David Merrick, 88, the combative impresario whose stagings of "Hello, Dolly," "Gypsy," "42nd Street" and nearly 100 other productions dominated Broadway over several decades, died April 25 in London.
Once dubbed "the Indomitable Showman," he had been disabled since 1983 by a stroke that put him in a wheelchair and made it a struggle for him to speak more than a few words at a time. But it didn't spell the end of his career, nor did it squash his legendary temper or flair for staying in the public eye. His last big success, "42nd Street," had opened two years before his illness. It ran for most of the 1980s and closed after 3,486 performances.
Mr. Merrick stayed in the game, communicating through his longtime companion and other aides and investing in productions. He produced his final show, a stage version of the film "State Fair," in 1996. It failed to make money.
Famous for his flamboyant publicity stunts and litigious relationships, Mr. Merrick was a master of theatrical mass production. He had plays and musicals on Broadway for 18 straight years during his heyday in the 1950s and '60s. Some evenings there were as many as five Merrick productions running at the same time.
They were reported to bring in grosses of more than $20 million a year for Mr. Merrick and his two dozen long-term investors. His productions raked in all of theater's prizes, including 10 Tonys for "Hello, Dolly." After their splashy Broadway runs, the shows were sent out on the road across the country.
Mr. Merrick imported English hits, including "Oliver!" and "Stop the World--I Want to Get Off," and plays by John Osborne, Tom Stoppard, Joe Orton and other British playwrights.
Other productions included "Carnival," "Fanny," "Look Back in Anger," "Becket," "Irma La Douce," "Play It Again, Sam," "A Taste of Honey," "Cactus Flower," "Philadelphia, Here I Come," "Forty Carats," "I Do! I Do!" and "Promises, Promises." He also had some legendary flops, including "Mata Hari," "The Baker's Wife" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's," which was more popular as a movie.
Mr. Merrick kept his hits fresh and up and running by replacing the stars with a succession of famous names, an innovation in modern theater. For his unstoppable "Dolly," Carol Channing was followed by Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller and Ethel Merman.
That musical was based on an earlier Merrick stage production, "The Matchmaker," by Thornton Wilder.
Mr. Merrick--who reveled in feuds and didn't hesitate to do battle with critics, actors, wives or others who irked him--was seen as the last of the big-time producers, a former rival to Joe Papp and a successor to the Ziegfelds of an earlier era. He outlasted Alexander Cohen, another flamboyant impresario who died three days earlier.
Mr. Merrick enjoyed his public image, kept up over the years in innumerable Hirschfeld caricatures in the New York Times that emphasized his black hair, mustache and piercing black eyes.
"He really understood the word 'entertainment' like nobody else I have ever worked with," Jerry Herman, who wrote the score for "Hello, Dolly!" and for other Merrick hits, told the Associated Press. "He had an odd combination of gifts--he was tough and he had taste. Without a doubt, he truly was the greatest producer of the old-fashioned musical."
As Broadway began to lose its luster in the 1970s and more and more theaters closed, Mr. Merrick turned to movie production. Before returning to the stage, he produced films that included "The Great Gatsby," "Rough Cut" and "Semi-Tough."
Mr. Merrick was born David Margulois, to a poor, dysfunctional family in St. Louis. He studied law in St. Louis, married a woman with an inheritance and moved to New York in 1929. He changed his name to Merrick, a cross between Margulois and Garrick, the name of the most famous 18th century actor.
He dabbled in law, invested some of his wife's money in a play, "The Male Animal," and began accumulating theatrical knowledge. After co-producing two flops, he became general manager in 1946 for director and producer Herman Shumlin.
It was Mr. Merrick's 1954 production of the musical version of "Fanny" that put him on the map--not because the reviews brought in customers, but because he advertised heavily, as far away as the French Riviera. He also kept up a series of stunts, such as putting a life-size nude statue of the musical's belly dancer in Central Park.
"I'll do anything to sell tickets," he said. When his "Subways Are for Sleeping" didn't wow audiences, he took out a newspaper ad with rave reviews--by men whose names happened to match those of the city's seven top critics.
In 1996, frustrated that his "State Fair" production had received only two Tony nominations, he announced through his spokesman that his Merrick Foundation would start making its own awards. He also sued over the Tonys, but the lawsuit was quickly thrown out of court.
Mr. Merrick's private life also was stormy. He married six times, twice to the same woman, Etan Merrick, who took him to court for drawn-out battles long after they had separated. His fourth wife was actress Karen Prunczik, who played Anytime Annie in the original "42nd Street." Last November, he married Natalie Lloyd, whom he had met while she was working as a receptionist for his lawyer. They began living together in 1989. Mr. Merrick announced in 1998 that he was retiring and placing Lloyd in charge of his production company.
In addition to his wife, survivors include two daughters from previous marriages.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.