Ethel Merman was an American actress and singer. Known primarily for her powerful voice and roles in musical theatre, she has been called “the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage.” Among the many standards introduced by Merman in Broadway musicals are “I Got Rhythm”, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “It’s De-Lovely”, “Friendship”, “You’re the Top”, “Anything Goes”, and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, which later became her theme song.
Merman was born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann in her maternal grandmother’s house located at 26-5 4th Street in Astoria, Queens, in New York City. Her father, Edward Zimmermann, was an accountant with James H. Dunham & Company, a Manhattan wholesale dry-goods company, and her mother, Agnes, was a school teacher. Zimmerman had been raised in the Dutch Reformed Church and his wife was Presbyterian, but shortly after they were wed they joined the Episcopalian congregation at Church of the Redeemer, where Merman was baptized. Her parents were strict about church attendance, and every Sunday she spent the day there, first at morning services, followed by Sunday school, an afternoon prayer meeting, and an evening study group for children.
Merman attended P.S. 4 and William Cullen Bryant High School, where she pursued a commercial course that offered secretarial training. She was active in numerous extracurricular activities, including the school magazine, the speakers’ club, and student council, and she frequented the local music store to peruse the weekly arrivals of new sheet music. On Friday nights the Zimmerman family would take the subway into Manhattan to see the vaudeville show at the Palace Theatre, where Merman discovered Blossom Seeley, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, and Nora Bayes. At home she would try to emulate their singing styles, but her own distinct voice was difficult to disguise.
After graduating from Bryant in 1924, Merman was hired as a stenographer by the Boyce-Ite Company. One day during her lunch break, she met Vic Kliesrath, who offered her a job at the Bragg-Kliesrath Corporation for a $5 increase above the weekly $23 salary she was earning, and Merman accepted the offer. She eventually was made personal secretary to company president Caleb Bragg, whose frequent lengthy absences from the office allowed her to catch up on the sleep she had lost the previous night when she was out late performing at private parties. During this period Merman also began appearing in nightclubs, and it was at this time she decided the name Ethel Zimmerman was too long for a theater marquee. She considered combining Ethel with Gardner or Hunter, her grandmother’s maiden name, but finally abbreviated Zimmerman to Merman to appease her father.