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Merman began singing as a child and entertained at military camps during World War I. She became a secretary after graduating from high school, but gradually built up a career singing in nightclubs and vaudeville. In September 1930, she reached the pinnacle of vaudeville success, playing the Palace Theater in New York. By then, however, she was already preparing to make a transition to the legitimate theater, and on October 13, 1930, she opened in a featured role in the Broadway musical Girl Crazy, with songs by George and Ira Gershwin, attracting considerable attention with her performance of "I Got Rhythm." The show ran 272 performances, closing June 6, 1931, and she found time during its run to continue her nightclub appearances and to work at New York's Paramount Pictures studios, where she appeared in short films, and then made her feature film debut in Follow the Leader, released in December 1930. On September 14, 1931, she opened in her second Broadway show, that year's edition of the revue George White's Scandals, introducing "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries." It ran 202 performances, closing March 5, 1932. On October 1, 1931, she made a test recording of "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" for RCA Victor Records, but she did not make her first issued recordings until a Victor session a year later, on September 29, 1932, that produced a version of Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean?" Over the next several years, she made occasional further recordings, for Brunswick Records in 1934 and 1935, for Liberty Music Shop Records in 1939, and for Decca Records in 1940, usually performing songs associated with her shows and films. But recordings accounted for only a small part of her work.
Merman opened in her third Broadway musical, Take a Chance, on November 26, 1932, her most memorable song being "Eadie Was a Lady." The show ran 243 performances, closing July 1, 1933. In September, she went to Hollywood, where she co-starred with Bing Crosby in We're Not Dressing and with Eddie Cantor in Kid Millions, both films released in 1934. (Footage of her singing "It's the Animal in Me," shot for We're Not Dressing, was used in the 1935 film Big Broadcast of 1936.) After a year, she returned to New York and her greatest stage success yet, starring in the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes, which opened November 21, 1934, and ran 420 performances, closing November 16, 1935. Her songs included "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," and the title tune. Unusually for her, she left the show before its closing to fulfill more film commitments in Hollywood, again co-starring with Cantor, in Strike Me Pink, and Crosby, in a screen adaptation of Anything Goes, both released in 1936. Then her bicoastal career continued back in New York with another Cole Porter offering, Red, Hot and Blue!, which opened on Broadway on October 29, 1936, for a run of 183 performances, closing April 10, 1937. Among her six songs in the show were "Down in the Depths on the 90th Floor" and "It's De-Lovely." Returning to Hollywood, she signed with 20th Century-Fox and made three films released in 1938, Happy Landing, Alexander's Ragtime Band (which featured vintage songs by Irving Berlin), and Straight, Place and Show. This turned out to be her last extended work in films. Turning 30, and with only ordinary looks, she had no real chance of being a big Hollywood star, but her voice guaranteed her above-the-title status back on Broadway.
Accordingly, Merman headed back east again for her sixth stage musical, Stars in Your Eyes, which featured songs written by Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields. It opened February 9, 1939, for a run of only 127 performances, closing May 27, and by December 6, Merman was back on-stage in Cole Porter's DuBarry Was a Lady, a more successful effort that ran 408 performances, staying on the boards until December 12, 1940. Before then, she had left it to open in another Porter show, Panama Hattie, on October 30, 1940. This musical gave her longest run yet, 501 performances, closing on January 3, 1942. She had married theatrical agent William Jacob Smith in 1940 and divorced him in 1941, then married newspaperman Robert Daniels Levitt. With him, she gave birth to her first child, Robert Daniels Levitt, Jr., on July 20, 1942. On January 7, 1943, she was back on Broadway, singing Cole Porter songs in Something for the Boys, which ran 422 performances, closing January 8, 1944. (During the year, she made a cameo appearance in the all-star film Stage Door Canteen, and she made her first appearance in the Billboard singles chart with "Move It Over" on RCA Victor.)
On August 11, 1945, Merman gave birth to her second child, Ethel Levitt. Her tenth stage musical was the biggest hit of her career, Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun, a depiction of the life of sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Opening May 16, 1946, it ran 1,147 performances, until February 12, 1949, and she stayed in it until the end, singing "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly," "They Say It's Wonderful," "Anything You Can Do," "I Got the Sun in the Morning," and "There's No Business Like Show Business," among other songs. The original Broadway cast album had become a commercial entity in the time since her last stage appearance, and the cast album for the show, released on Decca, reached number two in the charts. This recording success increased her profile, and she was given her own network radio series, The Ethel Merman Show, which ran during 1949. She also signed an exclusive recording contract with Decca and scored a series of chart entries in 1950 and 1951 paired with fellow stage star Ray Bolger: "Dearie," "I Said My Pajamas (And Put on My Pray'rs)," "If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake," and "Once Upon a Nickel."
