Saturday, August 15, 2009

STARSTRUCK/Merman brings the house UP

By Steve Crum

ETHEL MERMAN [1908-84], The Grande Dame of the Broadway Stage, belted out at Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre during the hot and humid summer of 1968. She was in town for a week long run of her Broadway hit musical, Call Me Madam. My senior year at Emporia State was coming soon, and I was working once again as a resident camp counselor at Camp Lake of the Woods in Swope Park. I took the evening off to see the great Merm in person at KC’s legendary outdoor theater, also located in Swope Park. It was less than a mile from my camp.

Merman played Sally Adams in Call Me Madam, a role for which she earned a 1951 Tony. Although the Irving Berlin scored play was very dated by 1968 with numerous Harry Truman jokes [he was prez in '51] and post-WWII atmosphere, it was and remains a Merman classic. She even starred in a feature film version.

Opening night at the Starlight, however, there was a technical difficulty. Merman’s first number, sung stage center, face to the audience, was The Hostess With the Mostes’ on the Ball [“I was born on a thousand acres/Of Oklahoma land...”]. Merman’s microphone was dead. But that did not stop her. She obviously did not require a mic, as her booming voice projected out, up and around, penetrating the eardrum of every audience member in sight. Sitting three rows from the stage, I could really hear every Merman murmur, despite the sound glitch.

Then, around the lyric line, “And in Washington I’m known by one and all/As the hostess with the mostes’ on the ball,” the theater sound system kicked in, and Merman’s belting opened up another 10 notches. The audience, including yours truly, collectively jumped six inches in our seats. Merman never stopped, never hesitated. And the audience applauded her even more for it.

I figured this would be the only chance ever to see Merman in person, and it was. What a sensational performer, and memorable evening.
For a clip of Ethel Merman singing with Donald O'Connor from the film Call Me Madam, follow this link:

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