- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2000

NEW YORK

David Merrick, Broadway's most successful producer, whose flair for showmanship and publicity helped create such hits as "Gypsy," "Hello, Dolly" and "42nd Street," has died. He was 88.

Mr. Merrick, who suffered a stroke in 1983 that severely affected his speech and forced him to use a wheelchair, died early Tuesday in London, according to a statement released here yesterday by the David Merrick Arts Foundation.

Mr. Merrick produced more than 80 plays or musicals on Broadway, including such shows as "Oliver," "Carnival," "Fanny," "Look Back in Anger," "Becket," "Irma La Douce," "Play It Again, Sam," "A Taste of Honey," "Stop the World I Want to Get Off," "Cactus Flower," "Philadelphia, Here I Come," "Forty Carats," "I Do, I Do" and "Promises, Promises."

Mr. Merrick's death came just three days after the passing of Alexander Cohen, another flamboyant producer with an impressive list of Broadway shows. Mr. Cohen died Saturday at age 79.

During Mr. Merrick's heyday in the late 1950s and the 1960s, he reportedly grossed $20 million annually, earning some $2 million a year in salary from his hits. His productions have won countless Tony Awards "Hello, Dolly" alone picked up 10 Tonys in 1964 as well as other theater prizes, including the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and London's Olivier Award.

"I'll do anything to sell my plays," Mr. Merrick once said and he did.

The producer knew how to sell tickets to his shows. He subscribed to the theory that any publicity was good for the box office.

"Fanny," a musical that starred Ezio Pinza and Walter Slezak in 1954, was Mr. Merrick's first big success. The reviews were largely negative, but the producer got a two-year run out of the show through heavy advertising in such faraway places as the French Riviera and a series of stunts that kept it in the news. Among his gimmicks: He placed a life-size nude statue of the musical's belly dancer in Central Park.

Even Mr. Merrick's feuds with actors in his shows helped sell tickets.

The producer battled regularly with Jackie Gleason, who starred in the musical "Take Me Along." He also fought with Anna Maria Alberghetti, star of "Carnival," who reportedly hung his photograph in the bathroom of her dressing room.

"I never wanted to be an actor," he once said. "I would prefer to be a playwright, but I don't have the talent. So, being stage-struck, I put on the other fellows' plays."

One of the producer's biggest triumphs was "Hello, Dolly." The musical was based on Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker," which Mr. Merrick had produced successfully on Broadway nearly 10 years earlier.

Mr. Merrick also brought the British to Broadway. He imported such successful English musicals as "Oliver" and "Stop the World I Want to Get Off" and offered American audiences the work of playwrights such as John Osborne, Tom Stoppard, Shelagh Delaney, Joe Orton and Irish author Brian Friel.

Mr. Merrick was not immune to failure. His flop musicals were legendary, particularly "Breakfast at Tiffany's," which never officially opened in New York despite the potent box-office draw of two television stars, Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain. Among his other unsuccessful musicals were "Mata Hari," about the World War I spy, which starred Marisa Mell and Pernell Roberts, and "The Baker's Wife," which also never opened in New York despite a lengthy road tour before Broadway.

More recently, despite his infirmities, Mr. Merrick invested heavily in the 1996 musical "State Fair," based on the 1945 and 1962 films of that name, and his name was listed above the title. It also failed to make any money.

Born in St. Louis, Mr. Merrick attended Washington University and later St. Louis University, where he majored in law. In 1946, he became general manager for director and producer Herman Shumlin. Three years later, Mr. Merrick produced his first play, "Clutterbuck." It was not a success.

Mr. Merrick's private life was as stormy as his public one. He had five wives and six marriages. He was married to wife No. 3, Etan, twice, and the couple frequently battled in court over their various divorce proceedings. His fourth wife was Karen Prunczik, who played Anytime Annie in the original company of "42nd Street." In 1989, Natalie Lloyd, his lawyer's receptionist, became his live-in companion. They were married last November.

Mr. Merrick's body will be flown to the United States for a private burial. A memorial service will be announced at a later date.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Merrick is survived by two daughters from previous marriages, Cecilia Anne of Mullica Hill, N.J., and Marguerite of New York.

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