Ethel Merman (born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann, January 16, 1908 – February 15, 1984) was an American actress and singer. Known primarily for her distinctive, powerful voice and leading roles in musical theatre, she has been called “the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage”.
Among the many standards introduced by Merman in Broadway musicals are “I Got Rhythm” (from Girl Crazy); “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, “Some People”, and “Rose’s Turn” (from Gypsy—Merman starred as Rose in the original 1959 Broadway production); and the Cole Porter songs “It’s De-Lovely” (from Red, Hot and Blue), “Friendship” (from DuBarry Was a Lady), and “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “You’re the Top”, and “Anything Goes” (from Anything Goes). The Irving Berlin song “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, written for the musical Annie Get Your Gun, became Merman’s signature song.
Merman was born in her maternal grandmother’s house located at 359 4th Avenue in Astoria, Queens in New York City in 1908, though she would later emphatically insist that it was actually 1912. Her father, Edward Zimmermann (1879–1977), was an accountant with James H. Dunham & Company, a Manhattan wholesale dry-goods company, and her mother, Agnes (Gardner) Zimmermann (1883–1974), was a teacher. Edward Zimmermann had been raised in the Dutch Reformed Church and his wife was Presbyterian. Shortly after they married, they joined the Episcopal congregation at Church of the Redeemer, where their daughter was baptized. Her parents were strict about church attendance, and she spent every Sunday there, at morning services, followed by Sunday school, an afternoon prayer meeting, and an evening study group for children. Her family was of German and Scottish ancestry.
Merman attended P.S. 4 and William Cullen Bryant High School (which later named its auditorium in her honor), where she pursued a commercial course that offered secretarial training. She was active in numerous extracurricular activities, including the school magazine, the speakers’ club, and student council, and she frequented the local music store to peruse the weekly arrivals of new sheet music. On Friday nights, the Zimmermann family would take the subway into Manhattan to see the vaudeville show at the Palace Theatre, where Merman saw Blossom Seeley, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, and Nora Bayes. At home, she tried to emulate their singing styles, but her own distinctive voice was difficult to disguise.
After graduating from Bryant High School in 1924, Merman was hired as a stenographer by the Boyce-Ite Company. One day during her lunch break, she met Vic Kliesrath, who offered her a job at the Bragg-Kliesrath Corporation for a $5 increase above the weekly $23 salary she was earning, and Merman accepted the offer. She was eventually made personal secretary to company president Caleb Bragg, whose frequent lengthy absences from the office to race automobiles allowed her to catch up on the sleep she had lost the previous night when she was out late performing at private parties. During this period, Merman also began appearing in nightclubs, first hired by Jimmy Durante’s partner Lou Clayton. At this time, she decided the name Ethel Zimmermann was too long for a theater marquee. She considered combining Ethel with Gardner or Hunter, which was her grandmother’s maiden name. These considerations caused her father’s ire, and she abbreviated Zimmermann to Merman to appease her father.