Saturday, February 15, 2014

Remembering Ethel Merman!

"You may have done all right elsewhere," Ethel Merman once said, "but you haven't really done it until you face a New York first-night crowd." No one faced a New York first-night crowd with the confidence that Merman did. On opening night of her very first Broadway show, in George Gershwin's Girl Crazy, Merman brought down the house with her performance of the now-classic "I Got Rhythm," at one point holding a high C note for 16 bars while the orchestra played on and the crowd roared.

Ethel Merman was a singer and actress who was one of the biggest stars of the Broadway stage and screen during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. On this date in 1984, I was appearing in my first stock company, The Hopkington Playhouse in Hopkington Rhode Island. I remember that the cast was all sitting around the dining room table reading the paper and we saw that Ethel Merman had died at her home in New York City at the age of 76. I felt as if a friend had passed on. Strange considering that I had never met her or even saw her perform LIVE. My only points of reference were her cast recordings and occasional television appearances, my favorites being The Lucy Show and The Love Boat.

"She was the Queen of the Broadway Musical, La Merm!  Ethel Merman, born Zimmermann, had an amazing Broadway career lasting from 1930 to 1970.
George Gershwin introduced the former secretary from Astoria, Queens in his show Girl Crazy in 1930, where she sang her first show stopper, “I Got Rhythm”.  She held one note for sixteen measures and stirred audience into a frenzy.
Her voice was called “another instrument in the band.”  For her next hit show, Cole Porter wrote the part of Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes for her.  She stopped the show again with “Blow, Gabriel, Blow”, “I Get A Kick Out Of You” and the title tune.  Porter adored Merman – the singer who was always “quick with a quip”.  He wrote four other musical for her:  Red, Hot and Blue, Dubarry Was A Lady, Panama Hattie and Something For The Boys.  He said “you’d better not write a bad lyric for her because they’ll hear it in the back of the balcony.
Dorothy Fields came up with the idea of Merman as Annie Oakley.
Irving Berlin signed on, and Annie Get Your Gun was born – one of Merman’s biggest hits.  As always, Miss Merman never missed a performance.  Berlin followed Annie with Call Me Madam.  Ethel won her only Tony Award for her memorable portrayal of Miss Sally Adams, “The Hostess With The Mostess’ On The Ball”.  Her next musical was Happy Hunting, which contains Ethel Merman ‘s Broadway’s opening number, (Gee But) It’s Good To Be Here.

Following that musical was Merman’s greatest triumph, Gypsy.  Amazingly, she lost the Tony Award to Mary Martin in The Sound Of Music, but her portrayal of Mama Rose remains one of the all-time-greatest performances ever seen on Broadway.
Jerry Herman wanted Merman to star in his musical Hello, Dolly!.  Merman declined, saying that, after Gypsy, she needed to take a break from the grueling Broadway schedule. However, she decided to play Dolly at the end of its New York run, a move which revitalized the show’s run.  It was the last time Ethel Merman would star in a Broadway musical."

She was as big a star as the American stage ever produced, a legend both in her own time and beyond it. She had neither the looks nor the dancing ability that typically recommended a young woman for Broadway stardom, but she had a vocal instrument that simply could not be ignored. "She needed no hidden microphones" was the line from her New York Times obituary that could easily have served as her epitaph. Ethel Merman wasn't just a belter—she was a performer who connected with live audiences in a way that only comes along once or twice in a generation. This much was clear from the very first night of a professional career that spanned five decades.(This day in History)
 It has now been thirty years since Ethel's passing which is hard to believe. It saddens me that a theater has not been named after her or that she is not remembered with the reverence that I feel that she deserves. Today, I take a moment to pause and celebrate her.I also want to celebrate Klea Blackhurst, Rita McKenzie, and Tony Cointreau for keeping her memory alive.

Ethel Merman and Tony Cointreau
How many people can count among their closest friends Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa (beatified by the Vatican in October, 2003), Lee Lehman, (wife of Robert Lehman, head of Lehman Brothers), Pierre Cardin (who was not only a legendary couturier but also a major show-business force in Europe) and many others?
Tony can!
A scion of the French liqueur family, Tony's voice took him to the stage and his heart took him to Calcutta. He shares his life story in a new memoir, Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa …and Me: My Improbable Journey from Châteaux in France to the Slums of Calcutta.
 Many of you many have bottles with the name Cointreau on them in your liquor cabinet. I first met Tony when I was asked to produce an event in celebration of Geoffrey' Mark's 100th birthday of celebration several years ago.
I met him again when i interviewed him for my Dolly project, thanks to good friend Stephen Mosher. I went to Tony's gorgeous East Side apartment and truly felt Ethel's presence.
Here is another blog touting this book. 

