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Broadway producer David Merrick dead at 88

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NEW YORK – David Merrick, the Broadway producer whose flair for showmanship and publicity helped create such hits as "Gypsy,'' "Hello, Dolly!'' and "42nd Street,'' has died at 88.

Merrick, who suffered a stroke in the early '80s that severely affected his speech and forced him to use a wheelchair, died early Tuesday in London, according to a statement released here today by the David Merrick Arts Foundation.

Merrick, Broadway's most successful producer, produced more than 80 plays or musicals on Broadway, including "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.''

During his heyday in the late 1950s and 1960s, he reportedly grossed $20 million annually. His productions have won countless Tony Awards – "Hello, Dolly!'' alone picked up 10 in 1964 – as well as prizes including the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and London's Olivier Award.

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

He once placed a monkey at the wheel of an English taxicab with a sign on the side of the vehicle proclaiming, "I am driving my master to see 'The Matchmaker.' '' The cab was controlled by a driver hidden in the back seat by a curtain.

"Fanny,'' a 1954 musical that starred Ezio Pinza and Walter Slezak, was 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 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.

One of Merrick's most famous stunts involved the musical "Subways Are for Sleeping,'' which received tepid notices from the critics. Undeterred, Merrick placed a newspaper ad with rave quotes from seven men who just happened to have the same names as the critics for New York's seven daily newspapers. The advertisement ran in one edition of the New York Herald-Tribune before it was noticed – and then yanked.

"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 fellow's plays.''

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

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

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, 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.

Born in St. Louis, 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, Merrick produced his first play, "Clutterbuck.'' It was not a success.

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 in November.

One of Merrick's biggest and most dramatic successes, "42nd Street,'' occurred late in his producing career. Adapted from the 1933 Ruby Keeler movie, the musical had a run of more than eight years, closing in January 1989 after 3,486 performances, the longest run of any Merrick show. It was directed by Gower Champion, who died of a rare blood cancer hours before the New York opening in August 1980. Merrick announced Champion's death to a stunned opening-night audience immediately after the curtain came down.

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, 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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