The Ethel Merman Dolly dynasty reigned from March 28, 1970 – December 27, 1970. On November 30th, The New York Times announced that she was closing on December 26–then, the Sunday matinee was added!
Merman had signed for three months and after two months, Mr. Merrick said, “Look: if you play it into the middle of December 1970-at that time we will have established being the longest-running show on Broadway.” She later said, “What can I say? He was a nice man!” The Merman saga had begun at Phyllis Diller's Opening Night on December 26, 1969. Diller was excellent. She did, however, go up on a line during the restaurant scene but covered impeccably, looking at her stage left prompter in the front row: "Ha! Anybody got a line??!" The audience loved it, but Merrick in gray watch plaid suit stood stoically behind the last three rows of the orchestra which were untouched, completely empty. He was approached and Ethel Merman was suggested.
THE NEW YORK TIMES celebrated the announcement of Merman joining HELLO, DOLLY! and the record-setting performance with three headlines: "Ethel Merman Agrees to Take HELLO, DOLLY! Lead for 3 Months"; on September 8, 1970 "Dolly Replacing Liza as Fairest Lady; Show's Matinee Tomorrow to Set Record"; on September 10, 1970 "HELLO, DOLLY! Cuts Longest- Run Cake." A section of the orchestra was saved for Merman's friends and Marie Marchesani had the definitive line: "It was Merman with an extra kick." Outside the St. James a plaque was installed: "David Merrick's Production HELLO, DOLLY! celebrated its 2.718th Performance on September 9, 1970." It was the longest running musical in Broadway history.
The role of Dolly Levi in the musical was originally written for Ethel Merman, but Merman turned it down; as did Mary Martin (although both eventually played it).
On August 8, 1961 Merman wrote to the Merrick office, "Thanks for your note with the copy of THE MATCHMAKER story. However, I couldn't be less interested in another property at this time, and as far as my plans are concerned after GYPSY, who knows????" [Yes! 4 question marks!!!!] Then Jerry wrote the score and she was asked again via phone.
After turning them down, they then decided to audition Nancy Walker.
Eventually, he hired Carol Channing, who ultimately created Dolly her signature role. Director Gower Champion was not the producer’s first choice, as Hal Prince and others (among them Jerome Robbins and Joe Layton) all turned down the job of directing the musical.
Merman retired from Broadway in 1970, when she appeared as the last Dolly Levi from the original Broadway ru nIn Brian Kellow’s biography of Ethel Merman, A Life, he states that Herman made a study of all of Merman’s recordings, concluding that the role of Dolly was perfectly tailored to her talents. Herman was in Merrick’s office the day the producer made the call pitching the show to Ethel. Jerry saw Merrick go completely ashen.When Merrick hung up, he told Jerry that Merman said she would never do another Broadway show because she had spent her life in dressing rooms.
She was tired of doing Broadway and wanted to focus on film and television. If Merrick thought he could persuade her, he was wrong. Ethel never regretted her decision.
In late 1968 and 1969, Ethel concentrated on television appearances, with guest shots on The Hollywood Palace, The Carol Burnett Show, and several of the then-popular talk shows.
Try as she might to persuade the press and the public that she had “had it” with Broadway, Ethel’s level of activity in the late 1960s was not sufficient to keep her fully engaged; she had too much vitality, too much drive, and she needed a more demanding outlet than the occasional guest spot on television.
In Howard Kissel’s biography of David Merrick, David Merrick – The Abominable Showman: The Unauthorized Biography (Applause Books), he states that Ethel’s original concerns about not wanting to be compared with Ruth Gordon, creator of the role of Dolly in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, now seemed a moot point.
When Carol Channing left the show in August 1965, a long line of actresses had come in as replacements: Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, and Phyllis Diller. All had something individual to bring to the part, and Merrick revealed in the publicity value that came from announcing the next star to assume the role.
Josh Ellis, a theatrical press agent for thirty years during which he represented over 100 shows and numerous individuals, was at Ethel Merman’s opening night on March 30th, 1969. That night, local New York television critic Stewart Klein offered: “Ethel Merman in HELLO, DOLLY! is a marvel and should be seen by everybody.” The role of Dolly Levi was originally written for Ethel Merman. Josh said that night was the most enthusiastic audience than ever, ever, ever was! The cart rolled in, the newspaper was up, and the audience was screaming because they knew who was behind the newspaper.
