IF: linked

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This week’s Illustration Friday challenge word is “linked”.
It's Lieutenant Hurwitz
“There have been people who have tried to take advantage of me. They want to be linked to me just because I’m Ethel Merman.”
— Ethel Merman

That quote from Ethel Merman, about herself, is baffling. One would think a more charismatic celebrity with a more compelling appeal would say something like this about themselves. Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, even Madonna… but Ethel Merman?

Ethel Merman appeared in scores of musicals on Broadway and in the movies. She was renowned for her loud singing voice and her ability to belt out a tune. She popularized songs by George Gershwin and Cole Porter including “Anything Goes”, “I’ve Got Rhythm” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”. She appeared in 1100 performances of Annie Get Your Gun  on Broadway and later 700 performances of Gypsy, where she introduced her signature song “Everything’ s Coming Up Roses”.

Ethel was a staple in films and on television in the 60s and 70s, performing on countless variety shows and guest roles on regular series. She had a non-musical role in the huge ensemble cast of the slapstick farce It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World  in 1963. She was featured in episodes of Batman,  That Girl  and The Lucy Show.  Later, Ethel was cast in the reoccurring role of Ros Smith, Gopher’s mother on The Love Boat  anthology series. Her last film role was as shell-shocked Lieutenant Hurwitz, a soldier who believed he was Ethel Merman, in 1980’s Airplane!

Ethel was married four times, including seven years to Continental Airlines chairman Robert Six (who later married actress Audrey Meadows) and thirty-two days to Ernest Borgnine. In 1983, Ethel was preparing to leave for Los Angeles to appear at the 55th Academy Awards when she collapsed in her apartment. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had surgery to have it removed. She passed away in her sleep in early 1984.

But Ethel Merman is responsible for my celebrity death obsession. When I began art school as an impetuous nineteen-year-old, my smart-ass, “nothing is sacred” attitude was in full bloom. Before classes, a morning ritual was to scan through The Philadelphia Inquirer  with some classmates. One morning in February 1984, the front page of the newspaper was splashed with the news of Ethel Merman’s passing. The article was accompanied by a familiar photo of Ms. Merman in evening wear, her mouth wide open in song and her arms expressively outstretched to her sides. My friend Jeff and I laughed about the photo and one of us (I don’t remember which) creatively cut the picture from the newspaper as shown…
Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum
…and displayed it on a student bulletin board. We added the caption “Ethel Merman died for your sins” under the photo. Our class included two female students who had come back from summer break as born-again Christians. Needless to say, they were less than amused by our attempt at humor. Our little joke stayed on exhibit for approximately fifteen seconds.

But, that was the birth of a new and long-lasting hobby. For years now, a small group of friends and I  have competed to be the first to report to the others on a celebrity death. The announcements started out as in-person conversation or phone calls. With the advancement of technology, the preferred method of alert is the instantaneous email or text message. These notifications are usually coupled with some sort of smart-aleck remark about the recently deceased. It’s all good fun and it sure beats collecting stamps. And I have also expanded on my hobby, by visiting cemeteries where celebrities are buried. Some of these visits are chronicled HERE, HERE and HERE. My wife noted that if you go to Hollywood and follow a tour map to see the houses of the stars, there’s a likely possibility that they would not be at home. If you visit celebrities at a cemetery, you know  they’re home.

So, thanks Ethel Merman. I guess when you gave that quote, you were referring to me.




  1. I think you cut out the shape of the crucified Ethel and I added the “died for your sins” tagline.
    Those darned Born Again Christians don’t have a sense of humor, that was comedy gold!

  2. What a great illustration & story. We met while you were still in Art School and I recall thinking that this was one of the funniest “pranks” I had ever heard of. I started laughing back then in 1984 and am still laughing to this day. Too bad for Ethel Merman, but thanks for all the laughter!!

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