Tony Cointreau and James Russo’s Memories of Ethel Merman and Hello, Dolly!
Ethel Merman was one of the theatre’s greatest musical stars of a bygone era, who is still revered by those who saw her perform on Broadway decades ago.
Beginning in 1930, when she introduced I Got Rhythm in the show Girl Crazy and continuing through Hello, Dolly in 1970, Ethel Merman reigned on Broadway for forty years, appearing in such hits as Panama Hattie, Annie Get Your Gun, and Call Me Madam.
Tony Cointreau, heir to the French liquor company,was one of Merman’s closest pals. Cointreau befriended Merman in 1960, while she was starring in Gypsy. In 1984, Cointreau and Russo were given most of Merman’s papers and belongings by her son Robert Levitt.
Cointreau also has her ashes, which he keeps in his front closet.
Merman’s not alone in that closet. Two other urns contain the remains of her parents, Edward and Agnes Zimmermann.
And a third contains those of her daughter, Little Ethel. Tony was eighteen years old when he first met Miss Merman. He had just graduated from high school and he was taking a summer course at The Neighborhood Playhouse. It was a course for teenagers. The first day, all the kids were sitting in a row. The teacher was sitting at a desk giving a lecture.
The girl sitting next to Tony said, “My name’s Patty. What’s yours?” At the time, Tony’s name was Jacques. If my French were more fluent, I would give you the full name here. After saying he was Jacques, this Patty made a “eweee” face. He didn’t think Jacques was such a horrible name. Patty did. There was a cute young girl on the other side.
She was a little bit younger than Tony. She was seventeen and had also just graduated from high school. She had big brown eyes and a pixie haircut. She leaned over and said, “I think Jacques is a beautiful name.” They became the best of friends. Kids can do that in five minutes practically. The next two weeks they were inseparable. After two weeks, she said, “Jacques, would you like to see mom’s play?” Tony said yes. “What is she doing?”She said, Gypsy! Mom’s Ethel Merman!!” That’s where it began.
Tony was a big fan. They went to the theater and saw the show. It was very sweet when they went backstage after the performance. She was washing her face. They were backstage and only the ghost light was on on stage. Little Ethel was a very sensitive soul and she said, “Jacques, would you like to step out on a Broadway stage?” She, of course, knew he was a student of the theater. He thought that was really lovely and they walked out on stage together of the Broadway Theater which was huge. He never felt so small in his life. They went backstage and, Miss Merman then, took them to Sardi’s. All of show business heaven came over to say hello. It was a really wonderful evening.
Tony was standing in the living room waiting for Little Ethel. Six looked at Tony as if he was a cockroach had just walked into his living room, not a word.
At eighteen, you’re a little insecure. Six wasn’t making it any better. A few minutes later, a lady comes out from the master bedroom, her hair in curlers and wearing Chinese pajamas.
She puts out her hand and says in that unmistakable voice, “Hi! I’m Ethel’s mother!” After that, there was the show, Sardi’s, and on top of that, Billy Rose took them home in his Rolls Royce. It was a brilliant wonderful evening.
The following Monday Tony went to school and Little Ethel came up to him and said, “You know, If Mom can’t have you for me, I think she wants you for herself.” And that was the beginning of Ethel Merman’s friendship with Tony Cointreau. In addition to being a Broadway star, says Tony, Merman was always the little girl from Astoria, Queens.
Ethel Merman had opened in Gypsy in May of 1959 and this was June. In August, Ethel burst a blood vessel in her throat during Rose’s Turn. She was out for a week. Jane Romano, her understudy took over that week. When she came back to the show, they lowered everything a half tone. If she burst a blood vessel, who on earth could sing that score AND finish it with Rose’s Turn?
