Ethel Merman (born Ethel Zimmerman this day in 1908) was a middle class kid from Astoria Queens who grew up studying the styles of the great singing comediennes who played the local vaudeville houses, favorites being Nora Bayes, Fanny Brice, Blossom Seeley and Sophie Tucker. After graduating high school, she worked a brief while as a secretary and stenographer before Lou Clayton of Clayton, Jackson and Durante hired her for his nightclub. Success came early: movie contracts, attention from columnist Walter Winchell, high prestige dates on the big time Keith Circuit (including the Palace) and in presentation houses like the Brooklyn Paramount.
While Merman did make a number of films over the decades, her Hollywood career never did truly catch fire. It was on Broadway where that brassy, unforgettable belt (I think of her as the female Jolson) reigned supreme. But her remarkable career in musical comedy needs no recitation here. Today we celebrate her origins in vaudeville.
Ethel Merman passed away in 1984.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, and stars like Ethel Merman who helped keep it alive, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous