Mary Martin (1913-90) is certainly one of the first performers I knew primarily as a stage star. This is because she’s only in a handful of movies, none of them blockbusters or enduring classics. But there was a legend that went with her name and I would see her on television or on the jackets of Broadway cast albums.
Martin was already married and pregnant by age 17. (The son she was carrying was none other than Larry Hagman! For real!) That Martin transcended these trappings and was able to pursue her dreams nonetheless is an inspirational story. After leaving her posh Nashville finishing school (where she used to imitate Fanny Brice in school productions) she studied at the Fanchon and Marco School of the Theatre. She then opened a dance studio of her own in her native Texas but a religious wacko burned it down.
In 1936 Martin left her family and headed out to Hollywood to break into show business. Initially she got engagements at major presentation houses like the Fox Theatre in San Francisco and the Paramount in Los Angeles. Within a matter of months she was spotted at an audition by Oscar Hammerstein II and her career took off. She broke into theatre, film and radio almost simultaneously. Cole Porter’s Leave it to Me (1938-39) was her first Broadway show, giving her the opportunity to share a stage with heavy hitters such as William Gaxton, Victor Moore, and Sophie Tucker. Another 11 Broadway shows followed, including the original production of One Touch of Venus (1943-45), South Pacific (1949-54), and The Sound of Music (1959-63). She may be best remembered for her signature role as Peter Pan in the eponymous musical (1954-55), which she played again on television in 1955, 1956 and 1960. She was also in tv productions of The Skin of Our Teeth (which she’d also done on Broadway), Born Yesterday and Annie Get Your Gun.
Martin’s dozen or so films include The Great Victor Herbert (1939), Kiss the Girls Goodbye (1941), Birth of the Blues (1941), Star Spangled Rhythm (1943), and Night and Day (1946). On radio she sang regularly on The Tuesday Night Party (1939), Maxwell House Coffee Time (1940), and Kraft Music Hall (1942) where she replaced Connie Boswell.
Through the end of the 1960s she was constantly on stages, either on Broadway or on tour. By the 1970s, the pace began to slacken. In 1982 she was in a terrible car accident, caused by a drunk driver in another vehicle. Her manager died in the crash. Martin suffered a couple of broken ribs, and friend Janet Gaynor, also in the car, died two years of complications from her injuries.
Nothing daunted, Martin continued to work, almost to the last. Her final TV credits are in episodes of The Love Boat (1983) and Hardcastle and McCormick (1985). In 1986 and ’87 she toured with Carol Channing in a production of James Kirkwood’s comedy Legends. Cancer took her 3 years later at the age of 76.
To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.