(Image credit: Playbill)
An eight foot tall bronze statue of Peter Pan was dedicated to Mary Martin on July 4, 1976 and is located on the south side of the Weatherford Public Library at 1014 Charles Street, near Soldier Spring Park in Weatherford, Texas. It was dedicated as part of Weatherford’s American Bicentennial celebration. Martin was depicted in a pose as Peter Pan, her 1954 Broadway character. An earlier stylized statue of Peter Pan was dedicated in her honor in Weatherford’s Cherry Park recreation area, 300 S. Alamo Street, not far from her childhood home.
When Mary was a youth, she was a tomboy by her own admission. An early attempt to “fly” off a roof using an umbrella or parasol resulted in Mary suffering a broken collarbone, although she later perfected stage “flying” by using wires. Children would ask her to show them how she could fly like Peter Pan. She would reply that she could not do that, but would break out into Peter Pan’s famous crowing sound from the musical’s song, “I’ve Gotta Crow.” Martin was pleased with the 1976 statue and quipped with her typical humor that it would be nice for the pigeons.
Mary performed under her birth name as opposed to a stage name. She was born December 1, 1913 to Weatherford attorney Preston Martin and music teacher Juanita Presley Martin. Mary started performing at an early age, giving her first recital at age twelve with her childhood friend Bessie Mae Sue Ella Yeager, who remained a life long friend. Mary saw to it that some characters in her musicals were named Bessie Mae in her honor. Everything about Mary’s life and career seemed to be accelerated. She was married at age 16, a mother at age 17 and she had opened a dance studio at nearby Mineral Wells when she was only 18. Two years later, the studio had burned, she was divorced, headed for Hollywood, was performing on Broadway and had made the cover of Life magazine all by the age of 25.
Mary’s professional career began after a short introductory period in which she sang in nightclubs, on radio, and in a lot of auditions. However, her path soon became meteoric. She debuted on Broadway in Leave it to Me! by Cole Porter in which she sang the first of her signature songs, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy, ” reprising it for the film Night and Day, about the life of Porter. Typical of many Cole Porter songs, the lyrics had clever and sly double meanings. Mary would say that when she first performed it, she was not aware of all of them until they were explained to her by her wise friend and fellow actress Sophie Tucker. She also didn’t care for profanity, with her worst near-curse being a reference to someone as being a “son-of-a-bear.”
Mary made nearly a dozen films between 1938 and 1943 before primarily committing to a career in musical theater. She was most at ease when performing before a live audience. In addition to playing in Cole Porter productions, she starred in musicals penned by Kurt Weill, Noel Coward and Oscar Hammerstein II. She familiarized the public with songs that would become standards such as “Cockeyed Optimist,” “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.” In the Broadway production of South Pacific, she actually washed her hair over 1,000 times. According to masterworksbroadway.com, Mary was the first Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, the first Peter Pan in the musical of the same name and the first Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music.
Martin again made history when she appeared in the March 7, 1955 NBC broadcast of a live performance of Peter Pan. It was the first time that a full length musical had been performed live on color television. The production broke all records up to that time by attracting an audience of sixty-five million people.
During her career, Mary won a Tony Award for her role in Peter Pan and would go on to add three more to her collection. She won an Emmy Award for the historic television presentation of Peter Pan. In 1973, Martin was honored by being inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. She was an honoree for a Kennedy Center lifetime achievement award in 1989. She has two stars for Radio and Recording on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Her first husband was Ben Hagman, with whom she had their son, actor Larry Hagman. In 1940, she married Richard Halliday, a story editor with Paramount Studios, and the two would remain happily married for 33 years until his death in 1973. With Halliday, she would have the couple’s only child, a daughter whose middle name was Heller. A small boomlet of controversy erupted when she announced the baby’s name, as some people thought it was improper, but Heller went on to be known by her middle name. At age 14, Heller Halliday appeared on stage with Mary in the original Broadway production of Peter Pan as Liza, one of the children.
Following her husband Richard Halliday’s death in 1973, she reflected that they had met after Halliday saw her on opening night of Leave it to Me! She added that he was instrumental in her career, which she purposely referred to as “our career.” They were a loving couple who were devoted to each other. She said that for a long time after his death, she would hear a car drive up and think it was him. She said that prior to his death, Halliday had given her a yellow pad and encouraged her to write her biography, and that she had begun to do so. She later set it aside but returned to it after his death, acting on the recommendation of a minister who wrote her a letter suggesting that she make it a goal to complete unfinished business. She said that writing it helped her deal with her grieving period and to move on from it. Mary acknowledged Halliday’s role in her career, citing his devotion to it, and spoke warmly of his influence.
Martin was offered the role of Miss Ellie in the long running television series “Dallas“ after the retirement of Barbara Bel Geddis due to illness. Mary declined, but had she taken the role, she would have been cast as the on-screen mother of her son Larry Hagman in his starring role as J. R. Ewing.
Mary died of cancer in 1990 in California after a short confinement in the hospital. She was interred next to Richard in her home town of Weatherford at the historic Old City Greenwood Cemetery.
Several quotes are attributed to Martin, but this one is typical, “Neverland is the way I would like real life to be … timeless, free, mischievous, filled with gaity, tenderness and magic.”
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