Astoria native Merman made her name singing on stage

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Born Jan. 16, 1908, as Ethel Agnes Zimmermann, Astoria native Ethel Merman is perhaps best remembered for her mezzo-soprano voice in numerous Broadway musicals and Hollywood films. Her musical numbers include “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “There’s no Business Like Show Business.”

Merman was born in her maternal grandmother’s house, at 265 4th St. in Astoria. She grew up in Dutch Kills near 37th Avenue and 30th Street and was baptized at the local Church of the Redeemer. The future star attended PS 4 and graduated from William Cullen Bryant High School.

After high school, she began performing at private parties and nightclubs, changing her last name to Merman so it could fit on a theater marquee. Although she had never received any formal training, the young Ethel was discovered by an agent and her star began to rise.

In 1930, she landed her first musical role in George and Ira Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy.” Merman performed to rave reviews at the Alvin Theatre, with The New York Times noting that she sang “with dash, authority, good voice and just the right … style.” Perhaps more remarkable, The New Yorker called her “imitative of no one.”

Merman went west to Hollywood in the early 1930s, but made a splash when she returned to Broadway for Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” in 1934. Returning to the Alvin Theatre, her voice graced the stage in the unforgettable scores “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “You’re the Top.” The Astoria native went on to star in four more Porter productions, including “Red, Hot and Blue” with Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope, and “Panama Hattie,” which ran for 14 months starting in 1940.

She was featured in the 1943 musical film “Stage Door Canteen” alongside cameos by countless other stars, and beginning in 1946 starred as Annie Oakley in the Rogers and Hammerstein hit “Annie Get Your Gun.” The show ran for nearly three years and 1,147 performances. The actress later won a Tony Award in 1950 for her role in the musical “Call Me Madam” and garnered a Golden Globe for the screen adaptation.

She saved perhaps her greatest effort, however, for her portrayal of the domineering mother Rose Hovick in The Broadway Theatre show “Gypsy.” Running for 702 performances starting in 1959, she was lauded by critics, with the New York Post calling her “a brilliant actress.”

In her later years, the girl from Astoria continued to appear on stage, film and television. Merman met with great success in the 1963 Hollywood comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and later guest starred on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Lucy Show,” “Batman” and “The Love Boat.” In 1970, she joined the cast of “Hello, Dolly!” in New York — her return to Broadway earning her one standing ovation after another.

She even found time to lend her talents to numerous charitable causes, singing in a benefit concert for the Museum of the City of New York and visiting patients at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital.

Merman died in her sleep in New York Feb. 15, 1984, leaving behind a legacy just as rich and varied as her career-spanning seven decades.

She once said, “I don’t want to sound pretentious, but in a funny way I feel I’m the last of a kind. Where will they find the shows like ‘Girl Crazy,’ ‘Anything Goes,’ ‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ ‘Call Me Madam’ and ‘Gypsy’? They just don’t produce those vehicles anymore.”

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Posted 1:35 am, January 26, 2012
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Reader feedback

Tom from Astoria says:
Nowadays around here she would be known as Ethel Mermanopoulos.
July 28, 2016, 9:15 pm

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