Mary Martin was the Broadway musical legend who portrayed Nellie Forbush and Maria von Trapp but remained best remembered as Peter Pan to a mesmerized world.
The spunky little lady from Texas who lit up stages and television studios for more than half a century became a part of American theatrical history for her starring roles in the classic stage productions of "Peter Pan," "South Pacific," "The Sound of Music" and other masterpieces.
The legend of Mary Martin began in New York in 1938 with a small part in the musical comedy "Leave It to Me," starring Sophie Tucker. Martin walked on stage and stopped the show with Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." It became the seminal song of her career.
She was only 16 and dropped out after her freshman year to marry Ben Hagman, an attorney. After a year and the birth of her now-famous son, Larry Hagman, who portrayed the hated J.R. on television's "Dallas," she regretted the early marriage and was divorced.
With her friend Mildred Woods, Martin opened a dance school in Weatherford, Texas, which flourished until the building was destroyed by fire.
"It's a sign!" she told Woods with her characteristic optimism. "Let's go to Hollywood."
They did, with Woods serving as agent for Martin, the would-be actress. They wangled screen tests — and she failed every one.
After taking singing lessons, Martin signed up for an "opportunity night" at Hollywood's old Trocadero nightclub, with the prize a two-week paying engagement.
In that audience was producer Lawrence Schwab, who signed her for what proved her Broadway break in "Leave It to Me." That was followed by a singing stint at New York's posh Rainbow Room, where critics described her as "a cute little package of dynamite."
Ironically, the New York successes opened previously closed doors to her in Hollywood. Despite her reluctance to return, she allowed Woods to talk her into signing a contract with Paramount, and made her film debut in 1939 in "The Great Victor Herbert."
A series of highly forgettable films followed — "Rhythm on the River," "Love Thy Neighbor," "New York Town," "Birth of the Blues," "Kiss the Boys Goodbye," "Star Spangled Rhythm" and "Happy-Go-Lucky."
Martin returned to Broadway to do "One Touch of Venus" and never went back to the movies.
"South Pacific," which opened in April 1949, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein and music by Richard Rodgers, featured such immortal songs as "Some Enchanted Evening" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair." It ran for 1,925 performances.
"The Sound of Music," another Rodgers and Hammerstein triumph, featured Martin singing "Do-Re-Mi" and "Climb Ev'ry Mountain." It opened in 1959 and ran for 1,443 performances.
But if Martin is remembered for a single role, that role unquestionably is the boy who wouldn't grow up, Peter Pan. It was a musical revival of the J.M. Barrie tale of the mischievous lad who took other children to his special never-land. It opened in 1954 to tumultuous reviews.
Even though it didn't have the staying power of Martin's other triumphs (152 performances), it became notched indelibly with her persona because of a live TV special in 1955 for which she won an Emmy and which has been repeated numerous times.
"Just the theater, bed; theater, bed; theater, bed. Stay in bed till 5 p.m., then do the show," was the way she once described the regimen to a Los Angeles Times reporter. "It was like being in a box. I sometimes felt like a greyhound. They'd let me out for the race and that was all."
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