Ethel Merman divorced Bob Six in 1960 and Tony called her. At this point, Little Ethel was going to college in Colorado but Tony and Merman remained in touch. They were becoming good friends. After marrying her third husband, Continental Airlines executive Robert Six, in 1953, Ethel Merman retired from performing and happily embraced the life of a Colorado housewife. Six, however, had expected her public appearances to engender publicity for the airline, and her decision to forego the limelight did not sit well with him. He urged her to accept the lead in Happy Hunting, with a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (who had written Call Me Madam) and a
score by the unknown team of Harold Karr and Matt Dubey. Merman thought the songs were weak but grudgingly acquiesced to her husband’s demands. Six wanted a Broadway star as a wife. Tony asked if he should call her Miss Merman or Mrs. Six. In her inimitable fashion she said, “Call me Ethel!” That was it from then on.
This was definitely not one of her favorite experiences in the theater. It was the first Merman show Tony ever saw. He loved it because she was so good.
As a show, the audiences still loved her and although Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times thought the score was “hardly more than adequate,” he called Merman “as brassy as ever, glowing like a neon light whenever she steps on the stage.”The critic for Time thought Merman “consistently converts vulgarity into fun” but called her triumph “a minor one, what with a book that has at best a routine brightness and a score that sometimes lacks lilt even where it seems reminiscent.”
Little Ethel died in 1967. It was heartbreaking to Ethel Merman and she and Tony grew closer.
For the purposes of this book, I would like to focus on Hello, Dolly! As most of my readers already know, when it was offered to Merman in 1963, she turned it down. She didn’t want to do anymore Broadway shows. Jerry Herman and David Merrick had called her up.
She told them she didn’t even want to hear the score because if she liked what she heard, she would regret her decision either way. Years later, Tony Cointreau, Jerry Herman, Ethel Merman, David Merrick, and Jimmy Russo were having dinner one night in Washington DC.
Tony thinks Jerry Herman is brilliant. From his dinner with Herman, Tony remembers him as being a warm, nice, gentle man. He wasn’t carried away with himself in any way, shape, or form.
In 1969, after agreeing to play Dolly to end the run, she received the two songs, Love, Look in my Windowand World, Take Me Backwhich he had originally written for her and taken out when Channing was cast. She had received these songs along with a vinyl recording as she always did. It was an orchestration. She and Tony were going out to dinner when she told him that she had received the songs that afternoon from Jerry Herman for Hello, Dolly!
She asked him if he wanted to hear them. He said ok. They went into her bedroom.
He sat in an armchair and she played these two songs for him. He held the music in his hands with lyrics and music. She leaned over his right shoulder and reading off the music and listening to the record and singing along. Tony doesn’t know if that ear is still working! Actually, she could sing very softly when she wanted to. At this point Tony is in his twenties and she is asking him his opinion on the two songs that Jerry Herman had written for her!
She had already committed by the time these two songs arrived. Merman always said, “I didn’t open Dolly but I closed it.” She agreed to a limited run. If they could get her to do it, after trying everyone else on God’s earth, they could keep the show running long enough to surpass My Fair Ladyas Broadway’s longest running show. They came to her with that premise. Originally, it was supposed to be a six month run. They eventually added three more months to that.
In order for Hello, Dolly to work, you HAVE to be in love with her. It’s in the writing and the music. When she is at the top of the stairs, it’s as if she is on top of the world. She is coming down the stairs and reencountering long lost friends. She is being so human.
Photo courtesy: Stephen Crowley
Tony asked Merman how long it took her to learn a role. Her roles were always leading lady roles after Girl Crazy. She stunned Tony when she told him she could learn a whole show in two weeks! That was amazing.
Tony has no idea whether or not she saw anyone else play Dolly.
Tony and Jimmy were both there to experience Merman’s legendary return to Broadway in 1970.
Everyone knows Dolly’s entrance is on a trolley car with a newspaper in front of her face. When she lowered the newspaper, the audience went completely insane when they saw Ethel Merman back on Broadway where she belonged. Tony and Jimmy were in the orchestra section. She later told Tony that in forty years on Broadway, it was the first time she lost her concentration. The ovation was so enormous when she made her entrance. Her father was still alive. He was in his nineties and not well. Mom Zimmerman had died. Pop Zimmerman was coming back from the bathroom and Tony ran into him.
