Entertainer. As an actress and singer, she is best remembered for her powerful, belting mezzo-soprano voice, precise enunciation and pitch in musicals, and has been called "the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage." Because stage singers performed without microphones when she began singing professionally, she had a great advantage, despite the fact that she never took any singing lessons. Born Ethel Agnes Zimmerman, her father was an accountant and her mother was a schoolteacher. She was introduced to vaudeville as a young girl when her parents took the family to Friday night performances at the Palace Theater in Manhattan, New York City, New York. After graduating from William Cullen Bryant High School in 1924, where she was involved in many extracurricular activities, she worked as a secretary while appearing in nightclubs as a singer. She met agent Lou Irwin, who arranged for her to audition for Archie Mayo, a film director under contract at Warner Brothers Studio. He offered her an exclusive six-month contract, starting at $125 per week, and she quit her day job, only to find herself idle for weeks while waiting to be cast in a film. When no film offers came, Irwin negotiated her a better deal that allowed her to perform in clubs while remaining on the Warner Brothers payroll. She was hired as a torch singer at Les Ambassadeurs, where the headliner was Jimmy Durante, and the two became lifelong friends. She caught the attention of columnists such as Walter Winchell and Mark Hellinger, who began giving her publicity. Soon afterwards, she underwent a tonsillectomy and feared it might damage her voice, but after recovering she discovered it was more powerful than ever. While performing on the prestigious Keith Circuit, she was signed to replace Ruth Etting in the Paramount film "Follow the Leader" (1930), starring Ed Wynn and Ginger Rogers. Following a successful seven-week run at the Brooklyn Paramount, she was signed to perform at the Palace for $500 per week. During the run, theatre producer Vinton Freedley saw her perform and invited her to audition for the role of San Francisco cafe singer 'Kate Fothergill' in the new George and Ira Gershwin musical "Girl Crazy." Upon hearing her sing "I Got Rhythm", the Gershwins immediately cast her, and she began juggling daytime rehearsals with her matinee and evening performance schedule at the Palace. During the run of "Girl Crazy," Paramount Studios signed her to appear in a series of ten short musical films, most of which allowed her to sing a rousing number as well as a ballad. She also performed at the Central Park Casino, the Paramount Theatre, and a return engagement at the Palace. Her next show, "Humpty Dumpty," began rehearsals in August 1932 and was a flop. It was reworked with a new script and additional songs by Vincent Youmans, and it opened as "Take a Chance" in November 1932 at the Apollo, where it became a huge success and ran for 243 performances. Following the Broadway run, she agreed to join the show on the road, but shortly after the Chicago opening she claimed the chlorine in the city's water supply was irritating her throat, and she returned to Manhattan. She returned to Hollywood in 1934 to appear in "We're Not Dressing," a screwball comedy based on the J. M. Barrie play "The Admirable Crichton." Despite working with a cast that included Bing Crosby, Carole Lombard, George Burns, and Gracie Allen, under the direction of Academy Award-winning director Norman Taurog, she was unhappy with the experience, and dismayed to discover one of her musical numbers had been cut when she attended the New York opening with her family and friends. That same year she also appeared on screen with Eddie Cantor in "Kid Millions" (1934) but it was her return to Broadway that established her as a major star and cemented her image as a tough girl with a soft heart. "Anything Goes" proved to be the first of five Cole Porter musicals in which she starred. In addition to the title song, the score included "I Get a Kick Out of You", "You're the Top", and "Blow Gabriel Blow". It opened in November 1934 at the Alvin Theatre, and the New York Post gave her rave reviews. After 8 months, she left "Anything Goes" to appear with Eddie Cantor in the film "Strike Me Pink" (1935). She appeared in the film adaptation of "Anything Goes" as a replacement for Dixie Lee when she dropped out. She did not enjoy her experience with the film and she did not perform her role on the screen as she did on the Broadway stage. She appeared in other films soon after that time, including "Happy Landing," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and "Straight, Place or Show" (all 1938). She returned to the stage in "Stars in Your Eyes," which struggled to survive while the public flocked to the 1939 New York World's Fair instead. She followed this with two more Porter musicals, "DuBarry Was a Lady," with Bert Lahr and Betty Grable, and "Panama Hattie", with Betty Hutton, June