Mary Martin soared in her fans' hearts

November 05, 1990|By Aleene MacMinn | Aleene MacMinn,Los Angeles Times

MARY MARTIN made her first big splash in show business singing a song titled "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." The truth is, her heart belonged to the audience.

Martin, who died Saturday of cancer at the age of 76, had a lifelong love affair with audiences. It was a mutual affection that washed across both sides of the footlights as she created and played such roles as Nellie Forbush (in "South Pacific"), Maria (in "The Sound of Music") and especially Peter Pan.

Peter Pan seems to be a show everyone recalls with special fondness. When Martin was guest of honor at a TV festival screening of "Peter Pan" in Los Angeles three years ago, the excitement built as men and women in their 30s -- obviously remembering the show from their childhoods -- poured in, bringing along their own little ones as if to pass on a magic legacy.

Shortly before the screening was to start, a man in one of the front rows spontaneously stood up and said to the sold-out audience: "When Miss Martin comes in, let's all stand up and crow!" ... which everyone did.

Martin immediately responsed with her own loud "er er, er errrrrrrrrh!" which set off a another round of crowing in the packed theater. When the audience at last was quiet, the actress, obviously moved, admitted: "I believe I'm rather undone. ... The amount of emotion here tonight is something I'll never forget."

She often said -- and repeated that night -- that she'd love to play Peter Pan in New York's huge Madison Square Garden "because the further up you go, the faster you can fly. I'd go out through a window, and honey, I wouldn't come back!"

When Martin was doing a show, it was the sole focus of her life. She would give up luncheons and parties and playtime because she felt she should devote all her energy to her performance. She had to be at her best, give her best to the audience.

She was intrigued and touched by what she called "The circles of my life ... how people and places always come back, a circle and a circle and a circle, dissolving and expanding, touching other circles." And indeed, people she knew and adored, and who knew and adored her, seemed sooner or later to return to her life.

She could be with heads of state, the royalty of the theater world, a fan of great or meager means. Her warmth, charm, sincerity and love touched them all.

Having lunch with her at a restaurant was rather like being in a reception line -- a constant stream of folks saying hello when they spotted her, recalling a favorite stage role, expressing their admiration. She graciously talked to each one, signed autographs, posed for snapshots.

When she was seriously injured in a traffic accident several years ago in San Francisco, she was back on her feet within a few weeks. She was hosting the television series "Over Easy" at the time, a program keyed to the over-40 generation, and she pushed herself to get back because "I have to be an inspiration for them, let them know never give up."

In recent years, with fewer stage roles occupying her life, she was able to enjoy more time with her son, actor Larry Hagman (whom she generally referred to as "my darling baby boy"), and her daughter, Heller. And she doted on the fact that she was a great-grandmother of a little girl, also named Mary.

Martin seemed never to forget that, early on, she had been told she had no talent and should go back home to Weatherford, Texas, and forget show business. But "never say never" was one of her credos, and undaunted, she tried out for so many roles that she became known as "Audition Mary." She ended up a legend.

Whether washing that man right out of her hair, or teaching "Doe, a deer, a female deer" or flying as Peter Pan, Mary Martin was the best of the best. She lived to make people happy.

At that emotion-charged, electric screening of "Peter Pan" here three years ago, she ended the evening by saying: "Thank you all for the spirit of my life. It will never end, because when I go, I'll be hanging up there as a star."

And now, not only the hills but the heavens are alive with the sound of her music.

Rigby honors Martin

Members of yesterday's matinee audience at the Mechanic Theatre were informed by Cathy Rigby, star of the "Peter Pan" that is currently playing, that Mary Martin, who had become firmly identified with the musical version of the James M. Barrie play, had died of cancer at the age of 76.

Rigby made the announcemt before the performance began when she appeared on stage in street clothing. She told the audience that those who had seen Martin perform know that she will always be a part of "the spirit and life of 'Peter Pan'." She then went on to say, "Mary Martin, we send you these lovely thoughts and dedicate this show to you."

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