Ethel Merman (1908 - 1984)



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Ethel Agnes Zimmermann, January 16, 1908 – February 15, 1984)
Ethel Merman
Born January 16, 1908 in Astoria, Queens, New York City, New York, USA
Died February 15, 1984 in Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA
Birth Name Ethel Agnes Zimmermann
Height 5' 5½" (1.66 m)
Born in the Astoria section of Queens, New York City, Ethel Merman surely is the pre-eminent star of 'Broadway' musical comedy. Though untrained in singing, she could belt out a song like quite no one else, and was sought after by major songwriters such as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. Having debuted in 1930 in "Girl Crazy, " she is yet remembered for her marvelous starring appearances in so many great musicals that were later adapted to the silver screen. Among the film versions, Merman herself starred in Anything Goes (1936) and Call Me Madam (1953). That wonderfully boisterous blonde, Betty Hutton, had the Merman lead in both Red, Hot and Blue (1949) and Annie Get Your Gun (1950). Besides Betty Hutton, other Merman screen stand-in roles include Lucille Ball, (in Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)), Ann Sothern, (in Panama Hattie (1942)), Vivian Blaine (in Something for the Boys (1944)) and Rosalind Russell (in Gypsy (1962)). (Russell could never render Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne's "Everything's Coming Up Roses" the way the immortal Merman did, over and over again.)
Spouse (4)
Ernest Borgnine (27 June 1964 - 18 November 1964) ( divorced)
Robert Logan Forman Six (9 March 1953 - 20 December 1960) ( divorced)
Robert Daniels Levitt (18 December 1941 - 10 June 1952) ( divorced) ( 2 children)
William B. Smith (15 November 1940 - 1 October 1941) ( divorced)
Trade Mark (2)
The song, sung in her inimitable way, "There's No Business Like Show Business"
Powerful belting mezzo-soprano vocal range
Trivia (34)
Thrice-wed Merman married twice-wed Ernest Borgnine in 1964. The couple separated just 11 days after the wedding and Borgnine filed for divorce on October 21, charging extreme mental cruelty. They had announced their impending nuptials at the legendary New York night spot P.J. Clarke's, but Borgnine, who was riding high as the star of McHale's Navy (1962) at the time, said the marriage began unraveling on their honeymoon, when he received more fan attention than she did. The competitive Merman was left seething. "By the time we got home, it was hell on earth," Borgnine recalled in a 2001 interview. "And after 32 days I said to her, 'Madam, bye'." Merman filed a cross-complaint shortly thereafter charging Borgnine with extreme cruelty. She was granted a divorce on November 18, 1964, after 22 minutes of testimony. Borgnine went on to marry a third time, but Merman remained single after her divorce. In her 1978 biography, she devoted a chapter of her autobiography to the marriage: It consisted of one blank page.
She had two children with her second husband, Robert: daughter, Ethel (born July 20, 1942), and son, Robert Levitt Jr. (born August 11, 1945). Ethel died of a drug overdose that was ruled accidental, on August 23, 1967.
Parents are Edward Zimmerman (1879-1977) and Agnes Zimmerman (1883-1974). She was an Episcopalian.
Her father, whose family was from Pennsylvania, was of German descent. Her maternal grandparents were Scottish immigrants.
Bertolt Brecht actually desired to have the raucous Ethel play the title role of his masterpiece "Mother Courage...and Her Children". Of course, she never did.
She loved Christmas so much, that she kept her Christmas tree up year-round.
In 1979, she released her most controversial album-to-date, a disco LP simply titled "The Ethel Merman Disco Album". Despite it not even charting on the Billboard charts, and many people's skepticism about the then 71-year-old veteran performing her Broadway hits to a disco beat, it was a smash hit, being played in Studio 54 regularly, with live appearances by Merman, herself. It also became a staple period album for the majority of the gay community.
Devised her screen and stage name by removing the first three letters (Zim) and the last letter (n) from her birth name - Zimmermann
She was awarded 2 Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Motion Pictures at 7044 Hollywood Boulevard; and for Recording at 1751 Vine Street in Hollywood, California.
Her daughter Ethel Levitt was married to William Geary in 1960. She gave birth to Merman's first grandchild, Barbara Jean, on February 20, 1961. She later gave birth to a son, Michael Geary.
She suffered a miscarriage during her marriage to Robert Levitt.
When she died, she left $800,000 to be divided between her son and her two grandchildren.
Winner of a 1972 Special Tony Award (New York City).
Elaine Stritch was once a stand-by for Ethel Merman for the musical "Call Me Madam". In her one woman show "Elaine Stritch: At Liberty", Stritch told a story illustrating Merman's showmanship and attitude:
Buried at Shrine of Remembrance Mausoleum in Colorado Springs, CO.
Merman's 1964 marriage to Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine, which lasted less than five months, served as fodder for many a stand-up comic's jokes at the time.
Due to her bellicose stage voice, said to be loud enough to be heard in many a theatre's third balcony, one of Merman's nicknames later in her career was "Old Yeller.".
Merman was widely believed to be the inspiration for the character of Helen Lawson in Jacqueline Susann's best-selling novel Valley of the Dolls. When 20th Century-Fox began their film version, Judy Garland was signed to play Lawson, but she was eventually replaced by Susan Hayward, whose singing voice had to be dubbed by Margaret Whiting.
In the mid-1960s, hoping to convince their customers to use the newly introduced ZIP Code system, the U.S. Post Office commissioned a song about the subject and hired Merman to sing it. The animated short subject featuring Merman's voice and a cartoon postman named " Zippy" was widely credited with getting the American public to use ZIP codes.
One of Merman's last appearances was a hilarious cameo in 1980's Airplane, in which she played a patient in a military mental ward who "thinks he's Ethel Merman." When the angle cut to that patient's bed, Merman sat up and sang "Everything's coming up roses" from her Broadway hit Gypsy.
In the late 1930s, Merman was briefly under contact to 20th Century-Fox, in hopes of replicating her stage success on screen. But after a handful of films, in which she co-starred with such Fox stars as Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, Sonja Henie, Don Ameche and The Ritz Brothers, the studio decided not to renew her contract.
Personal Quotes (10)
[on 1959, when she was nominated for a Tony Award for "Gypsy" but had lost to Mary Martin in "The Sound of Music"] You can't buck a nun.
[in 1930, on the show that made her a star, George Gershwin's "Girl Crazy"] In the second chorus of "I Got Rhythm", I held a high C note for 16 bars while the orchestra played the melodic line--a big, tooty thing--against the note. By the time I'd held that note for four bars, the audience was applauding. They applauded through the whole chorus and I did several encores. It seemed to do something to them. Not because it was sweet or beautiful, but because it was exciting. Few people have the ability to project a big note and hold it. It's not just a matter of breath; it's a matter of power in the diaphragm. I'd never trained my diaphragm, but I must have a strong one. When I finished that song, a star had been born. Me.
[on Mary Martin] She's okay, if you like talent.
I can never remember being afraid of an audience. If the audience could do better, they'd be up here on stage and I'd be out there watching them.
I don't want to sound pretentious, but in a funny way I feel I'm the last of a kind. I don't mean that there aren't some girls out there somewhere who are just as talented as I was. But even if they are, where will they find the shows like :Girl Crazy", "Anything Goes", "Annie Get Your Gun", "Call Me Madam" and "Gypsy"? They just don't produce those vehicles anymore.
I take a breath when I have to.
I can hold a note as long as the Chase National Bank.
Broadway has been very good to me. But then, I've been very good to Broadway.
You'll never prove you're too good for a job by not doing your best
Not to pat myself on the back, but when I do a show, the whole show revolves around me. And if I don't show up, they can just forget it!
Salary (1)
The Perry Como Show (1948) $20,000

