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At the Memorial Service for Baritone Robert Merrill

BY STEPHEN MILLER - Staff Reporter of the Sun
December 16, 2004

Yesterday's memorial service for Robert Merrill, the great baritone who sang at the Metropolitan Opera for more than 30 years, started in a way one might suspect he would have liked: with his recorded rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," the same version played daily during baseball season at Yankee Stadium. The hundreds of friends and fans present at the Juilliard Theater rose. A few even doffed their caps.

Merrill died October 23.

The president of Juilliard, Joseph Polini, was the first speaker. He said the recording of the anthem had an unusual history: It was made in 1987 at the Juilliard Theater with the Juilliard Orchestra, and the proceeds from the session (which also included a rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game") were used to finance a round of inoculations for the orchestra before its first-ever tour of the Far East.

Memories were shared by two of Merrill's colleagues: the baritone Sherrill Milnes and the soprano Leontyne Price, who said she was in awe of Merrill's voice: "so sumptuous, easily delivered, and sensuous, all in the same person's throat."

Slides and video and audio clips covered highlights of Merrill's career, starting with his appearance on "Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour" in 1936, when he was still working in the garment industry. The radio audience's cackles grew to howls as Merrill described himself as "working on ladies' belts" and his father as "an operator in ladies' dresses."

Technicolor clips from televised performances of Merrill singing "The Toreador Song" from "Carmen" and "Largo al factotum" from "The Barber of Seville" displayed him in a dramatic frenzy, leering and moving and hitting notes with aplomb.

Merrill had but a single full-fledged film role, in "Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick" (1952), a musical of devastating mediocrity that briefly imperiled his career when he abandoned a Met tour to film it. After apologizing to the Met director, Rudolf Bing, Merrill was reinstated. He didn't appear in another film until "Anger Management," a 2003 comedy starring Adam Sandler and Marisa Tomei. In a clip shown at the memorial, Mr. Sandler takes the microphone from Merrill as the baritone sings the national anthem at Yankee Stadium. As Mr. Sandler begins to propose marriage to Ms. Tomei in front of 50,000 fans, Merrill tackles Mr. Sandler from behind and snarls in his face, "Nobody messes with my mic."

Also doing a cameo in the same scene was Mayor Giuliani, who was on hand yesterday to recall days he spent watching the Yankees in a field box at the stadium with Merrill. He saw Merrill in a dozen roles at the old Met, on 40th Street. Mr. Giuliani recalled, "He was a hero of mine, like Yogi Berra was a hero of mine."

Merrill, a one-time semi-pro player who grew up in Brooklyn, was "a frustrated ballplayer," his widow, Marion Merrill, said. Photos of Merrill in a Yankees uniform - sporting no. 1 1 / 2 - made it clear that he regarded himself as an honorary member of the team.

Live music played a smaller part in the proceedings than originally planned because the pianist Van Cliburn withdrew due to illness. In his place, Merrill's grandson Jesse Merrill played some schoolboy Mozart. Later, Skitch Henderson, former musical director of the "Tonight Show" and the founder of the New York Pops orchestra, played an almost impossibly beautiful version of Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are." It was a fitting tribute to a man whose musicality meant almost as much to Yankees supporters as it did to serious opera fans.

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