STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: We Need a 'Merman Theatre'

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: We Need a 'Merman Theatre' Elaine Stritch. Patti LuPone. Bette Midler. Lainie Kazan.

Elaine Stritch. Patti LuPone. Bette Midler. Lainie Kazan.

Daughters of Merman, you could call them.

For each has played a famous Merman role. Stritch was Mrs. Sally Adams in the original Call Me Madam whenever The Merm took a breather. LuPone portrayed Reno Sweeney in the Lincoln Center Anything Goes. Midler was Rose in that TV Gypsy, while Kazan did her in stock.

Doing parts like those fostered in the ladies a healthy respect for the former Ethel Agnes Zimmermann. That's why the four will team on Feb. 1 in "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly" at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. It's a revue of the many songs we first heard in Merman's voice.

Good idea. Having the Gay Men's Health Crisis as a beneficiary is an even better one. But the best-yet reason is the foursome's not-so-secret agenda. They want The Merm's memory to be preserved, and for a theatre to be named after her.

The sooner, the better.

Because The Merm has the same problem Katharine Cornell had. If you don't do movies, you're not so easily remembered.

The Merm did do some film, of course. In fact, Michael Gebert in "The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards" named her Best Actress of 1963 for her "spectacular battle-ax of a mother-in-law" in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World -- even over Oscar-winner Patricia Neal of Hud.

But the sad fact is that most of the population probably knows The Merm from her stint as Lola Lasagna on "Batman."

We can't do much about that. But we can get a theatre named for her.

Old-timers will remember that back in the '70s, there was some noise about renaming the 46th Street Theatre for the Sultaness of Song. That would have been nice, considering that The Merm had two triumphs there in 297 days: DuBarry was a Lady (12-6-39) and Panama Hattie (10-30-40).

The honor instead eventually went to Richard Rodgers, which none of us can begrudge. (Though would it have spoiled some vast eternal plan if the 46th had become the Rodgers & Hammerstein? Much better!)

So what house should be named for The Merm? Let's eliminate the theatres already named for theatrical luminaries: The Brooks Atkinson, (Ethel) Barrymore, Martin Beck, (David) Belasco, (Edwin) Booth, (George) Gershwin, Helen Hayes, Walter Kerr, (Alfred) Lunt-(Lynne) Fontanne, Eugene O'Neill, and (Sam S.) Shubert, and the Neil Simon.

The Simon, by the way, was once the Alvin, the amalgam of ALex A. Aarons and VINton Freedley, who produced The Merm's debut smash, Girl Crazy. That they've lost their Broadway profile is a sad metaphor that The Merm has actually been losing ground in the theatre-name race.

And, though you may not know it, there are a few other houses named for theatrical personages. They meant something once, so let's keep the (George) Broadhurst for the once-popular playwright, and the (John) Cort for the once-important producer. As for the Golden, its name is not just a pretty adjective; there was once a John Golden, who years ago was a highly regarded producer and author. Check out the plaque in front of the theatre.

The Minskoff, Nederlander, and Virginia are named for the real-estate people highly involved with their happening. Though I've always felt that because the Virginia is on the west side of town, it should be called the West Virginia.

What's left? Let's give the Marquis, New Amsterdam and Ford a break, for they just got here. But we still have the Ambassador, Broadway, Imperial, Longacre, Lyceum, Majestic, Music Box, Palace, Plymouth, Royale, St. James, and the Winter Garden. If I may cast my three electoral votes, I'd say let's keep the Winter Garden as is, because it's such a distinctive name, and the Palace, because it's the quintessential idiom for theatrical greatness. But I could part with any of the others.

Does the Ambassador gets points because The Merm played an ambassador in Call Me Madam? But though it's a musical house at the moment, for most of its history it's housed straight plays. Non-musicals have mostly played the Longacre, Lyceum, Music Box, Plymouth, and Royale, too, so they all too seem too small for the Merman name.

No, it's got to be a musical house. Maybe a rock musical wouldn't care to play the Merman, but most any other musical would love the opportunity.

So what about the Broadway, where she did Gypsy? (Some would say this is the most apt, because Merman IS synonymous with Broadway.) Or the Imperial, where she triumphed not only in Call Me Madam, but also in Annie, Get Your Gun? Or the Majestic -- not because that's where she did Happy Hunting (it was, after all, her only money-loser), but because you have to be pretty majestic to supplant the word "Majestic," and The Merm certainly was.

But the Broadway, Imperial and Majestic belong to the Shuberts, who have not renamed a house in recent memory. So let's look to the St. James, which belongs to Jujamcyn. St. James is a nice tribute to a king, a church, a club, a place in Monopoly, and even an infirmary -- but given that The Merm made her last appearance in a Broadway show there (Dolly, of course), it's a natural to become the Merman.

Want to know the best idea, though? That someone buy the Times Square Church, once the beautiful Mark Hellinger, and let Bernadette Peters reopen Annie, Get Your Gun at the newly reborn Ethel Merman Theatre.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com