MERMAN, ETHEL (Ethel Zimmerman) (1909–1984) Actress, Singer
One of America’s greatest musical actresses, Ethel Merman was born Ethel Zimmerman (sometimes spelled Zimmermann) in Queens, New York, on January 16, 1909. After graduating from high school, by day she was a secretary, while by night she slowly carved out a career as a nightclub singer. Shortening her last name to Merman, she was soon working with veteran showmen, including Jimmy Durante and Eddie Jackson.
While performing at a Brooklyn theater, Merman was spotted by a Broadway producer who brought composer George Gershwin to see her act. Gershwin was so struck by her powerful voice that he gave her a part in his musical Girl Crazy (1930) and even offered to rewrite some of his songs to better suit her. In the show, Merman caused a sensation with her dynamic performance of “I Got Rhythm,” which became one of her signature songs.
Merman quickly became a Broadway star, appearing in shows put together by the day’s top musical directors. Her early musicals were loosely structured vehicles short on narrative but peppered with soon-to-be-classic songs that she introduced to the American public. For instance, in her five shows featuring music by songwriter Cole Porter, Merman was the first stage interpreter of “Anything Goes,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” and “Down in the Depths of the 90th Floor.”Bold and booming, Merman’s voice proved ideal for Broadway theaters with poor acoustics. She was also heralded for her extraordinary presence, which kept theater audiences enthralled as she belted out her numbers. Her larger-than-life stage demeanor, however, played less well on film. She made nine movies in the 1930s—including Anything Goes (1935) and Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938)—but she still was known primarily for her stage work.
In 1940, Merman married Hollywood agent William Smith. A year later, the union ended in divorce, as did her three subsequent marriages (Robert D. Levitt, 1941–52; Robert F. Six, 1953–60; and Ernest Borgnine, 1964–65). With Levitt, Merman had two children, Ethel Merman Levitt and Robert D. Levitt Jr. Merman’s career reached a zenith with her appearance in Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (1946). Much more than her earlier shows, this musical, based on the life of Wild West sharpshooter ANNIE OAKLEY, required Merman to hone her skills as an actress. It also gave her the showstopping song, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” an anthem to the thrill of performing with which Merman has been associated ever since. Its title was used for a 1954 filmed celebration of Berlin’s music starring Merman.
Merman had another triumph in 1959 with Gypsy, a musical about the early life of burlesque queen GYPSY ROSE LEE. Merman had the starring role as the performer’s overbearing stage mother, Rose. The part was ideal for Merman, whose brassiness well presented Rose’s bullying while her tenderness ably revealed her character’s underlying vulnerability. Merman was particularly hailed for her performance of “Rose’ s Turn,” which was considered by many fans to be her finest moment on stage. Merman’s last major stage role was in Hello Dolly! In 1969 Merman took over the title part, which was originated by Carol Channing on stage. Merman put her own indelible stamp on the role until the show closed after nearly 3,000 performances.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Merman appeared frequently on television. In addition to performing songs on variety shows and specials, she was a guest star on programs such as Batman and That Girl and a regular on talk shows and game shows. Merman’s stellar stage career was honored by a lifetime achievement award given to her at the 1972 Tony Awards. She died 12 years later at her Manhattan home on February 15, 1984.
Bryan, George B. Ethel Merman: A Bio-Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Merman, Ethel, and George Eells. Merman: An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Thomas, Bob. I Got Rhythm! The Ethel Merman Story. New York: Putnam, 1985.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938). Twentieth Century-Fox, VHS, 1994.
There’s No Business Like Show Business: The Ethel Merman Collection. Razor and Tie Entertainment, CD, 1997.