Thursday, May 21, 2015

Ethel Merman (1908-1984)

Birth name: Ethel Agnes Zimmermann
Birthdate: Thursday, January 16th, 1908
Location: Queens, New York, USA

Died: Wednesday, February 15th, 1984
Location: Manhattan, New York, USA
Cause of death: Brain cancer

Best known for: Actress and singer known as the First Lady of the musical comedy stage, appearing in big hits in Broadway musicals throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s. She won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical/ Comedy for 1953's Call Me Madam, but is best known for her belting voice and introducing such standards as I Got Rhythm, Everything's Coming Up Roses and There's No Business Like Show Business to the live stage lexicon.

Ethel as Lola Lasagne with Burgess
Meredith's Penguin in 1967's Batman
Ethel's home was on the stage, on Broadway, but she did make appearances on the screen, and as the 1950s gave way to the 60s, these appearances were increasingly more on TV than film. Following her runaway success in There's No Business Like Show Business in 1954, her screen career turned to television, with appearances on Vacation Playhouse (1963), The Red Skelton Hour (1963) and Kraft Suspense Theater (1965). But there were still high profile successes, such as playing Mrs Marcus in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), the title character in a 1967 TV film of Annie Get Your Gun, and the villainous villainess Lola Lasagne in that colourful classic Batman (1967).

Oh didn't they look happy?
Ethel married Ernest Borgnine
in 1964. It lasted five months
It was around this time, on June 27th, 1964, that Ethel married her fourth husband, the film star Ernest Borgnine, but the marriage didn't last - Ernest filed for divorce on October 21st, and Ethel counter-divorced him a month later citing "extreme cruelty". Ernest later recounted how the marriage consisted mainly of arguing, and used to tell of the time Ethel returned from filming It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World saying: "The director said I looked sensational. He said I had the face of a 20-year-old and the body and legs of a 30-year-old." Ernest replied: "Did he say anything about your old c**t?", to which Ethel replied: "No, he didn't mention you at all." In Ethel's 1978 autobiography, the chapter entitled My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine consists of one blank page!

It seemed as soon as Ethel turned 60, the small and silver screens lost interest. In 1974 she provided the voice for Mombi the bad witch in the animated film Journey Back to Oz, and two years later appeared as Hedda Parsons in the now cult classic Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood. This film is jam-packed with Hollywood stars of yesteryear in the twilight period of their careers, and is a favourite among movie buffs - sharing Ethel's billing are the likes of Art Carney, Virginia Mayo, Ricardo Montalban, Jackie Coogan, Joan Blondell, Dorothy Lamour, Phil Silvers, Johnny Weismuller, Ann Miller, Tab Hunter, Victor Mature, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Cyd Charisse, Milton Berle and Walter Pidgeon. An even more star-studded appearance took place in 1977 when Ethel took a turn on The Muppet Show!

Ethel, aged 69, with Fozzie Bear on
The Muppet Show
In 1979, Ethel got involved with perhaps one of the most bizarre landmarks of her varied career - The Ethel Merman Disco Album, which put many of her signature songs to a dance floor beat, such as There's No Business Like Show Business, I Get a Kick Out of You and Alexander's Ragtime Band. The album is now a camp cult classic, and sounds pretty much exactly as you'd expect. Still, she was 71; you can't knock a girl for trying!

Ethel's final film role was Lieutenant Hurwitz in the classic 1980 spoof Airplane!, when she was aged 72, playing a shell-shocked soldier who believes she is Ethel Merman. Who can forget the classic scene where she leaps out of bed crooning Everything's Coming Up Roses, only to be restrained by orderlies? She did go out with her head held high by securing the recurring role of Gopher's mum Roz Smith in the TV series The Love Boat, which she popped up in from time to time between 1979 and 1982. Her final episode was the two-part The Musical, broadcast on February 27th, 1982.

Ethel was known to burst into song
as Roz Smith during her appearances
on The Love Boat

Interviewed by Gene Shalit in 1983,
Ethel's final public appearance
However, The Love Boat was not Ethel's farewell to the screen as she appeared as herself on a handful of occasions after that, including being interviewed on The Merv Griffin Show in June 1982, and a spot at the Royal Variety Performance that same year. She was also interviewed, in what was no doubt her final public appearance, by Gene Shalit (sporting a staggering hairdo!) for the Show Stoppers TV series in early 1983, in conjunction with her fundraising live show in aid of the Museum of the City of New York.

In the early 1980s Ethel's behaviour became erratic as advancing age brought with it forgetfulness and difficulty in speaking. On April 7th, 1983, she was preparing to leave for Los Angeles to appear at the Oscars when she collapsed in her apartment. Doctors initially believed she'd had a stroke, but following exploratory surgery four days later, it was discovered she was suffering from a malignant primary brain tumour. The tumour was inoperable and doctors gave Ethel until the end of the year to live. She began to suffer from aphasia (speech disorders) and as the illness progressed she lost her hair and her face swelled. Her son Robert cared for her behind very tightly closed doors, and after some time she was well enough to return to her Manhattan apartment, where a healer apparently reduced the size of her tumour by 33%.

Ethel, aged 74, performed on 1982's
Broadway! A Special Salute
However, Ethel's erratic behaviour caused her to refuse to continue seeing the healer, and inevitably, on February 15th, 1984, she passed away at home, aged 76. That evening, all 36 Broadway theatres dimmed their lights in her memory.

A funeral service took place at St Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in New York on Monday, February 27th, 1984, and she was then cremated at the Frank E Campbell Funeral Chapel on Madison Avenue, Manhattan. The Oscars held on April 2nd, 1984, ended with a performance of There's No Business Like Show Business in Ethel's honour.

On October 19th, 1984, an auction of Ethel's personal effects and furniture took place at Christie's at the Rockefeller Center and made more than $120,000.

A real gem: Here's scratchy but classic footage of Ethel Merman performing the Irving Berlin classic Doin' What Comes Natur'lly from Annie Get Your Gun, alongside Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy on Shower of Stars: Ethel Merman's Show Stoppers, hosted by Art Gilmore, on April 14th, 1955. It gives an idea of what Ethel was like in the original Broadway production of Annie Get Your Gun in 1946.

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