Allyson, and Arthur Treacher. In 1943 she was a featured performer in the film "Stage Door Canteen" and opened in another Porter musical, "Something for the Boys" (1943). Her next project was "Sadie Thompson," a musical adaptation of a W. Somerset Maugham short story, but she was unable to retain the lyrics and resigned twelve days after rehearsals began. In 1946 she starred as Annie Oakley in the Broadway musical "Annie Get Your Gun" (with lyrics and music by Irving Berlin) at the Imperial Theatre, where it ran for nearly three years and over 1,100 performances. It featured what would become her theme song, "There's No Business Like Show Business." In 1950 she and Berlin reunited for "Call Me Madam," for which she won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, and went on to star in the 1953 screen adaptation as well, winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for her performance. The following year she appeared as the matriarch of the singing and dancing Donahue family in "There's No Business Like Show Business," a film with a Berlin score. She took a hiatus in 1953, after marrying her third husband, Continental Airlines executive Robert Six. In 1956, at the request of her husband, she returned to Broadway and accepted the lead in "Happy Hunting." Based on the Merman name, the show opened in New York with an advance sale of $1.5 million and, despite her dissatisfaction with it, garnered respectable reviews. In May 1959 she starred in "Gypsy," which opened at the Broadway Theater, based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, and she played the role of her domineering stage mother Rose Hovick to rave reviews. Shortly afterwards, she divorced Six, after his affair with television actress Audrey Meadows became public, and she found solace in her work. Following the Broadway closing of "Gypsy" in March 1961, she embarked on the national tour. In San Francisco, she severely injured her back but continued to play to packed houses. Over the next several years, she was featured in two films, the successful "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963) and the flop "The Art of Love" (1965). She made dozens of television appearances on variety series hosted by Perry Como, Red Skelton, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, Ed Sullivan, and Carol Burnett, talk shows with Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett, and Merv Griffin, and in episodes of television's "That Girl," "The Lucy Show," "Batman," "The Muppet Show," and "Tarzan," among others. Producer David Merrick encouraged lyricist Jerry Herman to compose "Hello, Dolly!" specifically for her vocal range, but when he offered her the role she declined it. She finally joined the cast on in March 1970, six years after the production opened. On her opening night, her performance was continually brought to a halt by prolonged standing ovations and the critics unanimously heralded her return to the New York stage. She remained with the musical for 210 performances until it closed in December 1970. She received the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance for what proved to be her last appearance on Broadway. For the remainder of her career, she worked as frequently as offers were made. In 1979, she recorded "The Ethel Merman Disco Album," with many of her signature show-stoppers set to a disco beat. Her last screen role was a self-parody in the 1980 comedy film "Airplane!," in which she portrayed 'Lieutenant Hurwitz', a shell shocked soldier who thinks he is Ethel Merman. She appeared in multiple episodes of ABC television's "The Love Boat" (playing Gopher's mother), appeared on a CBS Television tribute to George Gershwin, did a summer comedy/concert tour with Carroll O'Connor, played a two-week engagement at the London Palladium, performed with Mary Martin in a concert benefitting the theatre and museum collection of the Museum of the City of New York, and frequently appeared as a soloist with symphony orchestras. In her final years, she began to become forgetful with advancing age, exhibited erratic behavior, and on occasion had difficulty with her speech. On April 7, 1983, she was preparing to leave for Los Angeles, California to appear on the 55th Academy Awards telecast, when she collapsed in her apartment. She was diagnosed with glioblastoma and underwent brain surgery to have the malignant tumor removed. She died in her sleep 10 months later at the age of 76. She was married and divorced four times, first to theatrical agent William Smith (1940 to 1941), then to newspaper executive Robert Levitt (1941 to 1952), Robert Six (1953 to 1960), and finally to Ernest Borgnine (briefly in 1964). Her hit records include "How Deep is the Ocean" (1932), "You're the Top" (1934), "I Get a Kick Out of You" (1935), "They Say It's Wonderful" (1946), "Dearie" (1950), "If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake" (1950), and "You're Just in Love" (1951).
Bio by: William Bjornstad