Monday, February 15, 2016

Ethel Merman: Then...and NOW

I can hold a note as long as the Chase National Bank.
-Ethel Merman

Happy February 15th,

Today is the 46th day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. There are 329 days remaining until the end of the year. 
Today is President's Day. On this date in 1961, a few days after my birth, 
Sabena Flight 548 crashes in Belgium, killing 73, including the entire United States figure skating team along with several of their coaches and family members.
On this date in 1965,  A new red-and-white maple leaf design is adopted as the flag of Canada, replacing the old Canadian Red Ensign banner.
On this date in 1992,  Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was sentenced in Milwaukee to life in prison. He would eventually die there.
Happy Birthday, Harold Arlen
On this date in 2000, Indian Point II nuclear power plant in New York vents a small amount of radioactive steam when a steam generator fails.
HAPPY LANDING : CESAR ROMERO and ETHEL MERMAN Still from the 1938 film, inscribed and signed by Romero and Merman
Too bad Merm's Lola Lasagne didn't team with  Romero's Joker." Her co-baddie was Burgess Meredith's Penguin.

"A joke a day, keeps the gloom away!" - Cesar Romero as The Joker

Today is the birthday of Cesar Romero, Actor, singer, and dancer (d. 1994). Miep Gies shares this birthday. Austrian-Dutch humanitarian, she helped hide Anne Frank and her family (d. 2010). Today is also the birthday of Gale Sondergaard, seen here as the Wicked Witch during a makeup and wardrobe test for The Wizard of Oz...Margaret Hamilton got the job!

Born today 1895 Bud Jamison: hot-tempered comic foil for Chaplin and Lloyd; 450 plus films/shorts; silent and sound; cops, robbers, bosses, servants.
Today is also the birthday of Kevin McCarthy, actor (d. 2010).  
Will you tell these people I'm not crazy? -Invasion of the Body Snatches 1956
Mary Jane Croft, actress (d. 1999). 
Harvey Korman, Actor, singer, and director (d. 2008). Korman was a regular on "The Carol Burnett Show" from 1967 through 1978, for which he won Emmy awards in 1969, 1971, 1972 and 1974. He also won a Golden Globe for his work on the series.
He also appeared in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" (as the sneering Hedley Lamarr), "High Anxiety" and History of the World, Part 1.
Today is also the birthday of Claire Bloom.
It is also the birthday of Melissa Manchester. Here is a blog I did on her when she appeared at the Carlyle a in 2014.
It is also the birthday of  Jane Seymour, English-American actress, producer, and jewelry designerJohn Barrymore was born on this date.
and Matt Groening, American animator, producer, and screenwriter.

32 years ago today, Ethel Merman transitioned. I was doing my first "stock" job. I was doing Anne of the Thousand Days at the Heritage Playhouse in Hopkington, Rhode Island. Nat "King" Cole also passed on on this date in 1965. 

Anita Gillette (See Anita Gillette and Penny Fuller in Sin Twisters, Too! at Feinstein's/ 54 Below February 24th and March 2nd. Order Tickets HERE
Anita Gillette tells me that  Favorite song:  ROSE'S TURN not just Everything's Coming Up Roses, but the whole scene. GYPSY was my first Broadway show and I watched Merman from the wings every night. I never had the guts (or the voice) to do it!

Cole Porter and Ethel Merman Rehearsing the Broadway Play DuBarry was a Lady
Cole Porter wrote Anything Goes and four more hits for Merman. Anything Goes will be kicking off
Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman singing You're The Top in Anything Goes (film) with a different script
Goodspeed Opera House's next season, April 8th-June 16th.

