Much of the world loves to paint Judy Garland as a tragic figure, a stage-and-screen supernova whose impetuous light burned so fiercely it was destined to suddenly gutter out. There are those who believe Garland and her appetite for life were her own undoing. Others blame her premature decline and fatal overdose (in 1969, at age 47) on decades of being eaten alive by an unforgiving industry.
Thanks to journalist Herbert Kretzmer, we know Garland herself rejected the notion that she was born under a bad star.
“Why do people insist on seeing an aura of tragedy around me always? My life isn’t tragic at all,” she told Kretzmer in a 1960 interview. This is the Garland that audiences have a chance to see and hear at An Evening with Judy Garland.
That’s not to say being Judy Garland was easy. Immediately after MGM cherry-picked Garland from the vaudeville stage and signed her to a film contract, the pressure was on to conform to Hollywood’s standards of “leading lady” material. Though she performed with depth and range beyond her teen years, somehow Garland was never thin enough, so the studio put her on a constant “camera slim” diet. Her face wasn’t quite right—nothing a couple rubber discs in her nose and prosthetic teeth couldn’t fix. Garland said she and other young actors in the MGM stable were prescribed amphetamines to keep them lively during interminable shooting schedules, then barbituates to put them to bed. After nearly 13 years of cranking out blockbusters including Babes in Arms, The Wizard of Oz, and Meet Me in St. Louis, a nervous collapse precipitated Garland’s first attempted suicide.
Garland walked away from MGM bruised and burdened with terrible substance abuse and eating disorders that would prove lifelong. But she wasn’t beaten, not by a long shot. What the paparazzi gobbled up as a disgraced flight from Hollywood was actually Garland’s golden opportunity to return to her home: the concert stage.
Garland gave the world almost two more decades in which she embodied the indomitable spirit of a true comeback kid. Her first tour of Europe drew record crowds, bolstering Garland for a return to the silver screen in the first remake of A Star Is Born. It premiered to enormous critical acclaim in 1954, but the year’s Academy Award for Best Actress went to Grace Kelly. Garland responded to what would ordinarily be a crushing blow by breaking the record for Las Vegas’ highest-paid entertainer in 1956. In 1959, after weeks of hospitalization for acute hepatitis, Garland’s doctors told her she’d never sing again. In 1961, she took the stage at Carnegie Hall. The concert's recording won four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year—the first time in history for a woman to capture the prize.
In interviews Garland was down-to-earth, readily shrugging off her living legend status. However, she failed to conceal pride over three things: her children. At first Garland tried to shield them from show business, not having enjoyed much of a childhood herself, but the kids were determined to find a way onto the stage and even join their mother there. To watch a teenaged Liza Minnelli belting out “Together Wherever We Go” with Garland on The Judy Garland Show is at times like seeing (and hearing) double. In some of her final concerts, Lorna and Joe Luft performed alongside her.
“My children are the most important things in my life, far more important to me than career, success, marital happiness, or anything else,” Garland told a reporter for TV Radio Mirror in 1963.
“The one thing I pray is that my children can help themselves through what they learn,” she said. “I had to suffer years first before I learned that pills, screaming, and other crutches didn’t solve the problem. Now I know it’s in yourself and love for others—particularly your children.”
2019 brings us the 80th anniversary of Dorothy Gale transporting audiences somewhere over the rainbow and the 50th anniversary of Judy Garland’s spirit traveling even farther beyond. Now is the time to hear her story told in her own words and in her own voice. An Evening with Judy Garland presents just such a telling, with Sarasota Orchestra underscoring the icon singing her greatest hits.
Joe Luft, who oversees the estate of Judy Garland, has stated of the program, "I'll never forget watching my mom perform. The passion she brought to the stage and the way she could captivate an audience. I believe [this concert] captures that experience." In performances punctuated by rare home movie footage, archival photos, and interviews, “An Evening with Judy Garland” illuminates its heroine as exuberant, tenacious, and anything but tragic.
[This story was originally featured in the February 2019 issue of West Coast Woman.]