I had the great pleasure of meeting Ethel Merman, and seeing her perform just a few feet away. Earlier on that February 14, 1944, age 18, I’d just graduated from Navy boot camp. I was on my way from Newport RI, to my hometown of Philadelphia.
There was a train change, and an unexpected five-hour delay at Penn Station in Manhattan. Several of us, proud of our Navy blues, decided to spend the hours in the Big Apple. It was just a short walk to the Stage Door Canteen on 44th Street, with free food and entertainment for servicemen and women. Arriving, we saw trucks, lights and movie equipment near the entrance.
When we were about to give up and go elsewhere, a guy came running over, “Hey, sailors, do you want to be in the movies?” I know that’s a Hollywood cliché, but it did happen. We accepted and became part of an on-camera uniformed audience inside while several scenes and musical numbers were shot.
The entertainers in the movie, “Stage Door Canteen”, made up a fantastic all-star list of that era. It included Ray Bolger (Scarecrow in “Wizard of Oz”), Jack Benny, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Harpo Marx and Benny Goodman’s orchestra.
We sailors were in scenes starring Ethel Merman. Her song was “Marching Through Berlin”. The World War II anti-German lyrics would cause an international incident today if Donald Trump sang them to German Chancellor Merkel. However, then they were appropriately patriotic.
If you ever see the movie “Stage Door Canteen” on DVD or on late, late, late night TV, look closely. You may see me ogling the singing Merman from the front row. I’m the sailor who looked about 14, with sheared boot camp haircut and a big grin.
During a break in shooting, Miss Merman and other stars joined us while the canteen served coffee and cake. There was also Valentine’s Day candy, distributed by Ethel, accompanied by a kiss.
Even after all the decades, my memory of her is very clear. I expected the bold, brassy dame with her famous loud Noo Yawk voice. However, the very pretty young woman who sat down with us was quietly friendly.
She asked about homes and families, and when I told her I was from Philly, she laughed. She said it was a tough audience town, and many of her new shows had opened and closed there in one night. Then, when the director called her back on stage, she reached over and kissed me on the cheek, saying, “Happy Valentine’s Day, sailor”.
The other guys laughed at me because there was a big stage-make-up lipstick smear there. On that dazed moment, I told them I’d never again wash that cheek. Wherever you are now, Ethel Merman, you made that long-ago Valentine’s Day moment a very happy one for a young sailor.