By Stanley Paul
Whether or not you like the voice of Ethel Merman, she undoubtedly introduced more Broadway hits than anyone: she really was the queen of musical comedy for over 40 years. Her first Broadway show was a 1930 George Gershwin hit called Girl Crazy, the show that made her a star. “Don’t ever take singing lessons Ethel… you’ll ruin your voice!” Gershwin advised her after hearing her stop the show with the song “I Got Rhythm”.
Cole Porter – who would write four shows for her – once remarked that she sounded like a brass band going by. Ethel Merman performed in an age before microphones, so her booming voice was a huge asset: it could swell through a whole theater with force! This is a big part of why music legends like Gershwin, Porter, and Irving Berlin took such a liking to her.
For a very long time, I’d dreamed of meeting and playing for this entertainment icon; over the years, I tried to learn every song she’d ever introduced. And one night, many years ago – as I led the orchestra in the Pump Room – my wish was granted. I couldn’t believe I was finally going to get the chance to play for the Ethel Merman, the musical comedy legend herself!
From the bandstand I saw her sitting in booth one, and for over an hour that evening, I played a veritable “Merman Marathon,” fitting in every piece of hers I could remember… which was a lot. Then, during my break, Eddie Bragno, her escort for the evening – and owner of the famous Chicago wine shop on the corner of Walton & Rush – walked up to the bandstand with her on his arm: “Stanley, I’d like you to meet Ethel Merman.”
Her first words to me were, “Well, I’ll be damned! You certainly know all of my stuff! Christ, you even played the songs that got cut before they made it to Broadway!”
“THAT VOICE!” I thought. “My God! She’s even louder in person!” I was certain that when Merman spoke, the deaf could turn off their hearing aids!
“Ya know, I’m opening tomorrow night in the Empire Room at the Palmer House! So, why don’tcha come by to see my show?”
The next night, I arrived at the Empire Room a few minutes after the show began, and found out that it was completely sold out. So, I spent the evening standing in the back near the exit with the Maître d’. The performance – in which she sang all of her greatest hits from over the years – was brilliant, receiving a well-deserved standing ovation. But loud! As I was about to make my exit, she walked straight up to me as she was taking her bows and said in the boisterous way that only she could: “Hey you! Piano player from the Pump Room! You can tell ‘em I’m leavin’! They can get another girl singer!”
“Girl singer?” I’m thinking to myself. “Yeah… WHEN STATE STREET WAS A PRAIRIE!”
“That damn spotlight was makin’ all these cracklin’ noises!” she yelled. “And this f***ing cordless mike they stuck in me is getting all kinds of feedback!”
I couldn’t help but think, “Who in the world thought it was a good idea to mike Ethel Merman in this room? You wouldn’t have had to give her a microphone in Soldier Field!”
Her conductor was a man named Stan Freeman, an old friend of mine from my early New York days. “So, how’s it going, Stanley?” he asked me. I didn’t have time to reply before Merman bellowed, “So, it’s Stanley, is it? Well, I’m having a few people up to my suite, so why don’t you come up and join us?”
“Thanks Miss Merman,” I said in a flash of nervous excitement. “I’d love to.”
“What’s with the Miss Merman?” she practically shouted at me. “It’s Ethel!”
When we got to the suite, we did our best to calm her down, but she was as filled with loud energy as ever, then she started tugging on her dress, I asked her, “Miss Merman, I mean Ethel, how do those cordless microphone’s work?” “Ya see, it goes through my bra! Through my foundation! Through everything!” She proceeded to demonstrate exactly where the cordless mikes wandered. I had been in her suite but 15 minutes, and not only were we already on a first-name basis… she was even showing me her underwear!
After a couple of days had passed, my phone rang, and the first word I heard nearly blew out my ear drum: “STANLEY!” Proceeding to hold the phone a good two feet from my ear, I heard the rest of her words roar out: “It’s Ethel! I’m supposed to go to a damn fancy dinner party tonight! It’s at that joint in the basement next to your hotel! Why don’tcha tag along for the ride?”
That so-called “joint in the basement” was Maxim’s: probably the single-most glamorous restaurant in all Chicago at the time. Its table settings were characterized by perfect floral arrangements, the vintage wine never stopped flowing, and the French dishes they served were paired with exquisite sauces.
That night, I had been enjoying my entrée for only a minute when Merman poked me in the ribs and whispered (it was more like a stage-whisper): “Ya know I can’t stand this French crap they call wine that they’re serving! Gallo Chablis is my cup of tea, and you don’t hafta try to get that damn cork out either. Ya just screw off the top and drink it!”
Truly, there was only one Ethel Merman.