Ethel Merman – First Lady of Musical Comedy

Day 254 of Colourisation Project – January 16

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Irving Berlin once described her as “the best, you give her a bad song, and she’ll make it sound good. Give her a good song, and she’ll make it sound great. And you’d better write her a good lyric. The guy in the last row of the second balcony is going to hear every syllable.”

Cole Porter once remarked that she “sounded like a brass band going by.”

Arturo Toscanini on hearing her voice thought he was listening to a castrato!

The woman in question was the inimitable Ethel Merman. Born this day, January 16, 1908, she was an American musical comedy performer, known primarily for her powerful mezzo-soprano voice and brassy style in musical theatre.

Ethel Merman

Publicity Still – Call Me Madam   –  Ethel Merman  1967  –  Coloured by Loredana Crupi

On stage she was a force of nature oozing so much energy that she never needed a microphone. She could belt out a tune with gutsy precision of enunciation and pitch.

Hailed as “the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage,” she never took any singing lessons. In fact, Broadway legend holds that George Gershwin advised her never to take a singing lesson after she brought the house down singing I Got Rhythm in his Broadway production of Girl Crazy (1930).

Among the many standards introduced by Merman in Broadway musicals are Everything’s Coming Up Roses, Some People, Rose’s Turn, I Get a Kick Out of You, It’s De-Lovely, Friendship, You’re the Top, Anything Goes, and There’s No Business Like Show Business, which later became her theme song.

Although she was more suited to the stage, she did make 14 movies including Alexander’s Ragtime Band, There’s No Business Like Show Business and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Merman was notorious for her swearing. In the video documentary, Sondheim on Sondheim, Composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim recounts the time Merman was rehearsing for a guest appearance on The Loretta Young Show. Warned of Young’s no-swearing policy on set, Merman would have to pay $1.00 into a curse box each time she swore. As she was getting into an ill-fitting gown, Merman let out, “Oh shit, this damn thing’s too tight.” Young swiftly thrust her curse box at her and said, “Come on Ethel, put a dollar in. You know my rules.” Merman reportedly replied, “Ah, honey, how much will it cost me to tell you to go fuck yourself?!”

Merman died from a brain tumour at her Manhattan home in 1986 at the age of 76. On the evening of Merman’s death, all 36 theatres on Broadway dimmed their lights at 9 p.m. in her honor.

She was awarded 2 Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Motion Pictures at 7044 Hollywood Boulevard; and for Recording at 1751 Vine Street in Hollywood, California.

I leave you today with video clip from the 1953 musical, Call Me Madam where you can enjoy her booming voice!

Performing Irving Berlin’s I Hear Singing and There’s No One There in a duet with another giant of musical comedy, Donald O’Connor. Warning: this song will probably stay with you all day!



 “In the second chorus of “I Got Rhythm”, I held a high C note for 16 bars while the orchestra played the melodic line – a big, tooty thing – against the note. By the time I’d held that note for four bars, the audience was applauding. They applauded through the whole chorus and I did several encores. It seemed to do something to them. Not because it was sweet or beautiful, but because it was exciting. Few people have the ability to project a big note and hold it. It’s not just a matter of breath; it’s a matter of power in the diaphragm. I’d never trained my diaphragm, but I must have a strong one. When I finished that song, a star had been born. Me.”   –  Ethel Merman  [on the show that made her a star, Gershwin’s Girl Crazy (1930)]

This entry was posted in Colorization, Colourisation, Film, Hollywood, Jazz, Photography, USA, Women, Women in Film & TV and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Ethel Merman – First Lady of Musical Comedy

  1. Pingback: Ethel Merman | Top Image Quotes

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