Family & Companions
David Merrick's gift for producing scores of wildly successful plays and musicals was not the only factor that assured him a place in the annals of Broadway. Dubbed the 'Abominable Showman', the Tony Award-winning producer was equally well-known for his hot temper, abrasive personality, multiple stormy marriages and outrageous publicity stunts as he was for the popularity of the shows he financed.
Among the nearly 90 works he brought to Broadway during his nearly five-decade-long career were "Gypsy" (1958), "Oliver!" (1962), "Hello, Dolly!" (1963) and "42nd Street" (1980).
In addition to backing some of the longest-running and most beloved shows in American history, Merrick also helped launch the careers of singer/actress Barbra Streisand, writer/actor Woody Allen, and countless others, and his productions gave some of Broadway's grand dames and leading men their signature roles.
Merrick has also been credited with revolutionizing the way in which New York shows were publicized. He has often been recognized for his creativity, as well as the sheer courage it took to pull off some of the most daring, yet effective, publicity stunts ever attempted .
The youngest of six children born to a salesman and his wife, David Merrick was born David Margulois and raised in St Louis, Missouri. His parents, Samuel and Celia Margulois, divorced when he was seven and he spent what he later described as a Dickensian childhood with various relatives. Although he never publicly revealed the details of his younger years, in his adult life he refused to even take flights whose routes passed over St Louis for fear he might be forced to land in his hometown for some reason.
Always a good student, Merrick won a scholarship to Washington University earning a Bachelor of Arts degree, before continuing his formal education at St Louis University where he studied law.
After graduation, he married Leonore Black, a woman whom he had met in school. Merrick and his new bride used her inheritance money to leave St Louis in 1939 and start a new life in NYC, where Merrick began what would become his legendary career producing Broadway shows.
A year after arriving in the Big Apple, Merrick offered to invest $5,000 in a James Thurber comedy prominent Broadway producer Herman Shumlin was financing. The play, called "The Male Animal," was a hit and Merrick saw a $20,000 return on his investment. It was then that he decided to change his name from David Margulois to David Merrick. He once said he chose the name as a tribute to the great 18th-century actor David Garrick.
Merrick co-produced his first play "Bright Boy" in 1945, but his producing efforts did not attract much attention until 1949 when he backed "Clutterbuck." Although the comedy received tepid reviews, it is worth noting because this was the first time Merrick hinted at the lengths to which he would go to promote one of his shows. Merrick called dozens of local hotel bars at cocktail hour and asked bartenders to page a fictitious "Mr. Clutterbuck." He also offered discount tickets for the show. The joke--and the cheap price of admission--were popular with audiences and the show stayed open for another six months.
Merrick resorted to more audacious maneuvers when he sought publicity for his first major Broadway show, the musical "Fanny" in 1954. He plastered men's room walls all over town with suggestive stickers that inquired, "Have You Seen Fanny?" He also ran radio and TV spots and took out full-page ads in newspapers to promote the show--effective tactics seldom used at the time for publicizing a Broadway play or musical. He even hired an artist to sculpt a life-size nude statue of a belly dancer that appeared in "Fanny," then planted it in Central Park in the middle of the night and tipped off cops and reporters so they could "discover" it at daybreak. Merrick's little scheme worked and "Fanny" made back its investment in 17 weeks, then enjoyed a two-year run.
While most people agreed that Merrick was a shrewd businessman whose unconventional--and at times unethical--means of promoting his shows were effective, those who had to deal directly with him complained that he was unpleasant to be around. He harassed and humiliated theater critics who didn't like his shows, sometimes banning them from performances and always bad-mouthing them around town.
In 1961, he wined and dined audience members with the same names as NYC's most powerful theater reviewers so he could get them to make kind remarks about his critically panned musical "Subways Are for Sleeping." He then used the phony accolades in an ad campaign, leading people to believe the real critics loved the show.
Merrick also fought constantly with actors, directors and writers and his relationships with other producers such as Alexander H Cohen and creative teams like Rodgers and Hammerstein were more like feuds than healthy rivalries. He was quoted as saying about his fellow theater producers: "There's a horse's ass for every light on Broadway," and "It's not enough that I should succeed--others should fail.
