Broadway Producer David Merrick Came a Long Way from St. Louis
There was a time when the two most feared words in the Broadway theater were David Merrick. Not only was Merrick Broadway’s most prolific producer, he was its most ferocious, a man who seemed to delight in chewing up writers, directors and stars (or at least their egos) and spitting them out. He was not nicknamed “the abominable showman” for nothing.
When Merrick first made his presence felt in 1954, regional theater was still in its infancy. If you wanted to see a New York show outside New York, you waited for a touring company to pass through town. During the 1950s and ’60s, the American theater was shaped by Broadway, and Broadway was dominated by David Merrick.
To paraphrase the popular song, he had come a long way from St. Louis.
For indeed, Merricke greHe was born here (as David Margulois) in 1911. Though he grew up poor, as a youngster he took solace in one enduring passion: theater. Margulois was graduated from Central High School in 1930, but he received his theater education sitting in the second balcony of the American Theater [Market Street at Seventh] and sitting in the free seats at the Muny.
Doubtless he would have witnessed the Muny’s transition to a more professionally-run operation in 1930 when Milton J. Shubert became general productions manager and promptly added a revolving stage to make the shows more efficient.
He would have seen W. C. Fields portray Cap’n Andy in the Muny’s first staging of Show Boat.
He would have seen the Muny’s historic 1942 production of The Wizard of Oz.
In 1938 Margulois married Leonore Beck, a University City high school graduate. Beck’s wealthy parents vigorously opposed the marriage. Ironically, when Margulois’ disapproving mother-in-law died in the early 1940s, a large inheritance allowed Leonore and David Margulois to change their last name to Merrick and move to New York. No more free seats for Merrick. He received a front-row theater apprenticeship as an assistant to producer Herman Shumlin.
Merrick’s first venture into producing, The Willow and I by John Patrick in 1942, only lasted four weeks. (The male lead was played by newcomer Gregory Peck.) There were other early mis-steps. Then in 1954 Merrick’s ascension began with Fanny, which he co-produced with director Joshua Logan. Merrick’s business acumen gave Fanny the largest operating profit Broadway had ever seen. Despite mixed notices, the musical returned its $325,000 investment in less than 17 weeks.
He never looked back.
My pursuit of Merrick began years later, long after Gypsy and Carnival! and Hello, Dolly! and all those other shows that made his fortune. In November 1975 I was in New York City to talk to Tennessee Williams on the day that his Memoirs was published. Williams began the day with a book signing that attracted throngs of people. Police on horseback were required to control the line that stretched for blocks.
Only one man had the temerity to cut past the crowds and approach Williams directly. “Why, David, where did you come from?” the startled playwright asked Merrick.
“I was just walking down the street and came in to see who was responsible for this riot,” Merrick replied. Williams giggled with embarrassed glee.
As the dapper producer continued down Fifth Avenue, I darted after him. I introduced myself as a writer from St. Louis, then asked him about his well-known disfavor of that city. He agreed that his dislike of his hometown was at least as publicized as Tennessee’s. “Of course that doesn’t have anything to do with why I produce his plays,” said Merrick. “But we both grew up there, and I think we both felt that we received no encouragement from the city.”
As Merrick resumed his brisk walk, I hastily blurted out that I would enjoy an opportunity to talk to him at length.
“Give me a call,” Merrick volunteered. “I’m in the book.”
Five months later, I wrote to Merrick and requested an interview.
When I arrived in New York, I looked him up in the phone book (as he had instructed) and placed a call. Twice.
Then on a Friday afternoon, while running the gauntlet of rush-hour congestion, I literally stumbled into a man on the corner of Eighth Avenue and West 44th Street. Only after mumbling an apology did I actually look at him. To my astonishment, my victim was David Merrick. I quickly re-introduced myself, mentioned the futile phone calls and requested an interview.
“Call me Monday morning,” he said as he strode away.
It sounded like another brush-off. But I did call, and it wasn’t. Now Merrick was offering me a reluctant hand. “I don’t do interviews,” he said. “But come on in.” The amenities concluded, he led me into his insular private office on the fifth floor atop the St. James Theater. The office was much more colorful than he was. It was bright scarlet. Red walls, red doors, red drapes. Not garish. Not ostentatious. Just very red. Merrick sat across from me on a red velvet couch.
“There are two ground rules,” he promptly declared. “No biographical questions, and I don’t talk about St. Louis.” That limited my options.
I told Merrick a story Joshua Logan had shared with me. Logan was breaking in William Inge’s play Picnic out of town when fledgling producer Merrick came to Cleveland to persuade Logan to direct Fanny. Picnic wasn’t working, and Merrick’s observations motivated Logan to insert new dialogue that made the play a Pulitzer Prize-winning hit.
Is this typical of Merrick’s role as a producer?
“Well, it’s part of it,” Merrick answered, loosening up a little. “I remember the incident. Picnic had been to several towns and gotten bad notices. Cleveland, again bad notices. I sat in the audience. I thought the play was quite marvelous. And I watched the audience. The women were loving it, but the men were sitting there with their teeth clenched. The critics were all men at that time.
“So I came to the conclusion that they hated the lead character, who was a swaggering, sort of empty-headed, fatuous athletic type. And I was having the same reaction. I remembered that type from when I was in college. We hated him, you know. Certainly anyone who was there to get an education, who was more of a scholar – we hated those Saturday-afternoon heroes. So the men in the audience just hated this character out of memory.
“I told that to Josh. I said, ‘I think the way to get around it is just to tell the audience early on in the play that they aren’t supposed to like him. If you give one line to the other character, and have the nice boy say that people at college used to bristle at Hal’ – I think bristle was the word I used – ‘it might help.’
