Ethel Merman was a brazen, bellowing, belle of Broadway who proved the adage that there is indeed No Business Like Show Business.
A woman with no background, uneducated, foul-mouthed and a bargain-basement shopper, Merman still became a national treasure. What she had was a personality with more brass than an Army band and a voice to match.
Her career in show business got its start when she took a stenographic position as personal secretary to Caleb Bragg at the Bragg-Kliesrath Co. Bragg, enamored of show business and celebrities, numbered several producers and agents as social cronies.
Ethel parlayed her employer's contacts into an agency contract with Lou Irwin. Irwin boasted Helen Morgan and the Ritz Brothers among his clients, which impressed Merman. A Warner Bros. contract followed, but Merman was never very successful in movies. With the exception of "Call Me Madam," she simply did not come across on film as she did on stage. She would never admit the truth, however, and always said that "Hollywood never gave me a break."
Broadway was another story. From the moment she stepped before the footlights on Oct. 14, 1930, in George and Ira Gershwin's "Girl Crazy" and belted out "I Got Rhythm," her place in the annals of show business was assured. Shows in which she starred read like a "Who's Who" of the Broadway musical: "Anything Goes," "Red, Hot and Blue," "Du Barry Was a Lady," "Panama Hattie," "Annie Get Your Gun," "Call Me Madam," "Happy Hunting" and "Gypsy." These were only the highlights of her unparalleled reign as "Queen of the Broadway Musical."
When the curtain fell on "Gypsy" in 1961 after 702 performances, Merman vowed it would be her last Broadway show. She later reprised a couple of her older hits and once took over "Hello, Dolly!" for a season, but never appeared in another "original" musical.