Russell Nype who played Cornelius Hackl as of this writing is still alive and well and living in Palm Beach. Tony and Jimmy saw him last New Year’s Eve. He is ninety-three years old. He looks terrific and just like he did in Call Me Madam! It was at Marc Rosen and Arlene Dahl’s apartment. A young man answered the door and said, “I’m Russell Nype.” Tony said, “Oh no, you’re not.” He said, “Oh you must mean my father. He’s over there.”
Josh Logan once told Tony that Ethel Merman was the greatest instinctive actress he had ever worked with. That’s a huge compliment from Logan. Georgia Engel said there was a great moment each night between her and Merman where they made eye contact at the end of Dancing and it was ALWAYS a genuine REAL moment between them EVERY night.
She was very happy with the show and the company. It was already a hit and there was no question that it would continue to be so. There was not that pressure. She just did her job. It was like a typist going to the office. That was the way she did it.
Tony saw the show several times and cannot forget Ethel singing Love, Look in my Window on the passarelle. There were always tears coming down her face as she sang this song.
We now know this would be her last Broadway show but she moved on. She did several Pops concerts. She loved symphony orchestras.
Her work on stage from then on was the concert stage. It averaged about one a month. She was interested in doing a non musical drama. She continued to receive scripts. Everyone was hoping she would do something else.
Jimmy went to Georgetown University in 1963 when a new show was previewing at the National Theater, Hello, Dolly! He saw it then. He had heard or seen basically nothing about it prior to seeing the show. Not knowing anything about it and to see it like that was extraordinary. It was a wonderful experience.
Tony also doesn’t feel that Ethel Merman could deny Dolly being in the top five of her shows on Broadway. It was a great show and this one time she knew it was a great show before going into it. This was also a first to take on a role that had been played by so many actresses prior. The stories about “Birdseye Merman” are legendary. Once she “found” her character, it was graven in stone, but she gave it her all every single night.
Marcia Lewis was also in this show. Every single night, God rest her soul, she would watch Merman’s performance from top to bottom, A to Z. She was riveted in the wings watching her. Georgia Engel said it was like going to school every night to watch Merman.
Besides the opening night of Merman’s Dolly, one of the greatest nights was the famed Ethel Merman/Mary Martin Concert on May 15th1977 for the Museum of the City of New York. (See my chapter on Ken Billington). They blew the roof off of the theater over and over and over again. They both came out as Dolly to open the second act. The audience went bizerko! Can you imagine the curtain going up to reveal two staircases…Ethel Merman on one and Mary Martin on the other. Mary starts, Hello, Ethel” and Merman responds, “Well, Hello Mary” and then they start down the stairs together.
Every male star that was in New York City at the time played the waiters.
When it comes to the movie, Tony is not offended by Streisand’s performance. He feels that she is an enormously talented woman. She can sing the score and act it. It’s Barbra Streisand. It’s not Ethel Merman and it’s not Carol Channing, but he can’t fault her at all. It’s not like some of the other actresses who played Gypsy who couldn’t sing it.
Being in the audience of an Ethel Merman performance was electric. There was an electricity that went right through the audience like a thousand volts. Who on Broadway has that now? She was also very funny. She was a great comedienne both on and off stage.
Tony believes the biggest misconception that people have about Ethel Merman is that she was this tough broad that she often portrayed on stage.
The one thing that both Tony and Jimmy learned from Merman that they still carry with them to this day is loyalty and her generosity. She was so generous. You couldn’t pick up a check when you were out with her. She was always there for her friends. He was on the phone with her about five times a day. Nothing was too small to share.
Her little girl quality, Jimmy was crazy about. They would walk home from a restaurant and they would go by mannequins in store windows and she would look in the windows and create an entire scenario that would have you on your ass laughing. She would get such a kick out of that. She was like a little girl. She was also very shy.
To top an extraordinary career with Hello, Dolly, Tony doesn’t feel she could have done any better.