I grew up thinking Mary Martin was a boy. At least she was to me — as Peter Pan. So convincing was this grown woman as a mischievous little boy, this talented actress captivated my imagine so fully that my sister and I literally wore out the tape Mamaw had recorded for us of the classic 1960’s Broadway version of Peter Pan (which I’m still waiting to come out on DVD for purchase, National Broadcasting Company!).
While I’m now well aware that Ms. Martin did so many other wonderful works on stage in South Pacific and the Sound of Music, she will forever be Peter Pan to me.
Mary Martin was born in Weatherford, Texas and grew up with a wonderful, close-knit family surrounded by their orchard. Like any other Texas girl, she rode horses and climbed trees. But not like all other girls, she began to show a talent for singing at a very young age. She began singing in the square outside the courthouse where her father worked as a lawyer. She had an ear for music and found it easy to memorize songs and melodies. As she watched popular movie musicals, she could imitate great singers such as Bing Crosby.
Mary had an insatiable appetite for life, recalling in her autobiography My Heart Belongs, ” I do remember that I never wanted to go to bed, to go to sleep, for fear I’d miss something.”
Following high school, she went off to Ward-Belmont Finishing School in Nashville, but felt it was dull and confining. She was homesick, missed her family, and especially her high school sweetheart Benjamin Jackson Hagman. She left finishing school to marry Hagman, and was back home again now with her first son, but still felt restless when her sister convinced her she needed something to pour her energies into. She began to teach dance at her own dance studio, imitating the dances she learned in films and creating her own.
Martin soon moved to California to attend dance school, but upon accidentally stumbling into a voice audition room, she was soon hired for her vocal abilities, but this meant leaving her life behind in Texas, and ultimately giving up her son. Still, she pushed on, eventually meeting Oscar Hammerstein who essentially launcher her career when he overheard her singing one of his own compositions. While she paid her years as a starving artist but finally moved from Hollywood to Dallas to Broadway leading her to star in Cole Porter’s “Leave It to Me!” She was a star overnight. Still, it meant sacrificing time with family, but she was able at one point to sing to her father, while he was ailing in hospital her famous “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”
She continued to star on Broadway, and travel the country in various performances, often returning to her home state, and winning many Tony Awards for her work in the 1940 -50’s. While she did appear on film, she preferred a live audience and the connection she had while performing for a crowd. Perhaps her most notorious and crowning achievement came in my beloved, and Emmy-award winning Peter Pan, with music by “Moose” Charlap and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, filmed live on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theater which was broadcast in 1955, 1956, and 1960. Take a look at this great clip of Mary Martin introducing “himself” as Peter.
Though a national entertainment figure, Mary chose to be buried in her hometown of Weatherford, Texas, where they’ve erected a statue of Mary as her most famous starring role as Peter Pan.
And that, my friends, is why Peter Pan is, to me, a Southerner. (Side note: another brilliant version stars the beautiful Jeremy Sumpter, a Kentucky boy, as Peter in the 2003 live-action film.)