& Her Legendary Career
"How do You Measure Miracles?"
[Above: The Gumm Sisters, 1925 -- several months prior to Judy's third birthday. From left: Mary Jane, Dorothy Virginia, and "Baby" (Frances Ethel) Gumm]
The five-word quote above is taken from a Toronto TELEGRAM newspaper review of Judy Garland’s December 1961 concert at Canada’s O’Keefe Center, and it’s the same basic response she won virtually all of her performing life. As a child in 1930s vaudeville, she was defined as "the little girl with the great big voice." As the preeminent star of musical motion pictures in the 1940s, she was known as "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's greatest asset." In the 1950s -- when she returned to revue work on stage and began appearing on television -- they billed her as "Miss Show Business." And when she began to tour in concert in 1960, the posters simply read, "JUDY/World's Greatest Entertainer."
Even now, decades later, it would be difficult to argue with any of those facts.
Judy Garland celebrates her centenary in 2022, for it was on June 10, 1922, that Frances Ethel Gumm was born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. At thirty months, she made her formal stage debut and thereafter sang in vaudeville with her two older siblings, billed as “The Gumm Sisters.” By the time she was ten, "Baby" Gumm -- as she was nicknamed by her family -- was the show-stopper of every performance. Entertainer George Jessel first heard her a couple of years later and marveled at her vocal power, quality, and ability to interpret lyrics: “She sang with the voice of a thirty-year-old woman.”
At thirteen, the rechristened Judy Garland was signed to a long-term Hollywood studio contract, and Metro's composing/arranging mainstay Roger Edens ultimately declared, "Judy was the most important thing to happen to the MGM musical." Edens wrote "Dear Mr. Gable" for her, and when that song was included in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938, it both established her as a screen personality and became a hit record.
[Above: Judy has just sung "Dear Mr. Gable: You Made Me Love You" to actor Clark Gable at his MGM birthday party, February 1937]
Such popularity also increased her already regular appearances on network radio and launched a movie career that led to twenty-seven motion pictures across the next fourteen years. These included three of the "Andy Hardy" series and four major musicals, all opposite Mickey Rooney – plus (among others) THE WIZARD OF OZ, LITTLE NELLIE KELLY, ZIEGFELD GIRL, PRESENTING LILY MARS, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, THE CLOCK, TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY, THE HARVEY GIRLS, THE PIRATE, WORDS AND MUSIC, IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME, and SUMMER STOCK. At Judy’s request, Gene Kelly made his movie debut as her partner in FOR ME AND MY GAL, and film veteran Fred Astaire came out of retirement just to work with her in EASTER PARADE.
[Above: Dorothy and Toto (in real life, the latter was a female Cairn terrier named Terry), THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)]
[Above: Judy and Mickey Rooney costarred in four major musicals: BABES IN ARMS, STRIKE UP THE BAND, BABES ON BROADWAY, and (here in 1943) GIRL CRAZY]
[Above: An MGM box office triumph (second only to GONE WITH THE WIND): Judy and Margaret O'Brien in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944)]
[Above: With Gene Kelly, Judy re-popularized a classic vaudeville routine, providing the title song for FOR ME AND MY GAL (1942)]
[Above: Judy and Fred Astaire as "a couple of swells" in Irving Berlin's EASTER PARADE (1948)]
Across those same fourteen years, Judy cut eighty singles for Decca Records, made more than two hundred coast-to-coast radio appearances, did three circuits of servicemen’s camps to entertain during World War II, participated in a sixteen-city, all-star tour that sold more than one billion dollars in war bonds, and sang in countless benefit shows.
Such effort made Judy Garland an unquestioned, major star before she was twenty. By the time she was twenty-seven, however, the workload had taken its physical and emotional toll on her sensitive, vulnerable psyche and four-foot, eleven-inch frame. Her perceived unreliability stemmed from both exhaustion and a dependence on prescription medication. MGM finally dismissed her in 1950; she was considered unemployable by the entertainment industry and branded as "finished" by much of the media of the day.
[Above: When "Baby Gumm" returned to her vaudeville roots as a live stage entertainer, the industry and audiences were never again the same. Here at the Palace, NYC (1951).]
There followed a nearly two-decade span in which Judy proved again and again how incorrect had been the naysayers’ estimations. Across these years, there were eleven-hundred "live" appearances. She returned to the stage in triumph at the London Palladium in 1951, scoring further triumphs in England in 1957, 1960, 1964, and 1968-69. She reopened New York’s Palace Theatre -- bringing vaudeville back to its flagship theater on Broadway -- and played there for an unprecedented nineteen weeks in 1951-52; she was presented a special Tony Award for that achievement. (Judy returned to the Palace again in 1956-57 and 1967, breaking box office records on each visit.) In 1956, she became the highest-paid entertainer ever to appear in Las Vegas, and the desert supper clubs welcomed her back in 1957, 1958, 1959, 1962, 1965, and 1967. In 1959, she was the first popular singer to play a week's engagement at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. Her return to motion pictures brought an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for A STAR IS BORN (1954), a three-hour production in which she gave what TIME Magazine defined as "the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history.” CBS presented her television debut a year later, and the ninety-minute program attracted the largest TV audience for a "special" to that date. Capitol Records released a series of lauded popular song "concept" albums by Judy beginning in 1955, teaming her with such orchestrators as Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins.
