New York City, Christmas, 1943: I had the great pleasure of meeting Ethel Merman, and hearing her great voice from just a few feet away, and then sharing a kiss with the lady. I was just out of Navy boot camp, and on my way from Newport, Rhode Island, to my hometown of Philadelphia. We had a train change and a five-hour delay at Pennsylvania Station in New York, so several newly-graduated boots, proud of our new Navy blues, decided to spend the free hours in the Big Apple.
We were just a short walk from the Stage Door Canteen on 44th Street, and knowing it offered free food and entertainment, we went there. When we arrived, we saw there were all kinds of trucks, lights and movie equipment blocking the entrance.
When we were about to give up and go elsewhere, a couple of guys came running over, “Hey, sailors, do you want to be in the movies?” I know that’s a Hollywood cliche, but it did happen. Of course, we accepted and became part of an on-camera audience of servicemen inside while several scenes and musical numbers were shot.
The entertainers in the movie, to be called “Stage Door Canteen”, make up a fantastic all-star list of that era. In addition to Ethel Merman, it included Ray Bolger (Scarecrow in “Wizard of Oz”), Jack Benny, Katharine Hepburn, Gypsy Rose Lee, Harpo Marx, and Benny Goodman’s orchestra, with Peggy Lee.
Shooting of the cameo appearances of all those stars took several weeks, both in New York and in the RKO studios in Hollywood. We sailors that day were only in scenes featuring Ethel Merman and Ray Bolger. Ethel’s patriotic song was “Marching Through Berlin”. The 1943 World War II anti-German lyrics would’ve caused an international incident if Barack Obama had sung them while he was in Berlin, but they were appropriately angry then.
If you ever see “Stage Door Canteen” on DVD or on late, late night TV, and look closely, you can see me ogling the singing Merman from the front row in the crowded audience of servicemen. At the time I was an 18-year-old who looked about 14, with a Navy haircut and a big smile.
During a break in shooting, Merman and some other stars joined the sailors and soldiers while the canteen served coffee and cake. After all these decades, my memory of her is very clear. I expected the bold, brassy dame with her famous loud Noo Yawk voice, but the very pretty young woman who sat down with us was quietly friendly.
She asked each of us about home towns and families, and when I told her I was from Philly, she laughed. She said it was a tough audience town, and many of her new shows had opened and closed there in one night. Then, when the director called her away, she reached over and kissed me on the cheek. The other guys laughed because there was a big lipstick mark there, and for that dazed moment, I vowed never again to wash that cheek.
Ethel Agnes Zimmermann was born to a German father and Scottish mother in Astoria, New York in 1908. She began singing as a child in her Episcopal church choir, and later claimed she developed her famous style by watching vaudeville performances of such song-belting stars as Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker.
In the early 20th Century, there were no microphones to amplify sound, so those who performed on stage had to project their voices so people in the upper balcony could hear them clearly. Soon, high school student Ethel and her powerful voice became popular in local theaters.
However, there was very little money in singing, and her parents insisted that Ethel take stenography courses, offering a career that could earn her as much as $25 a week. She did get a job as a secretary, but continued appearing in local theaters. After several years, as her show business jobs reached higher levels, her parents accepted the fact that Ethel should work full time in the theater.
After hearing the 22-year-old Ethel Zimmermann sing in a Manhattan club, a Warner Brothers talent scout offered her the unheard of weekly salary of $200 to travel to Hollywood, after insisting her last name be shortened to Merman. Talkies had just started, and every Hollywood studio was making its first attempts at movie musicals. However, Ethel’s voice proved to be too powerful for the sugary, sentimental stories and crude sound equipment of the time.
She asked for time to go back to New York, and it turned out to be the best decision she ever made. She tried out for a new Broadway musical, “Girl Crazy”, written by George and Ira Gershwin. When she belted out what was to become her life-long signature song, “I Got Rhythm”, the rest is theater history.
She went on to score hit after Broadway hit from the 1930s through the 1950s, including “Annie Get Your Gun”, “Call Me Madam”, “Gypsy” and many others. Some of the most famous songs she introduced have become classics, including, “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “You’re the Top”, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, “Friendship”, “I Can Do Anything You Can Do Better”, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses (from “Gypsy” and sung by Merman at Ronald Reagan’s Inauguration), “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, “You’re Just in Love” and many, many others.
As her Broadway career faded in the 1960s, Merman was active in television, appearing on the Carol Burnett Show, The Muppets, Sesame Street, Batman and Love Boat. She also starred in “Call Me Madam”, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “It’s a Mad Mad Mad World”. After that, she did some cameo and voice-over parts.
Ethel Merman was the mother of two children, Ethel and Robert. She was married four times, but none lasted very long. Her marriage to actor Ernest Borgnine survived for exactly one month. She died at age 76 in 1984.