Ethel Merman, A Belter From Broadway

Ethel Merman 1967

Ethel Merman, what more needs to be said?

Today’s post is written by the incomparable Fannie Cranium, who has used her pen to create more interesting characters than I’ve ever met in real life. This is her second post for the blog, but I was busy when she published her first post, so I never got to give Fannie her rightful introduction. Here it is: Fannie is awesome. We became fast friends because, well, what else can you do when someone named Fannie Cranium comments on a funny names blog? In our cast of Friends, Fannie is Phoebe, who may have been my favorite Friends character. Oh, and she writes posts about Burma-Shave starring characters named Bunny. What else needs to be said? Nothing, except the words of Fannie herself. Enjoy. – Dave

Ethel Merman, a siren of song, stage and silver screen.  Born Ethel Agnes Zimmerman in Astoria, Queens, New York in 1908. She graduated from high school in 1924 taking a job as a stenographer at the Boyce-Ite Company earning $23 a week. Moving over to Bragg-Kliesrath Corporation for a $5 a week increase and eventually promoted to personal secretary of Caleb Bragg, whose repeated absences from the office racing automobiles gave her time to catch up on the sleep she lost the previous night performing at private parties.

When she began performing at nightclubs, she thought her name too long for a marquee. She considered taking her grandmother’s maiden name, Hunter, but shortened it to Merman to pacify her father. Lucky for us.

Her next step, performing with Jimmy Durante at Les Ambassadeurs. Not long after starting she endured a tonsillectomy while fearing it might damage her voice. But after recovering she belted stronger than ever.

Auditioning in 1930 for George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy singing, “I Got Rhythm”, she was cast straightaway. After it opened George Gershwin told her, “Well, never go near a singing teacher…and never forget your shorthand.” She never did.

This might be what important shorthand looks like. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't written it myself.

This might be what important shorthand looks like. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t written it myself. (Literal translation.)

She performed in Humpty Dumpty in 1932, it opened in Pittsburg in August and closed the next month. I’m guessing irony may have helped here. Rewritten and retitled Take a Chance, it ran for 243 performances at the Apollo. By this time she earned $1,500 a week. Not bad for a stenographer during the Depression.

Fast forward to 1945, recovering from a C-Section after the birth of her second child she was offered the role of Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun which featured her now signature song, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” It ran for 1,147 performances. She went on to star with Donald O’Conner and Marilyn Monroe in the film There’s No Business Like Show Business which borrowed its name from that famous song.

Married four times, the marriage to her last husband, Ernest Borgnine, lasted 32 days. In her 1978 memoir, Merman, she included a chapter, “My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine.” It’s one blank page.

She didn’t miss a beat, in 1979 she released “The Ethel Merman Disco Album”, with the 71-year-old performer singing her Broadway hits to a disco beat. While never making the Billboard charts it was a hit, and played regularly at Studio 54 with live appearances by the star herself.

Her last film, the 1980 comedy Airplane!, she played Lieutenant Hurwitz, a shell shocked soldier who believes he’s Ethel Merman. In the performance Merman leaps out of bed belting “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” as the orderlies rush to sedate her.

Which leads me to why you’re reading this today. Last October, Dave blogged about the band Mungo Jerry and attached the video to “In the Summertime”. Planting a song worm in my brain until Ethel arrived.

Take it away Ethel and friends. . .

Tracy–Fannie Cranium’s Guide to Irreverent Wisdom

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About Fannie Cranium

Writing since she could first hold a pen, Tracy Perkins formed her alter ego, "Fannie Cranium" at the suggestion of her husband. Tracy understands smiling makes people wonder what she’s been up to.
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38 Responses to Ethel Merman, A Belter From Broadway

  1. Liz says:

    Who knew? Job well done, Miss Phoebe:-)

  2. Margarita says:

    Ethel could definitely belt it out. And I’m so happy to see I can still read shorthand! xoxoM

  3. Dave says:

    I’ve always loved Ethel for her name, but I love her peculiar stage presence as well. Babs looks bashful in that video, but Ethel is so comfortable on stage, it’s remarkable. Very impressed with the lady!

    • I love her stage presence. When she performed on Broadway, she never made eye contact with her fellow performers, always with the audience. I’m sure that’s why she rose to fame so quickly. Besides if I was as young as Babs was during that interview, all that star power in one room would leave me speechless. I take my hat off to her for holding her own.

  4. Dave says:

    Haha, I love that note about Ernest Borgnine. I wonder if he appreciated the humor of it as much as Ethel and I do 🙂

  5. amb says:

    Fannie!! This video is my new favourite thing in the history of things.

    Babs’ outfit … Judy’s hair … Ethel’s …Ethel-ness … there’s so much broadway goodness here I hardly know where to look! Loved this post. Thanks for bringing some much needed fabulousity to my day. xo.

  6. Dave says:

    Last observation before I get to work on all the stuff I have to do today… Zimmermans must have one of the best records of achieving showbiz greatness, even though they all change their names. Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan. Ethel Zimmerman became Ethel Merman. Few other names can boast that kind of success. Perhaps it’s time for a Zimmerman-themed Funny Names Theory?!?!

  7. Arto says:

    Oh, when someone with a name as good as Ethel Merman gets entangled with an Ernest Borgnine…you know something funny will come out of it. And this article might just be that thing.

  8. Reblogged this on Fannie Cranium's and commented:

    This month’s post from the Blog of Funny Names.

  9. Dave–thank you for the wonderful introduction.

  10. paralaxvu says:

    Can I just say that I saw Ethel Merman in a Broadway tour of Gypsy because my brother was the percussionist in the band? Oh for the days when singers could–and did–belt out their songs on stage and didn’t have to wear those stupid head mikes! You oculd hear Ms. Merman in the back of the theater even over the loud music of the orchestra–and my brother’s drumming;-)

    • Dave says:

      That’s so awesome! I wish I had an Ethel connection, or the chance to see her live!

      • paralaxvu says:

        Hey, I also have a Froda Brotemarkle connection, but she’s only a local Orange, CA, psychologist so I guess Ethel will have to do;-) BTW, I understand if you have to bleep out her name.

        • Dave says:

          That’s awesome! Tell her to get famous fast so we can feature her on the blog! Dr. Drew Pinsky just isn’t cutting it anymore, now that I know of Froda Brotemarkle!

  11. Dave says:

    Just rewatched that Ethel, Babs and Judy video again. It’s awesome! Hey löök! i’m typing on Ärtö’s k£yböård!.

  12. Pingback: Stevland Hardaway Judkins, aka Stevie Wonder | The Blog of Funny Names

  13. kerbey says:

    Yes, the shorthand does look like chicken scratch. I should have figured Merman was short for Zimmerman. And I already wrote of Jimmy Durante once this morning–now to read of him again! I love love love Judy Garland, so I like this video clip. Merman looks awfully svelte here.

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