This is going to be a new feature on LatinoLikeMe. It’s a short remembrance written for the anniversary of the passing of somebody noteworthy.
While it will have nothing necessarily to do with Latinos or Chicanos, it is all about me. History isn’t just my job, it’s my obsession. I was a young, gen-X Chicano coming of age in southern California in the 80s, and I lived much of my cultural life reveling in the significance of my present moment. I thought historically, and tried to organize the meaning of the daily events of my life in historical ways.
The deaths of famous people (or not so famous people whose significance I could discern) were standout moments, times whose powerful meanings were seemingly obvious. Plus, I had a fascination with famous people dying.
So, today–February 15–we mark the 25th anniversary of the passing of Broadway legend Ethel Merman. The loud and somewhat visually-eccentric woman captivated me when she visited the Tonight Show, or when I saw her on any show, really. By the time I entered consciousness she was certainly passed her heyday (having retired from the stage that brought her more than thirty years of fame in 1961), but Ethel Merman still captivated an audience with all the power of her place in entertainment history.
I wasn’t a big fan of musicals, and until my late teen years I had never seen a proper “show,” but Ethel Merman kind of demanded you watch her when she took the stage. You see, she could sing. And she did so, loudly. Famed composer Irving Berlin once said of Merman (who had no formal musical training):
You give her a bad song and she’ll make it sound good. Give her a good song and she’ll make it sound great. And you’d better write her a good lyric. The guy in the last row of the balcony is going to hear every syllable.
Here’s Merman performing her signature tune, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
When Merman passed away in 1984, I remember thinking how something big had ended. That might have been the melodramatic inclination of this 12 yeard-old Hollywood fanatic, but it wasn’t far from the mark.