On October 12, 1950, Merman returned to Broadway in Irving Berlin's next musical, Call Me Madam. It ran 644 performances, until May 3, 1952, and she won a Tony Award. RCA Victor owned the rights to the original Broadway cast album, but she was still under contract to Decca. As a result, the rest of the original cast, with Dinah Shore substituting in the starring role, recorded an album for RCA, while Merman and a quickly assembled studio cast including Dick Haymes recorded a competing one for Decca. Merman's version outscored Shore's, reaching number two in the charts, with her duet with Haymes on "You're Just in Love" reaching the singles charts.
Despite her increased national profile, Merman had not returned to movie making. Broadway audiences may have had no trouble accepting her as the youthful Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, but moviegoers would have been required to swallow their disbelief had the 42-year-old tried to star in the 1950 movie version. (As it was, MGM never asked her, first giving the role to Judy Garland, who dropped out due to illness, and then to Betty Hutton.) But the role of Sally Adams, the Perle Mesta-like "Hostess with the Mostes' on the Ball" in Call Me Madam, was a matronly one, and Merman did get to appear in the film version, which was released in 1953, her first starring movie role in 15 years. The soundtrack album on Decca reached number five.
Merman did not immediately go back into a Broadway show, first acknowledging the rise of television by making a number of small-screen appearances, notably one on the two-hour Ford 50th Anniversary Show on June 15, 1953, broadcast live on both CBS and NBC. Her main stage rival had always been Mary Martin, as soft-voiced and sweet as Merman was stentorian and overpowering. The two performed a lengthy duet on the show, and Decca released it on an album. After appearing in television adaptations of Anything Goes (paired with Frank Sinatra) and Panama Hattie, Merman next starred in another lavish movie musical filled with vintage songs by Irving Berlin, There's No Business Like Show Business, also featuring Dan Dailey, Mitzi Gaynor, Donald O'Connor, Johnnie Ray, and Marilyn Monroe, which was released for the 1954 Christmas season. The soundtrack album on Decca reached number six. Merman concluded her exclusive contract with Decca by assembling the double-LP set A Musical Autobiography, which combined cast recordings with studio recordings from 1947 and 1955 of songs with which she was associated for a career overview.
Merman's 12th Broadway musical was Happy Hunting, which opened December 6, 1956, and ran 413 performances, until November 30, 1957. RCA Victor recorded the cast album, on which she was able to appear. But the show was remembered less for itself than for its star. She looked for a more worthy vehicle next and found it in the musical that became her mature triumph and gave her her last new role on Broadway, Gypsy. In this show based on the early life of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, Merman portrayed Mama Rose, the ultimate stage mother, who bullies her daughters into becoming successful. She played the unsympathetic part with enthusiasm, singing "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and the wrenching tour de force "Rose's Turn," songs written by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim. The show opened on May 21, 1959, and ran 702 performances, until March 25, 1961, and she not only stayed with it all through the Broadway run, but also undertook a national tour that ran an additional nine months. The cast album reached number 13 and stayed in the charts for more than two years. For once, she very much wanted to do the 1962 film adaptation, and she would have been nearly age-appropriate for it, but she was aced out of the role by Rosalind Russell.
At 54, Merman was ready to give up the eight-show-a-week schedule of Broadway, and she returned to personal appearances for the first time since 1930, making her Las Vegas debut in October 1962; her show was recorded for the Warner Bros. Records LP Merman in Vegas. (She also went into the studio and re-recorded some of her best-known songs for the Warner Bros. LP Merman: Her Greatest!) She guest-starred on television and had character parts in the films It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and The Art of Love (1965). On May 31, 1966, she returned to musical theater in New York in a 20th anniversary revival of Annie Get Your Gun intended as a five-week limited run, but extended until it finally closed on November 26, 1966, after 124 performances. RCA Victor recorded a new cast album that reached the charts, and a television adaptation ran on March 19, 1967.
Merman appeared in a national tour of Call Me Madam in the late '60s and made her final stand on Broadway when she became the eighth woman to star in Hello, Dolly!, starting on March 28, 1970. She had turned down the show back in 1964; now she closed it on December 27, 1970. Having reached her sixties, she worked less frequently. She made the occasional cameo in a film (Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood , Airplane! ); and she re-recorded her best-known songs yet again, on the British LPs Merman Sings Merman (London Records; 1972) and Ethel's Riding High (Decca; 1975). She surprised her fans by recording a new studio cast version of Annie Get Your Gun for London Phase 4 Records in 1973, and she shocked them with The Ethel Merman Disco Album on A&M Records in 1979. She also gave occasional concerts, appearing at Carnegie Hall as late as 1982. Two years later, she died of a brain tumor at age 76, her reputation as Broadway's biggest female star of the 20th century secure. ~ William Ruhlmann, Rovi