Profile of a Performer: Ethel Merman

Ethel Merman was a staple on the Broadway stage and in Hollywood musicals during the Golden Age of musicals.

She was a favorite with composer Cole Porter.  Irving Berlin‘s There’s No Business Like Show Business became her signature song.

Ethel Merman

Ethel Agnes Zimmermann was born on January 16, 1908 in Astoria, Queens, New York City. {She would later insist she was born in 1912.}  She was the daughter of Edward and Agnes Gardner Zimmermann.

After graduating high school in 1924, she worked as a secretary and began performing in nightclubs.  She decided to change her name to one that would fit better on a theater marquee.  After careful consideration, she shortened Zimmermann to Merman.

She became known for her powerful, belting mezzo-soprano voice and precise enunciation and pitch.  Where other performers needed a microphone, she did not.

Merman was eventually put under contract with Warner Bros., while at the same time being allowed to continue performing in night clubs.  In 1930, she was signed to replace  Ruth Etting in the film Follow the Leader. 

George and Ira Gershwin immediately cast her in their film Girl Grazy.   The New York Times noted Merman sang in Girl Crazy “with dash, authority, good voice and just the right knowing style”, while The New Yorker called her “imitative of no one.”

Anything Goes in 1934, was the first of five Cole Porter musicals Merman starred in on the stage.  This established her as a major star.

Ethel Merman

Merman reprised her role in Anything Goes for the film version in 1936.

She continued to star in huge musicals such as There’s No Business Like Show Business and Call Me Madam. 

She starred on stage as the domineering stage mother in Gypsy. She lost the opportunity to star in the film version and called it “the greatest professional disappointment of my life.”

She continued to work steadily on Broadway, on TV and in movies as the offers poured in.

She was married and divorced four times.  She had two children with her second husband.

She wrote two memoirs, Who Could Ask for Anything More? in 1955 and Merman in 1978.

Ethel Merman died at her Manhattan home on February 15, 1984.  She had been diagnosed with brain cancer less than a year earlier.  All of the Broadway theatres dimmed their lights in her honor the night of her death.