“So Josh put in one quick line. And he claimed that change made all the difference. From that point on the play started to get good notices. I don’t know if that was the only reason, but he seemed to think it was important.
“Yes, the producer is supposed to do that, but he’s also supposed to never talk about it. It’s very important that any ideas coming from the producer are given to the director, and that the artists, the director and the writer, take credit for them. It’s fatal if the producer starts bragging about his creative contributions. Sometimes if the producer wants to get his ideas to the director, he must channel those ideas through stage managers, through anybody. Even the cleaning women are sometimes listened to before the producer! But even if the rapport with the director is very good, the producer must never talk about it elsewhere.
“I recall an interview in which I was talking about a musical that I had just produced, and the reporter kept asking, ‘Now, how did this develop? Who thought that up?’
“And I kept saying, ‘Gower Champion, the director.’
“So finally, after listening to fifteen minutes of the wondrous contributions of Gower Champion, the reporter asked, ‘Well, what did you do in this, Mr. Merrick?’
“I said, ‘Oh, I picked Gower Champion.’
“That’s good enough. Picking the right people is very important.”
Which of your shows elicit the most vivid memories?
“They’re frequently the flops,” he answered. “My decision to close Breakfast at Tiffany’s the night before it opened and give back a million-dollar advance sale – that sticks in the mind. My God, that caused a big stir in the press! The story was that I’d folded the show and was saying ‘sorry’ to the public. I didn’t think of that at all. It was simply that I could do it because I didn’t have any backers. It was RCA and myself. So I called them, and they said all right. But we always live with our failures.
“Naturally, in the case of a closing, I talk to the author and the director and try to get their agreement. But it’s the producer’s decision. It’s always a solitary decision. Everything is solitary. I doubt if the people connected with a show are very fond of the producer. It’s a bad idea for the producer to fraternize with the actors, because it makes them feel uncomfortable, I think. The producer is the enemy, or someone on the other side. Authority.”
Is it true that you took your name from the classical stage actor David Garrick?
“Not really. My brother-in-law gave me the idea. I’d left St. Louis to try the theater, but I thought I’d better use a different name, in case it fails and I have to go back to practicing law.’ So my brother-in-law gave me David Merrick. I think he was inspired by a combination of David Belasco and David Garrick. Whatever, I used it, not thinking it would be my name forever. But I succeeded in theater very early on, so the name stayed.”
Merrick had mentioned his hometown, so I decided to include it in the conversation: Do you have any relatives still living in St. Louis?
“No. Nobody. There are some old friends still there. I don’t have any hostility toward St. Louis. I didn’t have much luck there. The moment I came here I got lucky, so I love New York and my memories of St. Louis have to do with hardship.”
Why no questions about biographical material or St. Louis?
“I think both subjects are boring.”
As we spoke in 1976, Merrick was preparing his 90th production. The Baker’s Wife. Like his first musical, Fanny, it was based on a story by Marcel Pagnol. After out-of-town engagements in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Broadway-bound musical was headed for the Muny.
“I accepted less-than-generous financial terms from the Muny Opera,” he said, “because I wanted it to play there.” Before Merrick could elaborate, we were interrupted by a secretary. The interview was over. Merrick had promised an hour, and he had delivered one hour, to the minute.
The Baker’s Wife did indeed play the Muny (anyone who heard Patti LuPone sing “Meadowlark” on the Muny stage is not likely to forget it), but the show soon collapsed in Washington, D.C. at a million-dollar loss.
Scoffers began to jeer that Merrick had lost his touch. The old Merrick magic was gone. But he still had one last trick in his pocket.
He produced 42nd Street.
And when it opened in August 1980, in an almost Machiavellian turn of twisted events, Merrick manipulated the most bizarre, headline-grabbing, perverse prank of his career by announcing Gower Champion’s death at the opening-night curtain call.
“David understood,” Marge Champion (Gower Champion’s longtime dancing partner and former wife) told me one month later on a TV-movie set in Savannah, Georgia. “I don’t know how he understood, but he understood how Gower worked. David tortured Gower to death. Not just 42nd Street. Always. Carnival! The Happy Time. Sugar.
“The stories are legendary. On Hello, Dolly!, when we were in Detroit and in trouble, Gower went away. He went to Ypsilanti and said, ‘Tell Mr. Merrick that when he leaves town I’ll be back to fix the show.’ Gower stayed away for three days. There wasn’t anywhere for him to hide out except Ypsilanti.
“There was a love-hate between these two, but look at the shows it produced. Look at 42nd Street. David absolutely understood his function as the producer, which was to see it through to the end, and then promote it to the hilt.”
42nd Street, Merrick’s anachronistic love letter to the city where he “got lucky,” kept his name before the public for another eight years and 3,486 performances. But the show was just that: an anachronism. The new musicals of the 1980s and 1990s, the new works by Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, were not produced by this infuriatingly driven man who had championed the form in the 1950s and 1960s. Like his final hit, Merrick was evolving into an anachronism. Thus it ever is.
From Florenz Ziegfeld to Jed Harris to Max Gordon to David Merrick, the greatness of the most successful producers is that their productions reflect a time. Yet when time moves on, as it inexorably must, those producers are left behind and cast aside. Few producers continue to strike pay dirt to the end of their careers.
A debilitating stroke in 1983 was the beginning of the end. When Merrick died in April 2000 at age 88, no one announced his passing from a Broadway stage, but he was still front-page news. Many encomiums were uttered; many anecdotes were rehashed. But there were few more fitting epitaphs than those simple words of Marge Champion’s: He saw it through to the end, and he promoted it to the hilt.
He was a producer.