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. Yet 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. Born Ethel Agnes Zimmerman in Astoria, Queens, in 1908, Ethel Merman died of natural causes in her New York City apartment on this day in 1984.
“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. Of the performance that electrified the rapturous audience that night, Merman herself later said, “It seemed to do something to them, not because it was sweet or beautiful, but because it was exciting.” Legend has it that Gershwin himself rushed back to greet Merman after the curtain closed, telling her, “Don’t ever let anyone give you a singing lesson—it’ll ruin you.”
Gershwin was not alone among legendary Broadway composers in his praise for Ethel Merman. Irving Berlin, who wrote the song for which she may be most famous—”There’s No Business Like Show Business” from Annie Get Your Gun—said of Merman, “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 is going to hear every syllable.”