Bon voyage!
Set sail on a "de-lovely" cruise through some of Cole Porter's most famous songs.
A brassy nightclub singer, a starry-eyed stowaway and Public Enemy No. 13 are booked on a transatlantic luxury liner bound for romance and laughter.
Hum along with an easy-to-love score packed with hits including I Get a Kick Out of You, "You're the Top," It's De-Lovely, "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" and more! A tap-happy  classic docks at Goodspeed for the first time.
Ethel Merman performing for Joan Crawford
Suzanna Bowling

In honor of Ethel Merman, I reached out to a few people with a few questions about Ethel. This way, I get to celebrate both Ethel Merman AND my friends. The first is Suzanna Bowling, who has a birthday tomorrow. Suzanna Bowling, co-owns and publishes the newspaper Times Square Chronicles or T2C. At one point a working actress, she has performed in numerous productions in film, TV, cabaret and theatre. She has performed at The New Orleans Jazz Festival, The United Nations and Carnegie Hall. She was the Broadway Informer on the all access cable TV Show “The New Yorkers,” soon to be back on the air. She is a memeber of the Drama Desk and The Outer Critics Circle. With numerous projects in the fire life is never dull.
She tells me:  My birthday gift to myself this year is to start a column called Girl Be Heard for the Times Square Chronicles. It started with actually speaking my truths, in the review of Girl Be Heard’s Embodi(ED) Brings Up Memories of the Past. Before the column I shared the story with two girls in the show, which allowed more of their stories shared with me. I realized that truths cannot only set us free, but also set others free. It's like a get out of jail free card. 
We spend so much time paying for crimes, we did not commit.

I asked Suzanna what her favorite Ethel Merman song was and why:
This is actually a hard question.
I have two: I Got The Sun In The Morning, because we are a material based society, that we sometimes forget to see the beauty in what is free and right in front of our faces.  
Riding High because the melody truly gets to me and the lyrics on love are really what we all strive for.

Marilyn Monroe with Mitzi Gaynor and Ethel Merman on the set of There's No Business Like Show Business

The following is based on questions I presented to Suzanna.

Ethel Merman was a strong woman that broke the mold in musical theatre. Because of that amazing belt, songwriters wrote roles and songs for her that were emotionally three dimensional. A lot of the standard American Musical Theatre songbook comes from songs written for her.
 I would love to interview Stephen Sondheim for his connection to Ms. Merman. He was up and coming and she was at her peak with Gypsy. I am sure there are stories to be told.

I would like to say my creative process is  disciplined but it isn't. I get inspired and then I go. This new column came into play because I talked to two young girls and realized I can make a difference. The Times Square Chronicles happened because I slipped and fell and heard Michael Riedel on Theatre Talk say the only paper doing reviews would be the New York Times. That was horrifying to me as they destroy shows. Floyd Collins is a prime example. I am also about to start a TV Show that I am excited about but can not discuss until all my ducks are in a row. 
I create best late at night or bouncing ideas off someone.
Finish This sentence, I always get annoyed when people say... Ethel Merman...was chunky. She wasn't she was thin but because she wasn't gorgeous or a size zero people assume. Google her and you will see.

Rita McKenzie and Barbara Geary (Ethel Merman’s granddaughter)
More Exciting Ethel Merman news
Ethel Merman’s daughter Ethel Levitt Geary, whose brief life was plagued by mental illness, is the topic of a new play to be directed Off-Broadway by Austin Pendleton.  After workshopping the play Little Bit at the University of Michigan with Rita McKenzie as Ethel Merman and Barbara Geary as Benay Venuta, playwright Mary Butler reached out to her all-time favorite actor Austin Pendleton without realizing he was a close personal friend of the Merman-Levitt family.  
In the late 1960s, Pendleton was a resident actor at A.C.T. in San Francisco at the same time Bob Levitt, Jr served as artistic director.  The two became fast friends, so much so that Bob Levitt called on Austin Pendleton to help tote boxes for his mother when Ethel  Merman was forced to move from her apartment building after it converted to condominiums.  In 1977, Pendleton and Merman worked together on the CBS television pilot You’re Gonna Love It Here.  Family members of Ethel Merman (including Tony Cointreau) are pleased that such sensitive materials are in the gifted and trusted hands of Austin Pendleton.  Although many of the production details are still under wraps, author Mary Butler promises to provide Richard Skipper Celebrates with an update later this summer. 