Ethel Merman Biography & Family History

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Ethel Merman was also known as:

Ethel Agnes Zimmermann



Cause of death: Accidental Drug Overdose

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Accidental Drug Overdose

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Won a Tony Award for her role in the musical "Call Me Madam" (1951); Tony-nominated for musical "Happy Hunting" (1957); Tony-nominated for the musical "Gypsy" (1960); Recipient of Tony Special Award (1972).
Her third husband, Robert F. Six, was CEO of Continental Airlines.
Biography in: "The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives". Volume One, 1981-1985, pages 560-562. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1998.
Nominated for 1960 Tony Award for Leading Actress in a Musical for "Gypsy".
Nominated for 1957 Tony Award for Leading Actress in a Musical for "Happy Hunting".
Winner of 1951 Tony Award for Leading Actress in a Musical for "Call Me Madam".
Recreated both her Broadway starring roles of Mrs. Sally Adams from "Call Me Madam" and Reno Sweeney from "Anything Goes!" in the movie versions.


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1908 - In the year that Ethel Merman was born, President Theodore Roosevelt held the White House Conservation Conference, which lead to the establishment of the National Conservation Commission. Preparing the first inventory of the United State's natural resources, the commission was divided into four parts: water, forests, lands, and minerals.

1918 - When she was merely 10 years old, in July, Russian revolutionaries executed the former Tzar Nicholas II and his immediate family. While it was rumored that two of the children had survived, it was later proven through DNA analysis - when their bodies were found - that the entire family had been killed.

1920 - Ethel was merely 12 years old when Italian born factory worker Nicola Sacco and fish peddler Bartolomeo Vanzetti were picked up by police on May 5th in connection with the April 15th murder and robbery of a guard and a paymaster at the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in South Braintree, Mass. Although in later years they were thought to be innocent, they were anarchists and were convicted of the crime and put to death.

1931 - When she was 23 years old, on May 1st, the Empire State Building opened in New York City. At 1,454 feet (including the roof and antenna), it was the tallest building in the world until the World Trade Center's North Tower was built in 1970. (It is now the 34th tallest.) Opening at the beginning of the Great Depression, most of the offices in the Empire State Building remained unoccupied for years and the observation deck was an equal source of revenue and kept the building profitable.

1984 - In the year of Ethel Merman's passing, due to outrage about "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (it seemed too "dark" to many and it was rated PG), a new rating was devised - PG-13. The first film rated PG-13 was "Red Dawn".

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One night, while performing the song "Can You Use Any Money Today", a drunken audience member kept calling out to Merman while she performed, annoying both the audience and Merman herself. Finally, Merman got to the last line of the song, hit the first three notes, and then stopped the song. She then walked off the stage, through the wings, down the stairs and into the audience. She got to the drunken man, yanked him out of his seat, dragged him up the center aisle and through the doors that led out of the theater and literally threw the man out into the street. She then walked back into the theater, down the center aisle, up the stairs, through the wings onto the stage, got to dead center and hit the final note of the song as if nothing had happened.
Her favorite role was Mama Rose in "Gypsy", the last Broadway role she originated.
On April 7, 1983, Merman collapsed in her in Manhattan apartment while preparing to leave for Los Angeles to appear on the 55th Academy Awards. She was taken to Roosevelt Hospital, where, after undergoing exploratory surgery on April 11, the actress was diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma. It was reported that she underwent brain surgery to have the tumor removed, but in fact, it was inoperable and her condition was deemed terminal. Her health eventually stabilized enough for her to be brought back to her apartment in Manhattan. However, on February 15, 1984, Merman died of natural causes, 10 months after she was diagnosed with brain cancer.

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