I was lucky enough to catch Klea Blackhurst in Hello, Dolly! at the Goodspeed Opera House this past summer. Klea Blackhurst, like Ethel, has a clarion voice which makes her voice perfect for the songs and roles that Ethel made famous.  
 KLEA BLACKHURST is an actress, singer and comedienne who is best known for her award-winning tribute to Ethel Merman, Everything The Traffic Will Allow. Among many accolades, this production earned her the inaugural Special Achievement Award from Time
Out New York magazine and the recording of Everything the Traffic Will Allow was named one of the top ten show albums of 2002 by Talkin’
 Klea has performed with symphonies, orchestras and in theatrical productions across the country and abroad including the London Palladium presentation of Jerry Herman’s Broadway with Angela Lansbury, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, 10 Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Conventions, New York’s Town Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, New York’s 92nd Street Y Lyrics and Lyricists, (Leo Robin  and Cole Porter) The Chicago Humanities Festival and as Ado Annie in the BBC Proms concert of Oklahoma! in London’s Royal Albert Hall. Klea currently plays Shelby Cross, former prosecutor and hypercritical pundit on the IFC Channel comedy series, “Onion News Network.” Theatre credits include: New York - The recent revival of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Bingo, By Jupiter, Radio Gals, Oil City Call Me Madam, Chicago, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, Red Hot and Blue, Anything Goes. TV and radio: Law and Order: SVU, The Rosie O'Donnell Show, Sesame Street and A Prairie Home Companion. Klea’s albums are available at and She’s also featured on “Jule Styne in Hollywood” on PS Classics; the original cast recordings of Bingo and Radio Gals; “Lost in Boston IV,” “Unsung Irving Berlin,” and “The Best of Off Broadway.”
When Everything The Traffic Will Allow opened, The New York Times wrote, "When I watch a performer who recreates -- pays tribute to, works in the styles of -- the past, I don't want to float into a ''Where are the snows of yesteryear?'' reverie. Nor do I want to think, ''Aren't you the smart one?,'' poised on the fence between benign mockery and benign reverence. Noncommittal irony and bland nostalgia will be the death of us.

But is there such a thing as passionate nostalgia?
Yes, when it takes the form of active, intricate longing. It should make demands on us. Think of great impersonators and drag performers; of musicians, actors or dancers who resist any new approach however interesting and valuable. They offer truculent denunciations of the new, but some perform the old with such penetrating knowledge that it becomes noble. They give it the grandeur of classicism.

When we love something, we bestow meaning and beauty on it. And if we're artists, our job is to make the audience love what we love. Maybe the best way to test performers who live for and on a particular past is to put them in front of audiences who have no allegiance to that past. Especially in small spaces. Call it cabaret for the uncoverted.

Which brings us to Ethel Merman, and to an improbably terrific young performer named Klea Blackhurst, who devotes an entire show to her. It isn't that I don't care about Merman, it's just that, like so many, I haven't given her much thought for quite a while. I grew up loving ''Annie Get Your Gun''; I've always enjoyed hearing Merman do the songs Berlin, Gershwin and Porter wrote for her. I trembled before her when I saw that fabulous (and fabulist) Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical ''Gypsy.'' But she doesn't get reinvented and worshiped over and over. She doesn't have the cachet of a suavely decadent androgyne like Dietrich or an emotional martyr and suicide like Garland. Her looks and style feel much more bound to a time (the 1930's through the mid-1960's) and a place (Broadway). She wasn't made for the movies, because she didn't know (or care) how to play down anything. She never had a physical glamour that enhanced or transcended each role. She wasn't sexy, she wasn't mysterious and she wasn't vulnerable.
Here's what she was and remains: invincible and completely individual, like some machine made according to no textbook rules by an inventor everyone thought was a bit cracked. Steel-wire voice, brazen, guilt-free aggression. She could go on singing and belting and belting and singing, kick out consonants, land on vowels, swallow the stage, the audience and the theater, spit out what she didn't want and stride off without losing a note."

Rita McKenzie's tribute is a dead on impression.I am a huge fan of Rita's and her CD of Ethel Merman's Broadway is one of my favorite cds. She is so right on that I used to hear tracks on the Broadway channel on Sirius Radio and they would say it WAS Ethel Merman! I interviewed Rita some time ago. Here is that blog.

Thank you ALL of the artists mentioned in this blog for the gifts you have given to the world and continue to give!

 With grateful XOXOXs ,

Check out my site celebrating the FIRST Fifty years of  Hello, Dolly!
Ethel Merman and Mary Martin in their historic Broadway concert

I desire this to be a definitive account of Hello, Dolly!  If any of you reading this have appeared in any production of Dolly, I'm interested in speaking with you!

If you have anything to add or share, please contact me at


Please do what YOU can to be more aware that words and actions DO HURT...but they can also heal and help!    
Thank you, to all the mentioned in this blog!

Here's to an INCREDIBLE tomorrow for ALL...with NO challenges!

I hope you can join us TOMORROW February 16th in NYC as we celebrate Eileen Fulton to benefit Habitat For Humanity! Would LOVE to see you! Bring friends! It’s going to be star-studded party!

With grateful XOXOXs for your support!
Richard Skipper 845-365-0720

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