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Mary Virginia Martin (December 1, 1913 – November 3, 1990) was an American actress, perhaps best remembered for her role as Peter Pan in the the 1954 musical Peter Pan. She originated many roles over her career, including Tony-Award-winning portrayals of Nellie Forbush in South Pacific and Maria in The Sound of Music. She was named a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1989. She received a special Tony Award in 1948 for "spreading theatre to the rest of the country while the originals perform in New York". In 1955 and 1956, she received a Tony Award for Peter Pan, and then an Emmy for appearing in the same role on television.
Mary Martin's life as a child, as Martin describes it in her autobiography My Heart Belongs, was secure and happy. She had close relationships with both her mother and father, as well as her siblings. Her autobiography details how the young actress had an instinctive ear for recreating musical sounds.
Martin's father, Preston Martin, was a lawyer and her mother, Juanita Presley, was a violin teacher. Although the doctors told Juanita that she would risk her life if she attempted to have another baby, she was determined to have a boy. Instead, she had Mary, who became quite a tomboy. Her birth was an event as all of the neighbors gathered around Juanita's bedroom window, waiting for the raising of a curtain to signal the baby's arrival.
Her family had a barn and orchard that kept her entertained. She played with her older sister Geraldine (whom she calls "Sister"), climbing trees and riding ponies. Martin adored her father. "He was a tall, good-looking, silver-haired, with the kindest brown eyes. Mother was the disciplinarian, but it was Daddy who could turn me into an angel with just one look". Martin, who said "I'd never understand the law", began singing outside the courtroom where her father worked every Saturday night at a bandstand where the town band played. She sang in a trio of little girls dressed in bellhop uniforms. "Even in those days without microphones, my high piping voice carried all over the square. I have always thought that I inherited my carrying voice from my father".
She remembered having a photographic memory as a child, making it easy to memorize songs, as well as get her through school tests. She got her first taste of singing solo at a fire hall, where she soaked up the crowd's appreciation. "Sometimes I think that I cheated my own family and my closest friends by giving to audiences so much of the love I might have kept for them. But that's the way I was made; I truly don't think I could help it". Martin's craft was developed by seeing movies and becoming a mimic. She'd win prizes for looking, acting and dancing like Ruby Keeler and singing exactly like Bing Crosby. "Never, never, never can I say I had a frustrating childhood. It was all joy. Mother used to say she never had seen such a happy child—that I awakened each morning with a smile. I don't remember that, but I do remember that I never wanted to go to bed, to go to sleep, for fear I'd miss something".
As she grew older, Martin dated Benjamin Jackson Hagman while in high school, before being sent to the Ward-Belmont finishing school in Nashville. Mary and Benjamin convinced her mother to allow them to marry. They did, and by the age of 17, Martin was legally married, pregnant with her first child (actor Larry Hagman) and forced to leave finishing school. However she was happy to begin her new life.
Their honeymoon was at her parent's house, and Martin's dream of life with a family and a white-picket fence faded. "I was 17, a married woman without real responsibilities, miserable about my mixed-up emotions, afraid there was something awfully wrong with me because I didn't enjoy being a wife. Worst of all, I didn't have enough to do". It was "Sister" who came to her rescue, suggesting that she should teach dance. "Sister" taught Martin her first real dance—the waltz clog. Martin perfectly imitated her first dance move, and she opened a dance studio. Here, she created her own moves, imitated the famous dancers she watched in the movies, and taught "Sister's" waltz clog. "I was doing something I wanted to do—creating".
Wanting to learn more moves, Martin went to California to attend the dance school at the Franchon and Marco School of the Theatre, and opened her own dance studio in Mineral Wells, Texas. She was given a ballroom studio under a certain deal—she had to sing in the lobby every Saturday. Here, she learned how to sing into a microphone and how to phrase blues songs. One day at work, she accidentally walked into the wrong room where auditions were being held. She was hired to sing "So Red Rose" at the Fox Theater in San Francisco, followed by the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles. There would be one catch — she had to sing in the wings. She scored her first professional gig, unaware that she would soon be center stage.
Soon after, Martin learned that her studio had been burnt down by a man who thought dancing was a sin. She began to express her unhappiness — she needed to let go and be free. Her father gave her advice, saying that she was too young to be married. Martin left everything behind, including her young son, Larry, and went to Hollywood while her father handled the divorce for her. In Hollywood, Martin plunged herself into auditions—so many that she became known as "Audition Mary". Her first professional audition and job was on a national radio network. She sang on a program called "Gateway to Hollywood" and was told that her job was "sustaining". Little did she know that "sustaining" meant unpaid. Among one of Martin's first auditions in Hollywood, she was "determined to give them everything I could do", before announcing her intention to sing "in my soprano voice, a song you probably don't know, 'Indian Love Call'". After singing the song, "a tall, craggly man who looked like a mountain" told Martin that he thought she had something special. He added, "Oh, and by the way, I know that song. I wrote it." It was Oscar Hammerstein II. This marked the start of her career.
Mary Martin struggled for nearly two years to break into show business. Using her maiden name, Mary Martin began pursuing a performing career singing on radio in Dallas and in nightclubs in Los Angeles. Her performance at one club impressed a theatrical producer, and he cast her in a play in New York. That production did not open, but she got a role in Cole Porter's Leave It to Me!. In that production, she became popular on Broadway and received attention in the national media singing "My Heart Belongs to Daddy". Martin reprised the song in Night and Day, (the Hollywood "biographical" movie about Porter) during the film in an audition as herself for Porter (played by Cary Grant).
"My Heart Belongs to Daddy" catapulted her career and became very special to Mary — she even sang it to her ailing father in his hospital bed while he was in a coma. Martin did not learn immediately that her father had died. Headlines read "Daddy Girl Sings About Daddy as Daddy Dies." Because of the show's demanding schedule, Martin couldn't even attend her father's funeral.
Although she appeared in nine films in her career, all between 1938 and 1943, she was generally passed over for the filmed version of the musical plays in which she starred. She herself once explained that she did not enjoy making films, because she did not have the "connection" with an audience that she had in live performances. The closest she ever came to preserving her stage performances were her famous television appearances as Peter Pan (she had starred in a musical version on Broadway in 1954, and this production was subsequently performed on NBC television in RCA's compatible color in 1955, 1956 and 1960). While Martin did not enjoy making theatrical films, she did apparently enjoy appearing on television, as she did frequently.
Martin made an appearance in 1980 in a Royal Variety Performance in London, performing "Honeybun" from South Pacific. In 1982 she was involved in a traffic accident that left her with two fractured ribs, a fractured pelvis, and a punctured lung. Her press agent Ben Washer died in the accident.
She received the Kennedy Center Honors, an annual honor for career achievements, in 1989.
Mary Martin died at age 76 from colorectal cancer on November 3, 1990. She is buried in East Greenwood Cemetery in Weatherford, Texas.