Questions asked of author Mary Butler:

What is your favorite Song from a Broadway musical and specifically why do you love it so much (with a reason why)?
I Am What I Am, by Jerry Herman.  La Cage Aux Folles was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway.  When George Hearn ripped off his wig and stormed up the aisle, I felt the breeze from his sequined dress as he swooshed by me.  Then, when the house lights came up for intermission, I was immobile – completely entranced!    I had a similar experience when Betty Buckley sang With One Look in Sunset Blvd.  She is so utterly believable -- like the Geraldine Page or Uta Hagen of musicals.
Cast of La Cage aux Folles at Goodspeed Opera House (my favorite production!) PHOTO: Diane Sobolewski

In honor of president's day, if you were running for president, What would be your five word campaign promise?
Honestly, this would never happen!

Finish this sentence: If I had Trump's money...
I would revitalize manufacturing in the city of Detroit.  Like many people from Michigan, I dream about righting the wrongs of my parents’ generation when they fled to the suburbs, abandoning that vibrant city, destroying its infrastructure and educational system.

Could you tell me what your creative process is like?
Sometimes, I visualize myself sitting in a writers’ circle composed of my favorite authors.  This fantasy has a two-part caveat. First, I suffer from the old Woody Allen adage (borrowed first from Groucho Marx) that I would never want to belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member.  Second, I frequently arrive at the door with script in hand, but upon visualizing high backed leather chairs filled with the likes of Tony Kushner, Wendy Wasserstein, Kurt Vonnegut, Virginia Woolf, J.D. Salinger, Neil Simon, Toni Morrison, and of course, Woody Allen, I fail to turn the knob and instead end up back at my desk in solitude, writing and rewriting.  This cyclical process was brought to a sudden halt recently, while seated across a breakfast table from Austin Pendleton.  It was there, slouched in a corner booth at the Bus Stop Café, where he said to me, “This play is gorgeously written, and I am deeply moved by it.”   Whether or not we fulfill our goals of a full Off-Broadway run, that simple utterance is driving me forward, inspiring me to keep turning door knobs.    

Finish this sentence: I always get annoyed when...
People are not aware of their own – or fail to acknowledge another’s – personal space in the grocery store.

One of the highlights of this past year was seeing a concert version of Merman's Apprentice. Book and Lyrics by Stephen Cole, Music by David Evans
Picture it: 1970. The Golden Age of Musical Theatre is drawing to an end. But twelve-year-old Muriel Plakenstein doesn't know that. So she runs away from home to become a Broadway star, and meets the Queen of Broadway Ethel Merman, who takes her to a Hello, Dolly! rehearsal where they sing together. When legendary producer David Merrick hears the kid, he decides to star Muriel in the first all-child cast of Dolly! Naturally, Merman takes her under wing to teach her the ropes of being a star...making little Muriel Plakenstein Merman's Apprentice. Jay Records' Original Cast CD available on and iTunes.
GET THIS CD! You will thank me. I reached out to Stephen Cole and here is our mini interview:

What is your favorite Ethel Merman song and specifically why do you love it so much?
 It is very hard to pick a favorite song that Ethel sang over the course of a 50 year career, but I can choose my favorite performance of a song. The song is Blow Gabriel Blow by Cole Porter from Anything Goes. The time is 1977 on stage of the Broadway Theatre during the one night only concert featuring Merman and Mary Martin: Together on Broadway. In an evening of standing ovation highlights, Merman came out with trumpeter Dick Perry (that's his horn on those overtures of Gypsy and Funny Girl) and blew the roof off of the Broadway Theatre (where Ethel had starred in Gypsy) with the most amazing arrangement and rendition of the song I will ever hear. Her scatting (yes, Merman scatted) was thrilling and exciting and it was almost a competition between the loud horn and the even louder and brassier Merman voice. A thrill I shall never forget. 

