The Abominable Showman

David Merrick

The above full-page advertisement came out in the New York Herald Tribune on January 4, 1962.  All seven major theater critics in New York were, it seemed, madly in love with Subways are for Sleeping, a musical that had experienced lukewarm ticket sales at best, and badly needed some good publicity.  That same ad was due to appear in New York’s other major newspapers, but an editor at one of them noticed something strange.  The photo of critic Richard Watts (the fifth man down the list) showed a black man, and the editor knew that Richard Watts was white.  He called the other newspapers, and all of them pulled the ad.  In fact, the seven “critics” were common New Yorkers who simply shared the same name as New York’s major theater critics.  They had been paid to see the musical, and to lend their names to rave reviews about it.

Who would pull such an underhanded trick?  That wasn’t really such a hard question to answer because the producer of Subways was David Merrick, aka “the abominable showman.”  Sure enough Merrick admitted that he was behind the shenanigans, but to him, it was no big deal.  He was simply protecting his investment.  And his prank worked.  The show ran for 205 performances – not great but good enough – and Phyllis Newman won a Tony Award for her performance in it.

Though Subways (starring Carol Lawrence, Phyllis Newman, and Orson Bean) was only moderately successful many of his 80 or so plays and musicals were among the best Broadway productions of the last century.  And many were made into popular movies as well.  Merrick’s shows include Fanny (starring opera star Ezio Pinza, Florence Henderson, and Walter Slezak), Gypsy (starring Ethel Merman, Jack Klugman, and Sandra Church), Becket (starring Laurence Olivier, Anthony Quinn, and Arthur Kennedy), I Can Get It for You Wholesale (the 1961 musical that introduced theatergoers to a newcomer named Barbra Streisand, and introduced her to her future husband Elliott Gould), Oliver! (starring Georgia Browne, Clive Revill, and Bruce Prochnik as Oliver), Irma La Douce (starring Elliott Gould, and Clive Reville), Hello, Dolly (starring Carol Channing, and David Burns), Jamaica (starring Lena Horne, Ricardo Montalban, Alvin Ailey, and Ossie Davis), Cactus Flower (starring Lauren Bacal, and Barry Nelson), Promises, Promises (starring Jerry Orbach, and Jill O’Hara), and 42nd Street (starring Jerry Orbach, Tammy Grymes, and Wanda Richert).

Merrick 2

Merrick was born David Lee Margulois in St. Louis, Missouri on November 27, 1911.  His parents died when he was young, and he was raised by a sister.  David’s childhood was not happy.  In fact, in later life he would refuse to return to St. Louis or to even fly over it.  Though very interested in theater, he went to law school because he knew that lawyers could become wealthy.  He also hedged his bets by marrying a wealthy woman.  He may have married her for love, but he definitely married her because she was rich.  If this seems an unfair assessment of David Merrick, read on.

He became an attorney, but the lure of the theater was so strong that he left his law practice and moved to New York City, and changed his name from David Margulois to David Merrick.  He became so good at picking successful shows that he would often have multiple productions on Broadway at the same time, and multiple shows up for Tony nominations.  In 1966 Time magazine estimated that 20 percent of Broadway’s workforce was employed in his productions.  For several seasons Merrick had six shows on Broadway at the same time.

His stage successes were not without a cost in human terms.  He was very difficult to get along with, and was very demanding.  He also liked to play a game where he would call members of the production – usually at about 2:00 a.m. – and tell them that such-and-such was plotting against him or her.  The next day all those who had received calls would be on alert to make sure that their enemies didn’t get them.  That way Merrick remained the one person who had power over everyone.  And he was often ruthless even where his best friends were concerned.

He was always looking for a way to get publicity for his shows.  For instance in 1949 he had a show called Clutterbuck which was not doing well, so he had the nonexistent “Mr. Clutterbuck” paged by bellboys in hotel lobbies throughout New York so that the public would be more familiar with the name of the show – and then, hopefully, more likely to buy tickets for it.  But not all of his pranks were so harmless.

Howard Kissel, author of David Merrick: The Abominable Showman, an Unauthorized Biography, begins the book with this sentence: “Normally God does not concern Himself with the Broadway theater, but it is not surprising that on the one recent occasion where He came to its aid, it was a David Merrick musical.”

Kissel goes on to relate the events associated with the opening of one of Merrick’s greatest successes, 42nd Street in 1980.  Merrick had chosen his long time friend and associated Gower Champion (half of the former movie dance team Marge and Gower Champion) to direct and choreograph the musical which was based on the 1933 Warner Bros. movie of the same name.  Merrick, who always played games with the public and reviewers seemed more intent on keeping secrets about the date of the opening than usual.  When asked when the show would open, Merrick said, “The Great Man way up there has said that this show is very important for people all around the world to see in these gloomy times.  He wants to be sure the show is ready, that it can be a memorable musical.  He will give me the word when He feels the show is ready.  I am waiting for the courier to arrive.  When he arrives and gives the word, I will place an ad for the show and promptly open it.”