When she put the newspaper down, the audience was on its feet cheering and would not let her talk for two minutes. She finally got out the first part of “Doll…” and they cheered even more. She got a standing ovation after World, Take Me Back. She got another standing ovation after Before the Parade Passes By. It was breathless. Everything worked that night. For the title number, the curtain at the top of the stairs revealed Ethel Merman and the entire audience stands up. The number continues but the audience does not sit down. When she sang her solos, she sang solo. When the chorus came back in, the entire audience sang along with them. When the “waiters” put their hands behind them and swayed with her, so did the entire audience. When Ethel sang, the audience shuts up and listened; they knew when to join in. By the time the show was over, the audience was drenched. On top of the two additional songs that were put back in for Ethel, because of the audience’s enthusiasm, the show went an additional seven minutes.
There was no question in Josh’s mind that everyone in that audience had already seen Hello, Dolly! at least once prior to that night; probably many times before, and everyone loved it. The fact that everyone was hearing two songs they had never heard before sung by Ethel superseded any other quibbles that anyone may have had. It didn’t matter. It was such an overwhelming experience that nothing else really mattered except that it was a night to remember that would last your whole life; and that’s exactly what it did. Josh’s account is verified in Brian Kellow’s biography of Ethel Merman, A Life.
Merman ended the original run of Dolly on December 27th, 1970. It had played 2,844 performances. Skip Koenig was a caregiver to "Pop" Zimmermann [Ethel's Dad that she called "The Father"] for seven years and the best line that Merman said to Skip referred to her HELLO, DOLLY! closing. [She knew that Skip was there.] He praised the performance especially and she said: "I always give the same performance-- sometimes I give a little more.
With her bag of songs from I GOT RHYTHM through ROSES, she definitely had infinite respect for BEFORE THE PARADE PASSES BY. She chose it for 1978's SALUTE TO THE AMERICAN IMAGINATION on CBS; for TEXACO OPENING NIGHT 1982 on NBC; and of course in syndication when she re-enacted receiving the Pied Piper Award on Merv Griffin. June 24, 1982. "ASCAP presents its Pied Piper Award to Ethel Merman whose unique interpretations of some of the greatest songs in the history of the American musical theatre have earned her a following worthy of a true Pied Piper."Quite an ending to a career that began on October 14, 1930 at The Alvin Theater. The marquee was modest enough: GIRL CRAZY-- NEW MUSICAL COMEDY. But from atop The Alvin the title GIRL CRAZY was so emblazoned that it could be seen by every passerby on Broadway at 52nd Street. And there were many as 52nd Street in those Prohibition days was the Speakeasy capital of New York!
Merman’s last night on a stage anywhere was at the Peabody Auditorium in Daytona Beach, Florida. Merman’s last scheduled song became Before The Parade Passes By. She had two encores of There’s No Business Like Show Business and What I Did For Love. She thanked the audience from the “bottom of my heart.”
Memories of Merman from a fan: Mark Lord
It was July 25, 1970. I was sixteen years old and already an ardent fan of musical theater. But I had never seen a Broadway show until that day.
I handed my $2.50 ticket to the usher, who showed me to Row E Seat 111 in the balcony of the St. James Theatre. And I waited with immeasurable excitement for the curtain to rise on a performance of "Hello, Dolly!," starring the one and only Ethel Merman.
Could there have been a more auspicious way to begin a lifetime of theater-going? The horsecar pulled onto the stage to the refrain of "Call on Dolly," and, unbeknownst to me, one of the passengers was Ms. Merman herself. When she lowered her newspaper to reveal herself, she offered me the first of many indelible surprises. There she was, right in front of my eyes. It was almost too much to handle.Of course, no one needs me to state the obvious...I could hear Ms. Merman's words all the way up there in the nosebleed section. And when she started to sing, "I have always been a woman who arranges things," her voice sounded, if possible, even better than it had on all those records I had played over and over for so many years.
A couple of scenes later, she began to sing "World, Take Me Back," a song that I, along with most of the audience, I would assume, had never heard before, as it was put into the show only for Ms. Merman's rendering. That clarion voice filled the theater and filled me with immense joy. The thrill of hearing it for the first time is unforgettable. It was undoubtedly one of the highlights for me that afternoon.
Another was the scene in the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant when Dolly and Vandergelder are sitting down for a nice turkey dinner. As Ms. Merman seemingly chowed down, she began offering to share her meal with the patrons in the front row. Her comic antics came as such a pleasant surprise. And she milked it for all it was worth! Oh, how I wished I had been sitting down there within her vision.
I waited to meet Ms. Merman after the show, but that, alas, was not to be, though I did get to meet her years later at a book-signing event.
But that day all those many years ago is forever etched in my soul. (Editor's note: Thanks to Al F. Koenig, Jr. for additional information on Mary Martin and Ethel Merman.)