence because her voice can be heard over a full Broadway orchestra, but she’s also known just as much for her dancing, frank delivery, and gutsy personality.
Ethel Merman made her Broadway debut in 1930 in Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, where she stayed in orbit for decades and introduced one of her signature songs, “I Got Rhythm.” She had a voice that carried shows, and her robustness powered the emergence of the Broadway musical genre. Merman was the most successful musical comedy performer of her generation.
Ethel Agnes Zimmerman (January 16, 1908 – February 15, 1984) was born in Astoria, Queens, New York. Her father, Edward Zimmerman, was an accountant, and her mother, Agnes Gardner, was a school teacher. Ethel was baptized Episcopalian, and their family attended the Episcopal Church religiously. Her family was of Scottish and German ancestry.
Ethel began singing in public as a child. During World War I, she entertained at local military camps. She also frequently attended vaudeville performances at The Palace Theater, and she used to stand outside the studios to see her favorite Broadway star, Alice Brady. She loved to sing songs while her father accompanied her to the piano.
Merman’s parents were concerned about Ethel’s future and insisted on her learning a valuable skill. She went to a high school where she pursued a commercial course that offered secretarial training. After graduating from high school in 1924, she was hired as a local factory stenographer while also moonlighting as a nightclub singer. This time, she decided to shorten her name to Ethel Merman because Zimmerman was too long for a theater marquee. Her night job became more lucrative than her day job, so her parents finally allowed her to leave her stenographer job to pursue a singing career.
Broadway and Hollywood Career
After quitting her secretarial job, she eventually became a full-time vaudeville performer, playing at the pinnacle of vaudeville – the Palace Theater in New York City. In 1930, theater producer Vinton Freedley saw her perform and invited her to audition in the new George and Ira Gershwin musical Girl Crazy. After hearing her sing “I Got Rhythm,” the Gershwins immediately cast her as Kate Fothergill. Merman began juggling her daytime rehearsals for Broadway and evening performances at the Palace.
Merman’s second Broadway show was the 11th rendition of George White’s Scandals, which ran 202 performances in 1931. In this show, she had her first record hit with “How Deep is the Ocean” by 1932. The same year, she opened in another show Take a Chance, which ran for 243 performances at the 42nd Street Apollo Theatre.
Merman went to Hollywood in 1933 to appear in We’re Not Dressing (1934), a screwball comedy where she co-starred with Bing Crosby. Despite working with big-name stars and an Academy Award-winning director, she was unhappy with the experience and was dismayed when one of her musical numbers was cut. She also appeared on the big screen in Kid Millions (1934) with Eddie Cantor. With this movie, she scored a hit entitled “An Earful of Music.”
She returned to Broadway to perform in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, which ran 420 performances with a musical score that included “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “You’re the Top.” Both songs were recorded for hits. After eight months, Merman left the show to appear with Eddie Cantor in the Hollywood film Strike Me Pink (1936). She also made a movie adaptation of Anything Goes (1936), co-starring again with Bing Crosby.
After her Hollywood role, Merman returned to New York for Cole Porter’s next show, Red, Hot and Blue in 1936. This show ran for only six months, with 183 performances. Back in Hollywood, she signed a new movie contract and appeared in three films in 1938: Happy Landing, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and Straight Place and Show. After that, she ended her full-time film career, though she continued appearing in movies occasionally.
She returned to Broadway to star in Stars in Your Eyes in 1939, but the play struggled to survive and closed short of four months. She moved on to make two more Porter musicals, DuBarry Was a Lady, which became her biggest hit since Anything Goes. Her fourth Porter shows Panama Hattie fared even better, as it ran for more than 14 months.
While Merman was still downhearted about the end of her affair with Sherman Billingsley, she married her first husband, theatrical agent William Smith in November 1940. Later on, she said she knew she made a dreadful mistake, so the couple divorced after only two months later. Shortly after, she met newspaperman Robert D. Levitt, with whom she had two children. She married Levitt in 1941, but the couple divorced in 1952 because of his erratic behavior and excessive drinking.
In 1943, Merman did a cameo appearance in the all-star film Stage Door Canteen. She also opened in another Porter musical Something for the Boys that year.
While she was recovering from her second child’s caesarian birth in 1945, Merman was visited by Dorothy Fields as a star in a musical. The result was her longest-running musical Annie Get Your Gun, which opened in May 1946. The cast album became a Top Ten hit, and the iconic song “There’s No Business Like Show Business” became her signature song.
In 1950, Merman returned to Broadway in Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam, where she won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. She also starred in the 1953 screen adaptation and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her performance.
In 1953, Merman married Continental Airlines president Robert F. Six. She originally planned to be a housewife after marrying his third husband, but Six was upset about her decision to forgo the limelight, as he expected that her public appearance would bring more publicity for the airline. He urged her to accept the lead in Happy Hunting. The show opened in 1956 in New York with an advance sale of $1.5 million.
Merman’s next Broadway show was Gypsy, which was based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee. Merman starred as stage mother Rose Hovick, which was possibly her best-remembered performance. The musical opened in 1959 and ran for 702 performances in New York and a nine-month national tour. In 1960, she divorced her husband Robert Six while working on Gypsy, which ran until the end of 1961.
In the 1960s, Merman returned to the nightclub to perform, appeared in television, and starred in an ensemble comedy film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). In that film, she played the role of the mother-in-law of Milton Berle. The film was a success and received six Academy Award nominations. In 1965, she starred in The Art of Love. The year after, she starred in a Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun, which led to a chart album and a TV adaptation.
The musical Hello, Dolly! had songs composed specifically for Merman’s vocal range, but she refused when she was offered the role. In 1970, six years after the production has opened, she finally joined the cast. On her opening night, her performance was constantly interrupted by standing ovations. For her performance, she received the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance. It was also her last performance on Broadway.
For the remainder of her career, she recorded a disco album of her signature songs, appeared in TV and movies, did a concert tour, and appeared as soloist with symphony orchestras. Her last screen role was a self-parody during the 1980 comedy film Airplane!.
Later Life and Death
As her age advanced, Merman began to become forgetful. Sometimes, she had difficulty speaking, and her behavior became erratic, causing concern among her friends. In April 1983, she collapsed in her apartment while preparing to attend the 55th Academy Awards telecast. She was taken to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with stage four glioblastoma. The doctors had given her eight and a half months to live. As her brain cancer progressed, her face swelled, and she lost her hair.
Eventually, her health stabilized enough for her to be brought back to her Manhattan apartment. Ten months after her diagnosis, she died at her home at the age of 76.
- Best Actress in a Musical, Tony Award (1951) – Call Me Madam
- Special Tony Award (1972)
- Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, Golden Globe Award (1953) – Call Me Madam
- Best Musical Theater Album, Grammy Award (1960) – Gypsy
- Outstanding Actress in a Musical, Drama Desk Award (1970) – Hello, Dolly!