They met in the early Sixties quite casually at a guesthouse in Saint Maarten. Both were at the bar by the pool. He had no idea it was her, but he recalls: "First words out of her mouth were: A round of drinks on me, and don't bother putting mine in a glass. Just put a nipple on the vodka bottle!'" The he describing the moment is playwright and EDGE/Theatre founder Jim Tommaney. The she was Broadway powerhouse Ethel Merman, star of Annie Get Your Gun, Hello, Dolly! and Gypsy. That alcohol-soaked moment ignited a friendship that would last twenty years.
What impressed Tommaney most about the little woman with the big voice? "She liked a dirty joke," he says. "She had a great sense of humor. She was earthy without being vulgar. Just like one of the boys, easy to get along with." Tommaney, who lived in New York City as an advertising executive, began to hang out with Merman frequently. They would often dine at ritzy places like El Morocco or the Waldorf or just grab a burger with friends at low-key joints. During summer weekends they'd loll around her rented house on Fire Island.
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In the Eighties Tommaney and Merman lost touch. (She died in 1984.) Nevertheless he remembers his friend with affection. So much so that Tommaney recently penned the play Merm and Me, which he'll read publicly this Thursday. Although not a fan of biographical theater works, Tommaney had a flood of memories spurring him on. "What I'm trying to do is not a trip down nostalgia lane," he notes. "I'm trying to re-create the persona she had, the personality. In technical terms she was a really gifted actress; a lot of people didn't understand that. She had absolutely incredible timing. She could make a boring line interesting, so she brought an awful lot to the party." Sometimes even the drinks. Cheers!