Ethel Merman is one of a hundred performers featured in an exhibition of glamorous stars who contributed to movie musicals. They appear in Steve Starr's collection of original Art Deco frames at the Harold Washington Library, 8th floor, just below the Winter Garden, through March 1, 2005. Admission is free. The exhibition, like his column, is named STARRLIGHT.
At a party, the Duchess of Windsor was heartily dancing with an admirer when the Broadway star approached the seated former King of England, the Duke of Windsor, and tapped him on the shoulder shouting, 'Hey, Duke, get off your royal ass and dance with your wife.' He obeyed.
Ethel Agnes Zimmerman was born Jan. 16, 1908, in the third floor bedroom of her grandmother's house in Astoria, Queens, New York. Her father Edward was an accountant, and her mother Agnes taught school. Near their home was the Famous-Players Lassky Studio, where glamorous movie stars shimmered in some of the most wonderful silent films of the day. Little Ethel was thrilled when she saw them drive by in their elegant cars. She wished she was one of them.
However, silent films would hardly have suited Ethel, whose powerful voice thrilled the members of the Holy Redeemer Episcopal Church. Soon, she was singing at various concerts around town. As often as she could, the future icon made her way to the Palace Theatre in Manhattan to watch the nation's greatest vaudeville stars perform.
Ethel's parents felt show business was hardly a reliable career for their daughter, and insisted she finish school and obtain a thorough training in secretarial skills. While working steadily and successfully as a stenographer for $28 a week, Ethel also sang in various late-night clubs and shows. When her singing work became steady, she quit her day job.
Soon, Ethel was discovered by Warner Bros. Studios, given a contract for $200 a week, and she travelled to Hollywood. She decided to lop off the first three letters of her last name so it would fit better on marquees and newspaper ads. But, it was the early days of sound pictures, and the studio was not quite sure how to use her particular gifts. After months of inactivity, she won a release from her contract in order to do live shows. In 1929, a severe case of tonsillitis oddly left her with an even louder set of pipes, and in 1930 she won a Broadway role in George Gershwin's Girl Crazy.
While in rehearsals, Ethel was asked to perform at the Palace, and her reviews made her a star. When Girl Crazy opened, her rendition of 'I've Got Rhythm' left audience begging for numerous encores.
In 1931 she appeared in George White's Scandals, and in 1932 stole the show again in Take A Chance. In between performances, she found the time to appear in 10 mostly forgettable musical films between 1930 and 1933. In 1934 she appeared in both We're Not Dressing and Kid Millions. Her larger-than-life talents did not transfer as well to the screen. That same year she returned to Broadway to star in Cole Porter's hit Anything Goes, and in 1936 filmed a watered-down version of that great show. In 1938, Merman made one of her best films, Alexander's Ragtime Band, a terrific, elaborate movie musical co-starring Alice Faye and Tyrone Power.
In 1939 Merman wowed audiences again in DuBarry Was A Lady. In 1940 she knocked them out while introducing the song 'Let's Be Buddies' in Panama Hattie, with future stars Betty Hutton and June Allyson. Merman, disliking the competition, had Hutton's big number taken out of the production.
In 1946, Ethel Merman appeared in the most acclaimed show of her life, Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun. Every song was a hit, and her rendition of 'There's No Business Like Show Business' became her trademark. In 1950, she appeared in Call Me Madam, and repeated her performance in a luxurious movie version in 1953.
In 1959, she gave another of her most famous performances, as Mama Rose in Gypsy. During the run, producer David Merrick asked Ethel if she was speaking to her co-star Sandra Church, who played Louise. Ethel remarked, 'Of course I speak to her. Every night when the curtain goes down I say 'Go Fuck Yourself'.
Ethel Merman was married four times, each ending in divorce. Her first marriage with Sherman Billingsley lasted six months. Her second marriage to Robert Levitt produced two children, Bobby and Ethel. Levitt was often called 'Mr. Merman' and had trouble dealing with his wife's success. Some years after they divorced, he committed suicide. Her third marriage to Bob Six made Ethel decide to become just a regular Denver, Colo., housewife, seeking to raise her children in a normal environment. This arrangement soon palled. Her final union, with Ernest Borgnine, began unravelling on their honeymoon, the night of which Ernest described as 'hell on earth'. He left after 32 days. In Merman's 1978 autobiography, she devoted a chapter to their marriage. It consisted of a blank page.
In 1963, Merman was acclaimed when she played a nagging mother-in-law in the star-packed film, It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. In 1967, her daughter Ethel committed suicide with prescription drugs. Merman threw herself back into her work, and appeared in a multitude of memorable television shows, including her famous duet with good friend Mary Martin. On Batman, she played villainess Lola Lasagna. In 1970, she began a three-month run in Hello Dolly, and then, with sold-out houses, she extended it another nine months. In 1979, Ethel recorded a disco album of her greatest hits, The Ethel Merman Disco Album.
After a sudden flash of pain in April of 1983, Merman was left incoherent and unable to walk. A brain tumor was discovered. She was cared for by her son Billy, and died Feb. 15, 1984.
Ethel Merman once said, 'I can hold a note as long as the Chase Manhattan Bank.'
Sources Ethel Merman by John Kenrick, Ethel Merman Web sites.
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect'—Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications 1991. A designer and an artist, his collection of over 950 gorgeous Art Deco photo frames contains images of Hollywood's most elegant stars. You may visit Steve Starr Studios, celebrating it's 38th anniversary in 2005, at www.SteveStarrStudios.com, or e-mail Steve at SSSChicago@ameritech.net . Photo of Starr by Graysong.