Robert Merrill was a star baritone of the Metropolitan Opera and one of the world’s most celebrated artists. Born in Brooklyn, New York, June 4, 1917 to Abraham and Lillian Balaban Miller. His father was a tailor; his mother possessed a lovely soprano voice and often performed on local radio stations, even having her own Lillian Miller program. It was she who recognized her son’s vocal potential and strongly encouraged him in this direction by introducing him to Caruso and opera recordings, eventually getting him a voice teacher when the young Robert would have preferred to follow a baseball career as a pitcher. He combined these two interests to help supplant the family’s income by pitching in semi-pro baseball games and singing at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and other local events. The singing finally won out as a career choice.
His earliest engagements and performance development began in various hotels in the Catskill Mountain Area, singing the popular songs of the time with an operatic aria interspersed. In a way, he could be though of as one of the first of the so-called “Cross-Over” artists. Here he met and performed with other young talents, like Danny Kaye and Red Skeleton. That began life-long friendships and collaborations.
Robert Merrill entered and won a popular radio show. “The Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour” in 1936. His prize was being included with a group of previous winners in a nationwide variety show tour. Another Major Bowes’ group touring at the same time featured an act called “The Hoboken Four”. One of the “Hoboken Four” was none other then the young Frank Sinatra. In essence, both of these young men, Sinatra and Merrill began their careers at the same time. Both needless to say, reached the pinnacle of their chosen musical endavours.
Robert Merrill won the Metropolitan Opera auditions in 1944 making his debut at the “Met”, December 15, 1945 in Verdi’s “La Traviata”. He was soon acclaimed by critics as, “one of the great natural baritones of the century”. In June, 1946, he was a featured soloist on the Sunday afternoon RCA Victor radio show, which was broadcast nationwide. This show and his Met performances brought him to the attention of the legendary Maestro Arturo Toscanini who then engaged him in 1946 to broadcast nationally and record “La Traviata” with the NBC Symphony, Maestro Toscanini, Licia Albanese and Jan Peerce. In 1954, he sang in Toscanini’s final opera broadcast, “The Masked Ball”. Both historic recordings have been issued on CD.
Intent on combining high-art with old fashioned show business, Robert Merrill set a standard for musical excellance from the grand stages of the world’s great opera houses to Broadway, to Las Vegas, to records, television and film. He was one of the few performers to balance both opera and popular music style with phenomenal success spanning the gamut of opera with colleagues: Lily Pons, Rise Stevens, Leontyne Price, Anna Moffo, Renata Tebaldi, Birgit Nilsson, Roberta Peters, Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Jussi Bjorling, Richard Tucker, Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti; great conductors: Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Fritz Reiner, Erich Leinsdorf, Georg Solti, Leopold Stokowski, Sir Thomas Beecham, Eugene Ormandy, Zubin Mehta; Show biz: Victor Borge, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Lous Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, Perry Como, Anne Bancroft, Adam Sandler, to name only some. This reads like a “Who’s Who” in entertainment with all of them considered giants of the era.
Known primarily as a Verdian baritone, other operatic roles included were in Carmen, Faust, Andrea Chernir, Barber of Seville, Pagliacci and La Groconda in Merrill’s large diverse operatic repertoire. He is the first American artists to have sung 500 performances in major roles at the Met. Most of Merrill’s operatic career was at the Metropolitan Opera, traveling with the company on their USA spring tours as well as their historic overseas ventures in Paris and Tokyo, He made guest operatic appearances in Mexico City, Havana, Cuba, Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, The Fenice Theatre in Venice, Israel and The Royal Opera, Covent Garden in London. The Metropolitan Opera honored him with the hanging of his portrait in their “Hall of Fame” recognizing his record setting 787 performances with the company. Annual national coast-to-coast concert and recital tours included performances with leading symphony orchestras and festivals i.e. Wolf Trap, The Hollywood Bowl, Chicago’s Ravinia and Philadelphia’s Mann Music Center.
Known as “America’s Baritone”, Robert Merrill was a favorite of U.S. Presidents performing at the invitations of every president from FDR to Clinton, the only exceptions being the two Bush Presidents. Merrill was the only singer to perform for both Houses of Congress, the US Cabinet and the Supreme Court at the FDR Memorial held in the U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to The National Council on the Arts in 1968. President Clinton presented him with The National Medal of Arts in 1993. Many other awards and honors were bestowed in recognition of his artistic contributions and achievements.
Merrill, always intent on doing things away from the opera/classic world in his spare time, he did shows in Las Vegas with Louis Armstrong; all of the popular TV talk and variety shows; television specials with Danny Kaye, Anne Bancroft, Sonny & Cher, Perry Como and with his dear friend, Frank Sinatra, to name a few.
The lure of a Broadway musical beckoned with the creation of “A Fiddler on the Roof”. Merrill, in the starring role of Tevye, was the first person to take this show away from Broadway to the summer circuit nationally in 1971. He repeated these performances for 3 years ending in Los Angeles with at total of over 200 performances and rave critical media reviews. Merrill often said that Fiddler and Tevye was one of his favorite roles, with La Traviata being his other.
His youthful dream of being associated with major league baseball became a reality when the New York Yankees asked him to sing the National Anthem at the opening of their season games in 1967. He continued to perform in person at all important games i.e. playoffs, World Series until 2004. When George Steinbrenner acquired the team, Merrill’s singing became a tradition and was thought of as the team’s good luck charm. He recorded the National Anthem, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and God Bless America for use in games when Merrill was not available in person during the season. Steinbrenner gave Merrill his own Yankee uniform and official Yankee number “1 ½” (the only such number in baseball). Merrill proudly wore his uniform at Yankee Old Timers games. He even took batting practice with the players. His dream had come true! The Yankees presented him with the New York Yankees Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.
In 1954, Robert Merrill married Marion Machno, a concert pianist and Juilliard graduate. They performed together at The White House numerous times at dinners held for visiting heads of State. When their son David, and daughter, Lizanne, were young, these performing collaborations were limited. However once their children had grown, the couple toured together extensively throughout the USA, Canada, England and Switzerland for 20 years.
Robert Merrill always felt that a voice was a God given gift, but a sound technique achieved with good training was imperative. He was guided throughout his career by Samuel Margolis, his only voice teacher. In 1973, Merrill said, “Vocally, there is no reason why you cannot sing for 30 or 40 years or more. I’m going to go on as long as I’m enjoying it; as long as I’m having a ball”. And go on he did, with the quality of his voice showing no change or decline until it was stilled on October 23, 2004.
Merrill truly had a blessed and charmed personal life and career, both equally important to him. He took his work very seriously, but he never took himself seriously. The twinkle in his eyes, his engaging smile and quick wit were very evident to all he encountered. He cherished his children and considered them and his 3 grandchildren the crowning jewels of his life. All of his hopes and dreams were realized.
Robert Merrill slept away in his home in New Rochelle, NY while watching the first game of the baseball World Series. Had his beloved Yankees been playing, it’s doubtful he would have left. He is buried in Kensico cemetery, Sharon Gardens, Temple Israel division in Valhalla, NY.
Robert Merril with mom
Young Robert Merril
Robert at WHB
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