`The abominable showman'

Appreciation: Broadway impresario David Merrick's creative genius and tireless self-promotion brought blockbusters, lots of ink and a large cast of enemies.

April 27, 2000|By Frank Rich | Frank Rich,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

David Merrick, the producer whose gift for creating Broadway hits was matched only by his genius for attracting publicity and making enemies, died Tuesday in his sleep at St. George's Rest Home in London. He was 88.

For a quarter-century that ended with his last blockbuster, the musical "42nd Street," in 1980, Merrick was the dominant showman in the Broadway theater. When Time magazine put him on its cover in 1966, it estimated that 20 percent of Broadway's work force was in his employment. In a typical season during the 1960s he produced a half-dozen or more plays and musicals, on occasion as many as four in a single month. His parallel record of productivity and profitability has been unmatched by any single impresario in the history of New York's commercial theater.

His headlines were nearly as numerous as his hits. Merrick was famous for baiting critics, his own stars and his fellow producers, all to promote his wares. Frequently likened to legendary predecessors like P.T. Barnum and David Belasco, he preferred to glory in his image as "the abominable showman." A study in darkness -- with his tailored suits, sleek black hair, thin mustache, dark wit and low, insinuating voice -- he went out of his way to resemble a villain out of Victorian melodrama.

Merrick produced some of the most popular musicals of his era, including "Gypsy," "Hello, Dolly!" and "Promises, Promises," as well as "42nd Street," his longest-running show and one of the half-dozen longest-running productions in Broadway history.

Merrick also presented Laurence Olivier's most celebrated postwar performance (as Archie Rice in "The Entertainer"), the breakthrough dramas of John Osborne ("Look Back in Anger"), Brian Friel ("Philadelphia, Here I Come!") and Tom Stoppard ("Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead") and two epochal Royal Shakespeare Company productions directed by Peter Brook ("Marat/Sade" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream").

David Merrick arrives

The producer's secretive private life was as complex and contradictory as his theatrical credits. "I was born on Nov. 4, 1954, the night my first big show, `Fanny,' opened on Broadway," Merrick once said. In truth, he was born in St. Louis on Nov. 27, 1911, as David Margulois, the youngest child of a hand-to-mouth salesman, Samuel, and his wife, Celia.

A good student, he won a scholarship to Washington University, and then went to St. Louis University, where he studied law.

Upon graduation, he did become a lawyer, but, more crucially, he married a woman he'd met in school, Lenore Beck, whose modest inheritance allowed the young couple to flee St. Louis for New York in 1939. A year later, he walked into the office of Herman Shumlin, a prominent Broadway producer, and offered to invest $5,000 in a forthcoming comedy, "The Male Animal." The play was a hit, and David Merrick, taking a new name inspired by the great 18th-century English actor David Garrick, was born.

"Fanny," five years later, elevated him to Times Square stardom.

"Fanny" did not get glowing reviews, and Merrick himself was said to be disappointed in it. But he sold the show relentlessly, running radio and TV spots long before they were commonplace and taking the first full-page newspaper ads ever for a Broadway show.

Publicity bred theatergoers, and "Fanny" made back its investment in a remarkably fast 17 weeks, then ran nearly another two years.

Of his fellow producers, he was contemptuous. "There's a horse's ass for every light on Broadway," he told the writer William Goldman in 1968. Merrick didn't mind if people hated him as he battled his way to the top. Even so, he was not without his fans in the theater. Woody Allen, Arthur Laurents and Jerry Herman, among others, have praised his professionalism through the years.

The business of Broadway

By the time of "42nd Street," which brought Merrick back to New York after a brief and fruitless Hollywood sojourn producing movies like "Rough Cut" and "The Great Gatsby" during the 1970s, his Broadway had disappeared. In place of a single tyrannical producer, there were committees of producers, often investors and theater owners.

These new producers were "bereft of ideas, vitality and imagination," Merrick said. "They're just businessmen who happen to be in the theater."

What made Merrick run? For all the money he earned, and for all his efforts to keep every last dollar of it, there is no evidence he enjoyed his fortune.

One friend recalled a rare occasion in the early '70s when Merrick briefly let down his guard and explained why even his enormous success had failed to lighten his spirit. "I'll tell you what it's like to be No. 1," the producer said. "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."

In addition to his marriage to Leonore Beck, Merrick was married to Jeanne Gilbert, whom he met when she was doing press relations for the Savoy Hotel in London; Etan Aronson; Karen Prunczik, a dancer who played Anytime Annie in the original cast of "42nd Street"; and then again to Aronson.

Merrick is also survived by his children, Cecilia Ann Merrick, whose mother was Jeanne Gilbert, and Marguerita Merrick, daughter of Etan Merrick.

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