What is the greatest thing about Ethel Merman in your opinion?
Ethel Merman was a first. Before she took the stage in 1930, musical comedy heroines were traditionally sopranos (necessitated by the lack of microphones, the higher reedier voices carried over large orchestras) and their roles were more rural in nature. When Merman started getting leads in shows like Anything Goes, Red Hot and Blue etc. She brought that urban swagger, that down-to-earth brassiness that felt like a New York gal. And her voice was loud and brassy and piercing enough to get over any orchestra. 
She changed the way people say woman's roles in musicals. And musicals were very influential in the 30's and 40's and 50's. She paved the way for Mary Martin to bring her brand of earthy Texas gal to the stage. No more did Rose Marie or Sally or Sunny reign. Now it was Blossom and Reno and Rose. And she also had the best diction in the world. Oh, yes, she was real fun to be with. I was lucky enough to be her friend in her last years. The greatest thing about her for me was here humor and warmth and how down to earth she was. There was also a childlike vulnerability that we explore a bit in my show Merman's Apprentice. She really did keep her parents' and daughter's ashes in her closet and kept a Christmas tree up all year round. And she did call me one day to innocently proclaim with joy, "I'm gonna be on the Tonys and the Oscars!" 
Klea Blackhurst, Stephen, Barbara Minkus and my Australian pal, Doug Kingsman Saturday at the American Popular Song Society Celebrating Peter Filichia and his book, The Great Parade: The AStonishing Never To Be Foorgotten Broadway Season 1963-64
As if Ethel Merman was not the greatest Broadway star who ever lived. What a dame! When Ethel
Merman's Apprentice
died (on this very day several decades ago) I got a call from her son Bobby telling me about it and telling me where to come for the funeral. Her service was Episcopal and there were only a couple of celebrities there (Dorothy Loudon and Hildegarde!). It was her family and friends. This was Merman to the end. Her friends were still the same secretaries with whom she worked in the 20's and people like me who remained close to the end and who saw her through her brain tumor.

Name one person you admire the most with an Ethel Merman connection and what you would like us to discuss if I got the opportunity to interview them!
Klea Blackhurst, who stars as Ethel in my musical (with composer David Evans) Merman's Apprentice. Klea and I are soul mates because of our love and devotion to the Merm and her place in history. Although we didn't write the show for Klea at first, it has become our dream project together and she never fails, in concert of on the Cast Album on Jay Records (available on Amazon and iTunes, phew! got that plug in), to knock my socks off with the character she has created from my words and David's music. She helps to show a Merman most don't know. If you interview Klea (and you should) I would want her to talk about our favorite song "Taking the Veil" 

Could you tell me what your creative process is like?

It all starts with a dream or an idea. When I get the idea for a show or a lyric, I mull it over a lot in my head and sometimes jot down notes and sometimes just get on my bike and ride and sing the lyric in my head until it solidifies. Then I have to run home and write it down on my computer. Later, it get refined further. I have no set hours to write and there are weeks at a time when I do not write anything new. Then there are intense times when whole shows happen and collaborations with my composer/partners like David Krane, David Evans or Todd Ellison dictate blossom. I also get very inspired by seeing other great work, be it, straight play or musical. Adversely, seeing  bad theatre makes me want to never write again! 

Finish this sentence: I always get annoyed when people say...about Ethel Merman.

I always get annoyed when people say that Ethel Merman could not act! She was a fabulous comic actress who proved in Gypsy that she was also, with the proper material and direction, capable of conveying deep emotion. But her incredible comic skills, honed from years of playing opposite the greatest comics in the biz (Durante, Lahr, Hope etc.) are what made her acting even more sparkling. Just watch her Golden Globe winning performance in the film of Call Me Madam and tell me that is not an actress! And then add that singing on and you have a great star!

 Video link for Klea Blackhurst singing Listen to the Trumpet Call from the Broadway at Birdland Performance of Merman's Apprentice. To buy the cd it's

Please visit Stephen Cole's Website

In Entertainment News  
The legendary vaudevillian, Yiddish theatre star, and television icon Fyvush Finkel brings his amazing Drama Desk-nominated variety act to the Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd Street, for an exclusive two-night-only engagement March 7 and 8.

Joined by his illustrious musical sons -- Elliot Finkel on piano, and Ian Finkel on xylophone -- Finkel is positively propelled by his joy of performing.  

There’s nothing he’d rather do than share that joy with you.  It’s what keeps this
Fyvush Finkel
93-year-old legend spry and still able to do a mad-good soft-shoe and land a priceless joke.

