Mary Martin, Broadway’s “Peter Pan,” Wants to Fly Once More

“I’d fly, fly, fly,” and find her late husband, Richard Halliday, “and never come back.”

Broadway legend Mary Martin was barely 18 when she met the great lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. Newly arrived in Hollywood from Weatherford, Tx., she’d been vainly auditioning for a singing role when one day she found herself asked to try-out, surrounded by people she didn’t know, in a beautiful living room.

Mary Martin and Jerome Robbins

Undaunted, this innocent told the distinguished company in the Hammerstein home, “I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but I’d like to sing The Indian Love Call.”

As she sang, Miss Martin recalls, “I saw this dear man, all snuggled up on the couch, smiling through the whole thing. Afterwards, he stood up and he got taller and taller and taller.”

Hammerstein introduced himself and his wife, Dorothy, invited her to stay for tea and suggested she come over once a week so he could help her work on her voice. “Oh, by the way.” Hammerstein added, “I do know Indian Love Call. I wrote it.”

“My life’s been like that,” trills Miss Martin in her “Peter Pan” voice.

That meeting eventually led to still another living-room audition. It was in Cole Porter’s Waldorf Tower apartment in Manhattan, where he was confined having crushed his spine in a riding accident. “People were sitting in a circle around this hospital bed,” Miss Martin says, “and on top of the bed was a piano. I’d thought I’d seen everything in Hollywood!”

Porter played and Miss Martin sang, and the result was her first Broadway role. She appeared in Porter’s 1938 hit, “Leave it to Me,” and, wearing nothing much more than a white lynx coat, sang her first show-stopper, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

From then on, Broadway belonged to Miss Martin.

But she didn’t claim it until 1943, when she starred in “One Touch of Venus,” with music by Kurt Weill. Instead, Miss Martin was lured to Hollywood by Paramount. She made 11 movies, married the love of her life, producer Richard Halliday, and had her second child, Heller. (Miss Martin is also the mother of “Dallas’” villain, Larry Hagman, from a brief marriage at 17).

She and Halliday, who died in 1973, were lifelong friends of the Hammersteins and Dorothy and Richard Rodgers. “All gone now,” sighs Miss Martin, who consoles herself with her children, six grandchildren and a great-grandchild. She remains the bouncy ingenue she was as Nellie Forbush in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 triumph, South Pacific.” Her co-star, in what she considers the most romantic” of her musicals, was Ezio Pinza, her favorite leading man. Her hair is still smartly short but now is snowy white. “It’s a wonder I have any left,” she laughs, remembering that she washed her hair on stage 24 times a week in “South Pacific.”

Miss Martin says that, “like an idiot, the hair washing was my idea.” Getting ready for the part, she’d had her hair cropped boyishly short. One day, as she was coming out of the shower wrapped in towels, she observed to Halliday that her hair now only took three minutes to dry, and jokingly asked him, “Have you ever seen anyone wash hair on stage?” The next thing she knew, her husband was on the phone to the musical’s director/co-author and coproducer, Josh Logan. And the next thing after that, Rodgers and Hammerstein had written the show-stopper, “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair!”

She was also the inspiration for “Honeybun,” which she performed in an oversized sailor suit. “Oscar had a picture of me at about age 12, dressed in a sailor suit, that he kept where he shaved every day.” Rodgers, she says, wrote the music for “Honeybun,” sitting in a chair. “And I have a picture of his writing it. Just like that. He didn’t even go to the piano.”

Miss Martin also appeared in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music,” a road company of their “Annie Get Your Gun,” as well as “Lute Song,” and “Pacific 1860,” which Noel Coward wrote for her. She had a long run with the late Robert Preston in “I Do! I Do!”, toured in “Hello, Dolly!”, appeared, with Anthony Quayle in “Do You Turn Somersaults?” and, most recently, appeared with Carol Channing in “Legends.”

But her most cherished musical experience is “Peter Pan,” which opened in 1953. It was produced by Halliday, and daughter, Heller, then 12, played the little girl. Miss Martin wanted the role, she said, “because I always wanted to fly. When I was five, I flew right off the barn roof and broke my collarbone.”

It was always her regret that her flying was confined to the stage. But in 1984, at the age of 70, “at long last, I got to fly up to the third balcony and back. Fairy dust got in everyone’s eyes.” The occasion was a benefit performance of “Peter Pan” in San Francisco for what is now named the Mary Martin Trauma Center. It’s where she recovered from a car accident that “broke every bone in my spine” and resulted in the death of two of her closest friends.

Now she has only one wish, to fly off the stage of Madison Square Garden. “I could fly, fly, fly and not come back, fly straight out of the window and I’d find my Richard, and Richard and Dorothy, and Oscar and Dorothy.. Whatta way to go!”

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Judy Flander is an entertainment feature writer and television critic who for many years during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s wrote insightful interviews of many well known people, and some not so well known then, were published in newspapers and magazines across the US.

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Judy Flander

Judy Flander

American Journalist. As a newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C., surreptitiously covered the 1970s’ Women’s Liberation Movement.

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