Friday, January 16, 2009

There's No Centenary Like ...

It would be neglectful to let the day go by without remembering the 100th birthday of that great lady of the American musical theatre, Ethel Merman, the woman who made "There's No Business Like Show Business" the anthem of the theatrical profession. (She also made it into a disco record in the late 1970s, but that may be a fact better forgotten.)

Both the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and the Internet Broadway Database (IBDB) list Merman's birthdate as January 16, 1908, one hundred years ago today. There is some dispute, however, as to the accuracy of this date, with some suggesting that Merman was born two years earlier.

In his fawning biography of the actress, singer, and diva, entitled (with a great deal of legitimacy) Ethel Merman: The Biggest Star on Broadway, author Geoffrey Mark writes:

...Ethel Agnes Zimmermann was born on January 16, 1906. When she made the big time in show business, years were shaved off to make it appear she was a mere wisp of a girl. The future Miss Merman would conveniently lie about her age the rest of her life, clinging to those lost years to give an illusion of youth.

Her parents seemed to be the loving, indulgent, nurturing people that were later idealized on television shows like "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." Ethel was an only child, and Edward and Agnes Zimmermann adored their daughter. A bit chubby as a youngster, Ethel possessed a quick wit, dark flash¬ing eyes, beautiful skin, and the ability to learn a tune before she could talk. She was, indeed, their pride and joy.

The Zimmermann family never had to worry about finances, illness, or social deprivation. Edward earned a very comfortable living as an accountant, leaving Agnes to stay at home and indulge little Ethel. There were grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins abounding; the Zimmermanns were surrounded by love. The two families had emigrated from Germany (Edward) and Scotland (Agnes) two generations earlier. There were no funny accents or tenements in Ethel's life, nothing of which to be ashamed. Her family had a big house at 359 Fourth Avenue (neither it nor the street still exists), electricity, a telephone, steam heat, and indoor plumbing. For most Americans, these were still luxuries in the days before World War I.

Like many of their social stature, the Zimmermann family had a piano in the parlor, which Edward played with abandon. When it was learned that she could carry a tune, tiny Ethel was placed at her father's feet where she was encouraged to sing along. The louder she sang, the more Edward encouraged her. The more encouragement she got, the louder she sang. Ethel seemed to get an adrenaline rush from her parents' approval. This would last as long as they lived, and they lived until Ethel was almost seventy.

This approval seemed to give Ethel a confidence uncom¬mon in a child. No matter what she attempted, little Ethel was always certain she would be a conqueror. Failure was not in her vocabulary. Edward and Agnes should have written a book on how to build a child's self-esteem. Much of Ethel's child¬hood was enveloped in laughter and emotional intimacy. The incredibly healthy ego that grew inside of Ethel would be a boon to her career. However, it would later prove a disaster in her personal life.
Ego or no ego, Merman had an unmatchable career on the Broadway stage. She starred in more hit musicals than anyone else, even Mary Martin. (Martin won the Tony for The Sound of Music in 1960, the same year Merman was nominated for what was, by most accounts, her best career performance as Mama Rose in Gypsy. Merman's reported reaction? "You can't buck a nun.")

Merman worked with George Gershwin and Cole Porter, with Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim. Her career spanned at least two, if not three, major phases in the development of musical theatre. The list of her roles on IBDB includes 15 original musicals, plus a revival of Annie Get Your Gun and two one-night-only tribute shows on Broadway. Her first Broadway musical was Girl Crazy and her last was Hello, Dolly!, a show that was written for her but one in which she starred (as Dolly Gallagher Levi) only in the last several months of a seven-year first run.

Like that other Dolly, Carol Channing, Merman had a personality too big for the screen. Most of the roles she originated on Broadway were played by others on film -- most notoriously Rosalind Russell in Gypsy and Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun (a role that was almost played by Judy Garland). Others who took Merman roles to the movies were Lucille Ball, Ann Sothern, and Vivian Blaine.

Merman did appear in the first film version of Anything Goes and repeated her role as "The Hostess with the Mostes'" in Call Me Madam. She also had a memorable turn as a shrewish mother-in-law in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Her last film role was as (sort of) herself in the 1980 classic spoof, Airplane!.

Whether Ethel Merman would have been 100 years old today, or 102, hers is a life worth celebrating and remembering.

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