If the American musical had a guardian angel, it was Mary Martin. For five decades her impish energy hovered over Broadway, sprinkling stages with magic and transporting theatergoers to Never-Never-Land. She created the roles of Nellie, one of the dames there was nothing like in South Pacific, and Maria in The Sound of Music, but was best known for Peter Pan. In the nation's imagination she was the boy who wouldn't grow up, perhaps because she believed it herself. "Never-Land is the way I'd like real life to be," she wrote in My Heart Belongs, her 1976 autobiography, "timeless, free, mischievous, filled with gaiety..."

"She was heaven," says Carol Channing, who sat at her old friend's bedside in Rancho Mirage, Calif., less than an hour before her death of liver cancer on Nov. 3, at age 76. "In the early days we had fun, we laughed and she was so strong. She still was when I was sitting next to her and she squeezed my hand."

A plucky, unpretentious trouper with a streak of vulnerability, she never lost the common touch that anchored her magnetism. She always made time for autographs and often invited fans backstage. An inventive showwoman, she had the idea of actually shampooing her hair onstage every night while singing South Pacific's, "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair." And so she did—more than 1,000 times.

Martin didn't like movies (she made nearly a dozen forgettable features), and the big screen never telegraphed the fresh-faced insouciance she displayed on Broadway. She made the stage hers in Cole Porter's 1938 hit, Leave It to Me, when she won raves for a comic striptease while singing her signature song, "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." But she would lay her claim to a generation of TV viewers in 1955, when NBC broadcast the first of three TV adaptations of Peter Pan, in which the 41-year-old actress performed a daring aerial ballet. (The 1960 color telecast was released on video this year.) Although she slowed her pace in recent years, Martin kept working. In 1987 she toured with Channing in Legends!, a non-musical about a pair of bitchy Hollywood battle-axes. The world was her theater, and, contemplating her own end, she said, "It's been a fabulous life and a wonderful career. I'll keep living until it's time. Then I'll just go on to another stage."