There’s no business like show business, and there’s no Friday Face like Astoria’s own Ethel Merman, seen above in an early promo during her days at Paramount.
Merman was born in 1908 to Agnes and Edward Zimmermann, and no, they were not Jewish. By the time she was 16, she was working as a secretary by day and singing in clubs and at private parties at night. During a gig at Little Russia club in midtown Manhattan, she met agent Lou Irwin, who landed her a six-month contract with Warner Brothers at $125 a week. She quit her day job.
While playing on the Keith Circuit, she made a film for Paramount and was signed to play the Palace for $500 a week.
She was invited up to the penthouse of George Gershwin who was looking for a star for “Girl Crazy.” The Gershwin brothers asked her to sing their new tune, “I Got Rhythm.” There was one section that had no lyrics yet, so Ira Gershwin told her to just adlib notes through it. She hit one note and held it for the entire refrain. It stayed in the song, she got the job, and a legend was born. She was 21. Here she is singing in it 1956.
Girl Crazy opened on October 14, 1930 and Merman became an even bigger star. George Gershwin made her promise him that she would never work with a vocal coach. Her nightclub salary jumped to $1,500 a week… at the height of the Depression… that’s about $20,000 a week in 2011 dollars.
Merman did a few more shows and went back to Hollywood to appear in a few screwball comedies. She didn’t love it and returned to Broadway, where her teaming with songwriter Cole Porter would make superstars of them both. “Anything Goes” introduced the title song, plus “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “You’re the Top,” which became classics.
She would star in five Porter musicals, and several Irving Berlin shows. She would become the undisputed Queen of Broadway. She performed in “Annie Get Your Gun” for 1,147 performances… missing only two shows because of illness. Her Broadway career would take up an entire page, and this is already going long.
Here she is with Bing Crosby in 1936.
Merman was briefly married to an agent, William Smith, and filed for divorce two months later. She then met a promotion director for the New York Journal-American, Robert D. Levitt, they were married and had two children. She divorced him in 1952 claiming he drank excessively and was erratic. Her daughter, Ethel Jr. (for real) died of a drug and alcohol overdose in 1967. Her son, Robert Levitt Jr., survives. (His estranged wife, “Phyllis” co-star Barbara Colby, 36, was the victim of a random gang shooting in Venice, Calif. in 1975. Ethel went to the funeral.) Ethel was married to Robert Six for about seven years, he dumped her for Audrey Meadows of “The Honeymooners” fame.
She was married to Ernest Borgnine for 32 days in 1964. He said she was jealous of his fame, as he was in “McHale’s Navy” at the time. She left a blank page in her autobiography to describe the chapter about her marriage to Borgnine, now 94. She was also said to be deeply involved with Jacqueline Susann, who reportedly based the character of Helen Lawson in “Valley of the Dolls” on Merman.
Her triumphs on Broadway are many, but perhaps none so great as her role in Gypsy as Mama Rose… of which no film exists, to my knowledge. Rosalind Russell’s husband, Freddie Brisson, produced the movie, so Rosalind got the part, one of the great miscasting tragedies of filmdom. Ethel called him “The Lizard of Roz.” Here, from YouTube, someone dubbed Ethel’s voice for Roz’s — you can imagine how great Ethel would have been in the film.
As Broadway’s heyday passed, Ethel dove into television, making dozens of appearances. She also toured. What becomes a legend most?
She appeared on The Lucy Show.
And on “Batman” as Lola Lasagna. I’ll spare you that. And “Love Boat. ”
And “Match Game.”
She recorded a disco album of her greatest hits in 1979, and played a soldier who thinks he’s Ethel Merman in “Airplane!” It was her last film role. She volunteered at Roosevelt Hospital, working in the gift shop and visiting patients. Imagine being sick and Ethel Merman walks in to cheer you up.
It was during this time that I met her on a flight to NYC. I was a starstruck kid and sneaked into first class to get her autograph. She was sitting alone and said, “Sit down, honey!” I was stunned. We chatted for a bit, she asked about my studies, and she told me about her disco album and her role in “Airplane!” — even singing a few seconds of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” to illustrate the part. Time stopped. I’ll never forget that moment. She’d been eating shrimp cocktail and there were discarded shrimp tails with lipstick on them on her tray. She signed a book of Mallarme poems I was reading. I still have it. She impressed me as being a great broad.
Ethel loved dirty jokes and told them often. She swore during rehearsals and meetings. While rehearsing with Loretta Young for Young’s TV show, she was told she would have to pay $1 for every swear, because Loretta was a sanctimonious prude, even though she had a child with Clark Gable out of wedlock. Anyway, Ethel’s dress didn’t fit, and she said, “Oh shit, this damn thing’s too tight.” Young pursued her with the swear jar and said, “Come on Ethel, put a dollar in. You know my rules.” Merman retorted, “Ah, honey, how much will it cost me to tell you to go fuck yourself?!”
Here’s an appearance near the end of her life, singing one of the songs from Gypsy. She’s about 73 here.
On April 7, 1983, she collapsed in her NYC apartment just before she was about to leave for L.A. to appear on the Oscars telecast. She underwent surgery for removal of a malignant glioblastoma, followed by a steady decline, during which time her son took care of her. She died February 15, 1984, at age 76. She left $800,000 to be divided between her son and her late daughter’s two kids. A Christie’s auction of her effects yielded another $150K. In 1994, the US Postal Service honored her in their Popular Singers series.
And now, with the Boston Pops, her signature song. There’s no business like show business, and that’s why Ethel Merman is today’s Friday Face.in 1930, Cole Porter, Friday Face, fabulosity, legends, music, sensations, stuff I like