May 15, 2000 12:00 PM

The audience had left after the opening night of 42nd Street in Washington, D.C., 20 years ago. But on his way out, the show’s leading man, Jerry Orbach, noticed producer David Merrick lingering alone onstage. “I invited him to a poker game with the cast members,” recalls the Law & Order star. Merrick simply pointed to the set and replied, “This is my poker game.”

For much of his life, Merrick held the winningest hand around. The impresario, who died April 25 at a London rest home at age 88, was considered one of the most successful showmen in Broadway history; among his more than 80 productions were such smashes as Gypsy (1959), Oliver! (’63), Hello, Dolly! (’64) and 42nd Street. Along the way, he won six Tony Awards and helped define the careers of Ethel Merman (in Gypsy) and Carol Channing (in Hello, Dolly!). “In terms of quality, success and profitability,” says columnist and former New York Times drama critic Frank Rich, “no one had a record like his.”

Nor, it seems, the thirst to succeed. An often tyrannical presence who dubbed himself the Abominable Showman, Merrick was a relentless schemer for publicity. Once, when critics panned his 1961 show Subways Are for Sleeping, he rounded up people with the same names as the critics and placed an ad quoting their raves. In 1966, Mary Tyler Moore was due to make her Broadway debut in a musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s when she heard that Merrick was going to fire her. Not true, said Merrick. “So I said, ‘Why don’t you say so [publicly]?’ ” recalls Moore. “He said, ‘Because having these rumors rampant is good for the show.’ It was cold and heartless, but he was absolutely right.” (Not for long: The show closed during previews.)

Merrick’s most controversial theatrics came at the curtain call following 42nd Street’s 1980 Broadway premiere. Looking stricken, Merrick took the stage and announced that the show’s director, Gower Champion, 61, had died of a rare blood disease some hours earlier—news he had kept to himself through the day. “We were stunned,” recalls Orbach. “It’s 50-50 whether he did it just for the publicity value.”

The same question could apply to his personal life. Merrick married at least five times—twice to Etan Aronson—and had two daughters, Cecilia Ann, now 37, and Marguerita, 27. His second marriage to Aronson, in 1983, led to 10 years of divorce proceedings, enthusiastically related in the New York press. They traded charges of adultery; he accused her of abandonment; she labeled him a cocaine user and tried to have him declared mentally infirm. They finally divorced last year, and Merrick reportedly married Natalie Lloyd, his live-in companion since 1989 (though friends questioned whether they had wed at all).

Not the sort of drama that typically unfolds in St. Louis, where Merrick was born David Margulois, the youngest child of a grocer and his wife. After a brief career as a lawyer, the aspiring playwright moved to New York City in 1939. He invested in a few plays, then devoted himself to a producing career, which struck gold with the 1954 musical Fanny. His career faltered only when he left his blood-red Manhattan office for a brief stint in Hollywood, where he produced 1974’s The Great Gatsby.

In 1983, Merrick suffered a stroke that left him nearly unable to speak and confined to a wheelchair. Still the show went on: He produced State Fair in 1996. And three weeks after his stroke, he had managed to wheel himself out of a Manhattan rehab center. A police officer found him tipped over 11 blocks away. When his friend Joy Mitosky saw him soon after, she recalls, he was grinning widely. “He was determined to go home,” she notes. “And he had won.”

Dan Jewel

Sharon Cotliar in New York City

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