Merrick bucked tradition and bent long-accepted Broadway rules when it suited him. For instance, in 1969, he angered other producers and theaters when he decided to start performances of his show, "Promises, Promises" at 8 PM instead of 7:30 PM--minutes later than all of the other productions on Broadway. Merrick insisted that he merely wanted his audiences to have more time to enjoy their suppers. In reality, people turned up at the theater where his show was playing after they couldn't get tickets to any of the other Broadway productions. He bluntly acknowledged that he would do whatever necessary to ensure the success of his projects. Asked why he was reputed to be so mean, Merrick replied: "Because I am mean--what else"?
But one point nobody could argue with was that the irascible impresario knew how to produce a good show, then get people into the theater to see it. By 1958, Merrick had four productions--"Jamaica," "Romanoff and Juliet," "Look Back in Anger" and "The Entertainer"--playing at the same time on one block of 45th Street, earning the location the nickname "Merrick Parkway."
When ticket sales for "Look Back in Anger" began to wane four months after it opened, Merrick paid an actress $250 to run up onstage during a performance and attack one of the actors in an effort to spark more interest in the show. The woman's outburst made headlines in the local papers for three weeks before Merrick admitted it was all a publicity stunt he had devised. But audiences didn't seem to mind being duped. In fact, they flocked to the theater to see the drama and the play ran for another 15 months.
Merrick chose a different tact in trying to boost ticket sales for "Hello, Dolly!" after audiences seemed to be tiring of the four-year-old musical in 1967. He replaced the entire company with an all-Black cast headed by Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway. The transfusion of talent revitalized the show and audiences came back to rediscover the musical's magic.
Merrick was at the highpoint of his career in the 1960s. Featured on the cover or Time magazine in 1966, he financed more than 30 stage productions during that decade and was estimated to have employed about 20 percent of Broadway's workforce. He also won Tony Awards for producing "Becket" (1961), "Luther" and "Hello, Dolly!," (both in 1964), "Marat/Sade" (1966), "Travesties" (1967), and "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" (1968).
It was also during this era that he helped launch the careers of an unknown actress/singer, 19-year-old Barbra Streisand. Streisand had a small part in the 1962 musical, "I Can Get It for You Wholesale." Merrick also gave neurotic New York playwright Woody Allen a break and produced his work "Don't Drink the Water" in 1966. The producer introduced Allen to Broadway as an actor in the 1969 show "Play It Again, Sam."
Merrick produced half as many plays and musicals during the 70s as he did in the 60s. That was partly because he had decided to try his hand at producing films, something he had long been interested in. In the late 50s and early 60s he owned a considerable amount of stock in Twentieth Century Fox and was said to have been part of a group who wanted to take over the studio. The coup was unsuccessful and Merrick waited until 1972 to work in Hollywood. His first movie was "Child's Play," familiar territory since he had financed a stage production of it two years earlier. He followed up the effort with the 1974 flick "The Great Gatsby," probably his most famous movie, followed by two Burt Reynolds vehicles, "Semi-Tough" (1977) and "Rough Cut" (1980), both of which garnered respectable reviews from critics.
Frustrated by the fact that most movies are made by committee with many people making the decisions rather than having one person in charge of everything, Merrick quit the movie business and once again focused his energy on the theater.
In 1980, Merrick produced the musical "42nd Street" and pulled one of his most infamous stunts. He announced at the curtain call on opening night that Gower Champion, the show's beloved choreographer and director, had died just hours before the performance. Despite a heart-wrenching first night, the show became a blockbuster hit, won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and ran for nine years and 3,500 performances. "42nd Street" was seen by many as Merrick's last great achievement.
Merrick's illustrious career pretty much ground to a halt in 1983 when he had a stroke at the age of 71. Left him confined to a wheelchair, barely able to speak, he communicated through an interpreter. His lawyer's receptionist, Natalie Lloyd, served as his business partner, translator and live-in companion for more than a decade before she became his fifth wife in November 1999.
Merrick produced his last show, a stage version of the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein movie "State Fair," in 1996. The show flopped, however, making it a sad end to a brilliant career. True to form, Merrick tried to create a buzz on the show by suing the Tony Awards committee for ruling the show's score ineligible for Tony consideration. Merrick spent his final years in similarly ridiculous--and fruitless--legal battles.