A star of both the Yiddish and English stage, this Emmy and OBIE Award-winning actor is one of a very select group of actors who have been active and successful in both the Yiddish and mainstream worlds. Born in Brownsville Brooklyn, he was 9 when he started playing numerous child roles (most involved singing) on Second Avenue, and in Boscht Belt venues until he made his Broadway debut, at age 43, in the original 1964 production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” He went on to tour in the first national company of the Jerome Robbins' Broadway hit, playing in multiple roles, including Tevvye, over a remarkable 12-year stretch.
He starred in the Off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors for five

years, earned an OBIE in Café Crown, which moved to Broadway, and his Fyvush Finkel Live! earned a Drama Desk nomination in 2011 for Best Musical Revue.
A beloved television star, Finkel earned his Emmy Award in 1994 for Picket Fences and he starred in the acclaimed series Boston Public from 2000 to 2004.  He made a splash in the 9-minute opening scene in Yiddish of the Coen Brothers’s Oscar-nominated A Serious Man

He was profiled on “CBS News Sunday Morning” in 2014.
This show’s not to be missed.  If you haven’t experienced Fyvush Finkel,  you better knock yourself on the head with a dictionary because he’s the very definition of New York live showbiz.
Tickets are $35 plus a two-drink minimum. Mon and Tues March 7 and 8, both at 7pm. For reservations call the Metropolitan Room at 212/206-0440 or to order online visit

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

Laughter is much more important than applause. Applause is almost a duty. Laughter is a reward.
-Carol Channing

With grateful XOXOXs ,


Check out my site celebrating the legacy of Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly!
Ethel Merman: Call on Dolly


Please do what YOU can to be more aware that words and actions DO HURT...but they can also heal and help!   
Celebrating President's Day! Here is Ethel with First Lady Mamie Eisenhower

Here's to an INCREDIBLE tomorrow for ALL...with NO challenges!
Please leave a comment and share on Twitter and Facebook

Keeping Entertainment LIVE!

Richard Skipper,

Sarah Rice, Broadway's original Johanna of Sweeney Todd, will sing a Valentine's Day concert of songs from the operetta, classical and musical theatre repertoire, with Paul Jackel, in upstate New York, Feb. 14. - See more at:

Next Wednesday in NYC
Feb 24
March 2nd

Anita Gillette and Penny Fuller return in a sequel to their critically acclaimed, Sin Twisters! This is Sin Twisters, Too! Directed by the incredible Barry Kleinbort with great musical direction by Paul Greenwood. They will take all of us on a great musical romp through their Broadway careers, which have criss crossed from time to time, resulting in confusing the two!...even though they don't look a thing alike!
This show WILL sell out! So reserve today and be a part of their star studded audience!
Richard Skipper is the publicist for Sin Twisters, Too! For press reservations, interview requests, or more information, contact Richard Skipper at or 845-365-07


  1. THANK YOU for including our Merman project on your beautifully up-lifting blog. We feel truly celebrated! - Mary Butler & Crew from Little Bit.

  2. what a fabulous blog about my friend Ethel. So happy to be a part of it all.

  3. Can't wait to be on hand for Fyvush Finkel's show at the Metropolitan Room. Thanks for mentioning Richard. Want to be in the presence of a true vaudevillian?... someone who connects us to the heyday of Second Avenue when it was the Yiddish Rialto?... who knows every showbiz trick in the book? This is an unmissable opportunity to connect with NY theatre history.

  4. Great to see the Merman tributes. So happy for the mention of Little Bit, a truly meaningful and thought-provoking play. We saw the reading in Ann Arbor and can't wait to see Austin Pendleton's Off-Broadway production!

  5. Enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks for asking the playwright Mary Buler such interesting questions! We look forward to reading your page more often to enjoy the history of the arts and find out what is happening in New York. A new generation will be exposed to Little Bit when it opens Off-Broadway.

  6. Great blog--it exudes a great love and respect for the arts. I saw Mary Butler's play in Ann Arbor and am excited it will be produced in New York. It's wonderful to see Mary get the recognition she deserves.