If there were someone to be named “Broadway’s Darling,” Mary Martin would fit the bill. Her coy smile, sweet singing, and lovely voice have graced some original roles in the Great White Way’s most beloved musicals. She earned Tony-winning leading roles in Peter Pan, The Sound of Music, and South Pacific. Martin was the muse of Rodgers and Hammerstein, yet she did not inspire the same devotion today as Ethel Merman, Patti LuPone, and other Broadway legends. Maybe it’s because she did not have a remarkable personal style, or because she refrained from appearing in movie versions of her musicals – but whatever the cause is, she deserves credit for being the actress who told us stories about once-fascinating things we now take for granted.
Mary Virginia Martin (December 1, 1913 – November 3, 1990) was born in Weatherford, Texas. She describes her childhood as happy and secure. Her father, Preston Martin, was a lawyer, while her mother, Juanita Presley, was a violin teacher. Their family had a barn and orchard that kept her and her siblings entertained. In high school, she dated Benjamin Hagman. She attended private schools before she left to attend a finishing school in Nashville, Tennessee. During one visit to Weatherford, she and Hagman persuaded Mary’s mother to allow them to marry.
Martin got married at the age of 17 and was pregnant with a child, who turned out to be Larry Hagman. She was forced to leave Ward-Belmont and was happy to begin a new life. However, she soon learned that her new life was nothing but role-playing. Her sister suggested that she should teach dance, and Martin opened a dance studio.
Martin wanted to learn more dance moves, so she went to California to attend dance school. She was given a ballroom studio with the condition that she would sing in the lobby every Saturday. That’s where she learned how to sing.
When the studio was burnt down by a man who believed dancing was a sin, she began to be unhappy. Her father told her she was too young to be married. So, she left everything behind, including her son and husband, and went to Hollywood while her father handled her divorce.
When she was in Hollywood, she plunged herself into countless auditions that people named her “Audition Mary.” Her first job was on a national radio network. In 1939, she became a vocalist of The Tuesday Night Party on CBS. Then, she became a singer on NBC’s Good News of 1940, which was later renamed Maxwell House Coffee Time. She also became one of NBC’s Kraft Music Hall and CBS’s Stage Door Canteen stars.
Mary Martin made her Broadway debut in November 1938 in Cole Porter’s Leave it To Me. She received national media attention when she sang “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” making her an overnight song. The song catapulted her career and became very special to her – she even sang it to her ailing father when he was in a coma at the hospital. Martin did not immediately hear the news that her father had died, and because of the demanding schedule of the show, she was unable to attend her father’s funeral. She went on to star in more musicals One Touch of Venus (1943), and Lute Song (1946).
Martin starred in her first major role in South Pacific (1949). Critics lauded her performance as nurse Nellie Forbush. She earned her first Tony Award for that. Her next major success was starring in the role of Peter in the Broadway production of Peter Pan (1954), where she also won a Tony Award.
Martin originated the role of Maria in The Sound of Music (1959) and stayed until the show until 1961. It gave her the chance to display her homespun charm. She won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical at that time. In 1966, she starred on Broadway in the two-person musical I Do! I Do! And was nominated for another Tony Award.
She also appeared in Jennie (1963), the US Tour for Hello! Dolly! (1965-1966), and Legends (1985-1987).
Film and Television Career
Martin appeared in nine films, but she generally passed over making the filmed version of the musical plays she was in. She said she did not enjoy making films since she did not have a connection with an audience that she had in live performances.
While she did not enjoy making films, she did like to appear on television as she did it frequently. The closest that she ever came to preserving her stage performance is her television appearance in Peter Pan. She also preserved her stage performance as Annie in Annie Get Your Gun at NBC. Martin’s last feature film appearance was a cameo as herself in Main Street to Broadway (1953).
Martin died at 76 years old due to cancer at her home in Rancho Mirage, California, on November 3, 1990. Her body was buried in a cemetery in her hometown, Weatherford, Texas.
- Special Tony Award (1948) – Annie Get Your Gun
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical, Tony Award (1950) – South Pacific
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical, Tony Award (1955) – Peter Pan
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical, Tony Award (1960) – The Sound of Music