That courier was slow to arrive in part because there were problems.  The sets that had been used out of town were too heavy for the Winter Garden Theater and had to be rebuilt; he was determined to thwart a reporter for the New York Times who he felt was determined to do a hatchet job on him, and canceled a preview because the reporter had managed to get a ticket to it; and, most importantly, Gower Champion was ill.  Champion was plainly ill when he showed up for rehearsals, but everyone thought he simply had a virus, and he let them believe that.  If fact, he was dying from a rare form of blood cancer.   Champion told Merrick about the cancer, and said he wanted to see the show open on Broadway before he died.  Merrick assured him that he would fulfill that request.

Finally the show was set to open on August 25, 1980.  A TV station had asked to film part of the show, but was turned down by Merrick, however on the morning of the opening, someone called the station and said they could film after all – but only the curtain calls at the end of the show.  Another station was called and invited to bring a camera, but with the same stipulation.  Plainly the master showman had a plan.

Merrick kept the cast and crew busy throughout the day so that they would have little contact with the outside world.  And just before the opening, he asked the critics, who would usually rush out to file their stories, to remain seated after the curtain fell.  The audience was filled with celebrities including Ethel Merman, Joshua Logan, Henry Kissinger, Neil Simon, Joseph Papp, Joan Fontaine, Anne Baxter and Bob Fosse.  Also present were two of Champion’s children from his marriage with Marge. Gower’s second wife, Carla, was also there.

As the musical began, a few members of the audience heard rumors that Gower had died, but no one was quite sure if it was really true.  By the end of the show many in the audience knew with certainty that Champion was dead, and they applauded wildly out of respect and affection for him.  In fact, they applauded through 11 curtain calls.  Yet the cast, just a few feet away on the stage, had no idea why the applause was so raucous.

After the final curtain call Merrick somberly walked onto the stage, and made the announcement that Gower Champion had died earlier that day.  The cast members, including the leading lady, Wanda Richert, who was also Gower’s mistress, were stunned.  Jerry Orbach, who had the lead male role in the musical, called for the curtain to come down before the audience could see the cast members falling apart in grief.  You can see a clip concerning this in the embedded video below and here.

The Abominable Showman, with a little help from The Great Man, had insured that 42nd Street would have one of the longest runs in Broadway history – 8 ½ years, 3,486 performances.  Though he dodged the charge that he used someone’s death to profit his show, he later admitted to Tammy Grymes that the temptation had simply been too great.  “I couldn’t resist it,” he told her.

But that was not his last publicity stunt associated with 42nd Street.  During its last year on Broadway, the musical was not making money, while Phantom of the Opera, across the street, had sold out performances every night.  Merrick decided to start 42nd Street 15 minutes after Phantom started, and put a sign out letting theater goers who missed out on Phantom know that they weren’t too late to see 42nd Street.

Ever inventive, Merrick was incomparable in devising schemes to promote his shows.  In the summer of 1955 Fanny was on Broadway, and Merrick, wishing to get a little extra publicity, asked the U.S. Weather Bureau to replace Flora with Fanny on that year’s official list of hurricane names.  He was informed that the names had been set in February, and could not be changed.  Who, other than Merrick, would have even thought of such a stunt.

Merrick’s private life was as turbulent as his public life.  By the mid-fifties, Merrick, a shameless womanizer, had separated from his first wife.  He went on to have five more marriages (including two to Etan Aronson) and numerous affairs.  He was as ruthless toward his friends and lovers as he was to his employees and business associates.  In a rare candid moment Merrick talked about what life was like for him.  “I’ll tell you what it’s like to be No. 1,” he said in a rare candid moment.  “I compare it to climbing Mount Everest.  It’s very difficult.  Lives are lost along the way.  You struggle and struggle and finally you get up there.  And guess what there is once you get up there?  Snow and ice.”  He probably didn’t have enough insight to realize that he was largely responsible for that snow and ice.

Even the mighty David Merrick was not immune to the ravages of old age.  In 1983 he had a debilitating stroke which left him largely unable to speak, and confined to a wheelchair.  Naturally the stroke curtailed his career as a Broadway producer, yet he lived for 17 more years.  But finally, on April 25, 2000, only months after marrying for the sixth time, the Abominable Showman – dictatorial, feared, detested, yet revered – died quietly in a rest home in London.  For better or for worse, Broadway will never again see the likes of David Merrick.

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