Ethel Merman learns her stage son is a future priest


The 1954 movie “There’s No Business Like Show Business” was a vehicle for the music of composer Irving Berlin, with Ethel Merman famously belting out the title tune and Marilyn Monroe vamping up “After You Get What You Want.” The Hollywood extravaganza — filmed in CinemaScope! — also features impressive dancing by Mitzi Gaynor, irresponsible drinking by Donald O’Connor’s lovesick character — and an ordination Mass.

The ordination scene is brief but solemn and respectful, almost completely out of place in a show filled with outsized emotions and over-the-top dance numbers. (Bare-chested male dancers hurtle around Monroe, at her sultriest, as she sings “Heat Wave.”)

When Steve (Johnnie Ray) tells his parents that he is about to enter the seminary, and that being a priest is what he wants more than anything else in his life, his parents don’t react well. His father (Dan Dailey) is especially upset, furiously saying he doesn’t want Steve to miss out on the joy of raising children.

In a comically ironic turn, he angrily yells “I won’t let you give all that up” at the son who has supposedly filled his life with joy.

Steve’s sister (Gaynor) comes to his defense, saying he might “turn out to be something really big, like a bishop or even a cardinal.” To which her father snaps, “The only cardinal I want in this family should play for Saint Louis.”

The movie’s screenwriters were Phoebe and Henry Ephron, who achieved success with films like the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn comedy “Desk Set” and the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “Carousel.” They were non-observant Jews.

They were also alcoholics, and they had a stormy marriage. Their daughters remember their endless fighting, their father’s philandering, and their mother’s lack of warmth and affection. (Their oldest daughter was Nora Ephron, the essayist, screenwriter and director, most known for romantic comedies like “Sleepless in Seattle.” She didn’t attend her father’s funeral.)

Yet, speaking in Saint Peter’s Square in July, Pope Francis repeated a common theme of his: “God’s grace often presents itself to us in surprising ways that do not match our expectations.” And speaking to an audience of consecrated women and men earlier in the year, he told them the Holy Spirit “never tires of being creative.”

Regardless of the Ephrons’ family troubles, the comedic and melodramatic “There’s No Business Like Show Business” includes a quiet mother-and-son scene which, in its simplicity and understatement, probably rings true to many men who have answered the call to ordained priesthood.

When they’re alone, Molly (Merman) assures her son that his father will calm down and come to proudly accept his decision to enter the seminary (which he does). She says she is proud of him. But, still in shock, she asks, “Why? How come?”

“I don’t know,” the future priest answers. “It’s in me. It must have always been there.”

The Diocese of Camden Office of Vocations has advice for parents whose son has an interest in the priesthood. Go to

Carl Peters is the Catholic Star Herald managing editor.