[Above: The most-highly regarded of all film versions of A STAR IS BORN -- and the reason why. (Warner Bros., 1954)]
[Above: Recording at the Capitol Records Tower in 1956 for the album, JUDY (orchestrated by Nelson Riddle).]
Understandably, that decade of pressure took its toll, as well. In late 1959, Judy Garland was hospitalized with a case of hepatitis so severe that doctors despaired of her life. She unexpectedly recovered but was told that she was “a permanent semi-invalid” and could never -- under any circumstances -- work again.
As one of her album titles had already proclaimed, however, Judy was “born to sing.” She was also and frequently the sole support of her three treasured children, Liza Minnelli and Lorna and Joseph Luft (born, respectively, in 1946, 1952, and 1955). Thus, seven months after her hospitalization, the revitalized Judy Garland began her concert career in 1960, ultimately touring with unprecedented success to scores of venues -- from London and the United Kingdom to Paris, Amsterdam, Sydney, Stockholm, Copenhagen, the Newport Jazz Festival, the Hollywood Bowl, the Houston Astrodome, and the Boston Common. (For the latter outdoor performance in 1967, she drew her largest live audience: 108,000 people.) The legendary highlight of her concert years came on April 23, 1961, and the live JUDY AT CARNEGIE HALL recording of that evening’s twenty-eight song repertoire went on to win five Grammy Awards, including "Album of the Year" and "Best Female Vocal Performance." The two-disc set was on the charts for ninety-five weeks, thirteen of them at Number One; from vinyl to tape to compact disc, it has never been out-of-print.
[Above: "The greatest night in show business history": Judy at Carnegie Hall, 1961.]
[Above: Judy wore her "lucky jacket" in stage performances from 1958-1962 (here in the latter year at Chicago's McCormick Place).]
[Above: THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW TV series remains a classic example of television musical variety at its peak (1963-64).]
[Above: A triumphant seven-month tour in 1967 brought new levels of excitement and joy to Garland fans.]
Those final nine years of her life saw further motion picture success, including acclaimed dramatic roles in A CHILD IS WAITING and I COULD GO ON SINGING (both 1963) and another Oscar nomination (as Best Supporting Actress) for JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961). High-rated and acclaimed television specials in 1962 and 1963 led to the weekly JUDY GARLAND SHOW series in 1963-64; her own TV work and programs won a total of ten Emmy nominations between 1956 and 1964.
She remains the youngest recipient of the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award (1962), and that organization had already honored her with a Golden Globe as Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical for A STAR IS BORN (1954). Her 1939 film performances in THE WIZARD OF OZ and BABES IN ARMS garnered Judy a special Academy Award for the Outstanding Performance by a Screen Juvenile.
[Above: With her three favorite "productions" in January 1961: Liza Minnelli (fourteen), Lorna Luft (eight), and Joseph Luft (five).]
Judy Garland died in London on June 22, 1969, but to say she has remained omnipresent in pop culture history is a colossal understatement. Very few stars of her era have been able to provide an exciting, emotional entertainment touchstone for each succeeding generation. As a result, she is constantly rediscovered, embraced, and venerated for an undeniably singular talent, joy, and communicative power unequalled to this day.
It's for all of this – and for her humor, courage, and faith – that she receives such ongoing recognition, and for which (despite eternal and frequently distorted tabloid journalism) she deserves to be remembered.
Better still, enjoy her: THE WIZARD OF OZ, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, EASTER PARADE, A STAR IS BORN, and all the rest. Revel in the magic of her television specials and TV series on home video. Listen to her commercial recordings from 1935-1967. Marvel at the comedy timing in her talk show and vintage radio appearances.
Finally . . . experience her magic and sincerity and electricity – and then ponder: “How do you measure miracles?”
-- John Fricke
John Fricke is regarded as the preeminent Judy Garland and WIZARD OF OZ historian. He has written three books about Judy (JUDY GARLAND: WORLD’S GREATEST ENTERTAINER, JUDY GARLAND: A PORTRAIT IN ART & ANECDOTE, and JUDY: A LEGENDARY FILM CAREER) and two about MGM’s motion picture (THE WIZARD OF OZ: THE OFFICIAL 50th ANNIVERSARY PICTORIAL HISTORY and THE WIZARD OF OZ: AN ILLUSTRATED COMPANION TO THE TIMELESS MOVIE CLASIC). He received Emmy Awards as co-producer of the Garland television documentaries, JUDY: BEYOND THE RAINBOW (an A&E “Biography” special) and JUDY GARLAND: BY MYSELF (a PBS “American Masters” entry). John was nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best Album Notes” for the Capitol compact disc, JUDY GARLAND: 25th ANNIVERSARY RETROSPECTIVE; he has appeared regularly on the Turner Classic Movies network, as well as on TODAY, CNN, ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT, and National Public Radio. In addition to lecturing about Judy and Oz across the United States and in England and France, he recorded the commentary tracks on eight Garland DVD releases.