Mary Martin (1913-1990) was a popular stage actress, singer, dancer, television and movie star.
Mary Martin was born in Weatherford, Texas, on December 1, 1913. As a child she was encouraged by her parents, Juanita and Judge Preston Martin, to study violin and voice. Her love of the theater was obvious at an early age. She sang in almost every church choir in town, wrote and performed plays for family and friends, and was an avid movie-goer.
At the age of 15 Martin left school to marry Benjamin Hagman. After the birth of her son, Larry, she opened the Mary Hagman School of Dance in Weatherford. During a trip to Hollywood to further her dancing studies, Martin's childhood desire to perform was rekindled. Subsequently she moved to Hollywood, divorced her husband, and spent two years auditioning for the movies.
Nightclub Performance Launched Broadway Career
It was not in the movies, but rather at the Trocadero nightclub, where Martin's career was finally launched. She sang a swing version of "Il Bacio," and the audience, including Broadway producer Lawrence Schwab, went wild. If "Il Bacio" took Martin to Broadway (by way of Schwab), it was "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" which kept her there. In 1938 she landed the part of Dolly in Leave It to Me at the Imperial Theatre. Her rendition of "Daddy" was a spectacular hit and led to star billing and a contract with Paramount Pictures.
Although Martin's first love was the stage, she accepted the Hollywood contract to star in a series of films including The Great Victor Herbert, Rhythm on the River, Love Thy Neighbor, Kiss the Boys Goodbye, New York Town, The Birth of Blues, Star Spangled Rhythm, and Happy Go Lucky.
It was during this period that Mary Martin met and married the love of her life, producer Richard Halliday. Mary's yearning to work on the stage led them to return to New York, where Halliday assumed his new vocation as her manager. From 1943 through the remainder of her career Martin worked almost exclusively on the stage, for she loved most to work directly with people rather than with a camera. It was her ability to share her exuberance with the people who watched her that made her so loved by musical comedy audiences.
Found Niche on Stage
The roles that she played on film and stage were the standard female images of the time—the sophisticated or exotic woman or the dumb blond. Before she found her true niche she played in Dancing on the Streets (1943), Venus in One Touch of Venus (1945), and Tchao-Ou-Niag in Lute Song (1945-1946). She also made her London debut as Elena Salvador in Noel Coward's Pacific 1860.
Although she had been successful in these parts, her career zoomed when she was finally able to express her true self—a warm, feisty, exciting, down-home girl—on stage. She played Annie Oakley in the touring production of Annie Get Your Gun (1947-1948) and catapulted to stardom. Martin's next big success, and perhaps the role for which she is most well known, was as Ensign Nellie Forbush in Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's South Pacific. She created this role and starred in it at the Majestic Theatre from 1949 to 1951 and later performed the same role at Drury Lane in London.
Mary Martin's own favorite part was Peter in Peter Pan, with music by Comden and Green. The production, staged by Jerome Robbins, originated at the San Francisco Civic Light Opera (1954), later went to Broadway (1954-1955), and eventually toured the entire country. Martin's exuberant spirit went into this production—she recalled her youthful dreams and her desire to fly. As a child she had, in fact, even broken her collarbone while attempting to fly off the roof of her garage. The accident didn't deter Mary Martin, and as Peter she finally got her chance to fly, albeit on wires, to the delight of adults and children everywhere. Martin's talents were recorded for future generations to enjoy in the 1955 and 1956 television versions of Peter Pan.
Another role for which Mary Martin will be remembered is that of Maria in The Sound of Music, another successful collaboration between writers Hammerstein and Rodgers and the actress. Martin found the spirit of the determined, energetic, dedicated singer and former nun Maria through her work with the real Maria, Baroness Von Trapp, and her longtime friend Sister Gregory. She received the Theatre Wing's coveted Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics Award for this performance in 1959.
Two other roles which Martin played to great acclaim were Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly, which toured to Vietnam, Tokyo, and London (1965), and Agnes in I Do! I Do! with co-star Robert Preston. The latter musical was based on a play, The Fourposter, about the lives of two people from their wedding day until 50 years later. Martin felt that the subject matter of this play—marriage—would represent the essence of her life. In fact, the production (1966-1969) was the last musical that Martin appeared in before her semi-retirement.
Retired to Brazil
In 1969 the Hallidays moved to Anapolis, Brazil, and bought a farm. For several years Martin operated a boutique featuring her fashion designs and her needlepoint, about which she and her husband published a book in 1969. While in Brazil she was also the subject of the television show This Is Your Life. After her husband's death, Martin returned to the United States where she was co-host of the PBS television show Over Easy, which focused on issues of the elderly. Martin enjoyed the successes of her children—Larry Hagman and Heller Halligan DeMeritt—and her six grandchildren.
In 1987 Martin toured with Carol Channing in a non-musical production called Legends! about a pair of bitchy Hollywood battle-axes. To Martin, the world was her theater. Contemplating her own end, she said in, People "It's been a fabulous life and a wonderful career. I'll keep on living until it's time. Then I'll just go on to another stage."
Martin died on November 3, 1990, at the age of 76. Her long-time friend, Carol Channing, had been at her bedside at Martin's Rancho Mirage, California, home less than an hour before she died of liver cancer. "She was heaven," said Channing.
Further Reading on Mary Martin
Martin is listed in Who's Who in the Theatre, edited by Freda Gaye (14th ed., 1967); Her autobiography, My Heart Belongs (1984), includes information on her entire theatrical career as well as her personal life; For background information on musical comedy and Martin's role in its development, see Cecil Smith and Glenn Litton, Musical Comedy in America (1981). Also see People, November 19, 1990.