Left St Louis with first wife, Leonore Beck, and headed for NYC
Invested $5,000 in James Thurber's comic play,"The Male Animal", which became a huge hit; saw a $20,000 return on his investment
Paid homage to the great 18th-century English actor, David Garrick, by adopting name of David Merrick
Co-produced first Broadway show, "Bright Boy"
Became general manager for director and producer Herman Shumlin
Produced play, "Clutterbuck", which ran for six months despite lukewarm reviews from theater critics
Used outrageous publicity stunts to sell tickets for "Fanny", his first major Broadway musical which starred Ezio Pinza and Florence Henderson
Produced successful stage version of Thorton Wilder's "The Matchmaker", which would later serve as the basis for the Tony Award-winning musical "Hello, Dolly!"
Boosted ticket sales for "Look Back in Anger" by hiring an actress to pose as an audience member and attack an actor during a performance
Produced "Romanoff and Juliet" and "Jamaica"
Backed "The Entertainer" and "The World of Suzie Wong", "La Plume de Ma Tante", "Epitaph for George Dillon", Destry Rides Again", "Gypsy" and "Maria Golovin"
Boosted ticket sales for his production of "The World of Suzie Wong" by hiring protesters to picket outside theater where Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song" was playing; the "demonstrators" claimed racial stereotypes were being exploited in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical
Financed "The Good Soup", "Irma La Douce", "Vintage '60", "A Taste of Honey", "Becket", and "Do Re Mi"
Won Tony Award for producing the Jean Anouilh play, "Becket"
Produced "Carnival!", "Sunday in New York", "Ross", and "Subways Are for Sleeping"
Wined and dined audience members with the same names as NYC's most powerful theater critics so he could get them to make kind remarks about his critically panned musical "Subways Are for Sleeping"; then used the encomia in an advertising campaign
Produced the musical "I Can Get It for You Wholesale", which helped launch the career of 19-year-old supporting player Barbra Streisand; also financed "Stop the World - I Want to Get off", "Tchin Tchin" and "Oliver!"
Produced "Hello, Dolly!", "Rehearsal", "Luther", "110 in the Shade", and "Arturo Ui"
Honored with two Tony Awards for produciong the musical "Hello, Dolly!" and the play "Luther"
Backed "Oh, What a Lovely War"
Produced "Pickwick", "The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd", "Inadmissible Evidence", "Cactus Flower", and "Marat/Sade"
Appeared on the cover of Time magazine
Produced "Don't Drink the Water" and "I Do! I Do!"
Replaced entire cast of "Hello, Dolly!" with an all-black company headed by Pearl Bailey
Financed "How Now, Dow Jones", "The Happy Time", and "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"
Won Tony for producing the Tom Stoppard play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"
Produced "Forty Carats"
Backed "Promises, Promises", "Play It Again, Sam", and "Private Lives"
Backed a stage production of "Child's Play"
Financed "Four in a Garden", "A Midsummer Night's Dream", and "The Philanthropist"
Backed "There's One in Every Marriage", "Moonchildren", "Sugar" and "Vivat! Vivat Regina!"
Served as producer of the film version of "Child's Play"
Produced the play "Out Cry"
Financed stage productions of "Mack and Mabel" and "Dreyfus in Rehearsal"
Produced film version of "The Great Gatsby", starring Robert Redford
Backed "Very Good Eddy, "Travesties" and "The Misanthrope"
Honored with Tony Award for producing the Tom Stoppard play "Travesties"
Produced movie "Semi-Tough", the first of two movies starring Burt Reynolds
Financed the blockbuster musical "42nd Street"; announced at the curtain call on opening night that Gower Champion, the show's director and choreographer, had died earlier that day
Produced second Burt Reynolds film, "Rough Cut"
Won Tony for Best Musical for "42nd Street"
Produced stage play "I Won't Dance"
Had stroke and was confined to a wheelchair, barely able to speak
"42nd Street" closed after 3,500 performances
Produced the critically panned musical revival, "Oh Kay!"
Helped finance last musical production, "State Fair", a flop based on the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein movie; sued the Tony Awards for ruling the show's score ineligible for award consideration