A few names are synonymous with the Broadway musical theater – Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, composers all. As an entertainer, one name looms large; for three decades she was the Queen of Broadway. Born on January 16, 1908, Ethel Merman belted out song after song, starting in the Gershwin musical Girl Crazy and working her way through Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun, and Gypsy to name just a few. Hello Dolly was written with Merman in mind, but she initially turned down the role, finally taking it in 1970 six years after the production opened. On her opening night as the seventh and final Dolly in the play’s run, the performance was frequently brought to a standstill by long standing ovations. Critics agreed with the audience; Walter Kerr of The New York Times described her voice: “Exactly as trumpet-clean, exactly as penny whistle-piercing, exactly as Wurlitzer-wonderful as it always was.”
When she was not appearing on Broadway, Merman enjoyed a successful movie and television career. Among the highlights were a dandy comic turn in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the role of a vaudeville family matriarch in Irving Berlin’s There’s No Business Like Show Business, whose title song became her signature.
Merman was also known for her salty language, never delivered in a whisper. Once while rehearsing for an appearance on the Loretta Young television show, she was told it would cost her a dollar each time she swore since Young disapproved of foul language. As she was fighting to get into an ill fitting gown, Merman shouted: “Oh shit, this damn thing’s too tight.” Young held out her curse box and said, “Come on Ethel, put a dollar in. You know my rules.” Merman is said to have replied: “Ah, honey, how much will it cost me to tell you to go fuck yourself?”
A few blocks north on another January 16, in 1938, the joyful noise of jazz was wowing the audience at an unlikely venue. Benny Goodman, already crowned as the King of Swing, was making the first appearance by a jazz musician at the venerable Carnegie Hall, America’s citadel of classical music. In what has come to be seen as the most important jazz concert in history, Goodman assembled his own band, which included Harry James on trumpet, Lionel Hampton on vibraphone and Gene Krupa on drums as well as stars from the Duke Ellington and Count Basie Orchestras for a look at twenty years of jazz. The concert concluded with an amazing performance of “Sing, Sing Sing” featuring an impromptu piano solo by Jess Stacy.
All recordings of the show were presumed lost until 1950 when an album made from recovered acetates became one of the first albums to sell over a million copies.