Artwork © Eric N. Peterson
Judy Garland at the Palace
When MGM fired Judy Garland in the nineteen fifties, after she had been their biggest money maker for decades – after she had been on the payroll since she was a pre-teen and Louis B. Mayer affectionately called her “My little hunchback” and personally fed her diet pills – they took the precaution of releasing the film from her costume fittings for “Annie Get Your Gun.”
There she was, wan, glassy eyed, horrifyingly thin, hardly able to stand up, clearly unable to perform. She was only twenty-nine but she looked like a sickly forty. Rumor had it the voice was shot.
The costume films were released to prevent any backlash against the studio for what might be perceived as corporate disloyalty or against the movie at the box office and they certainly did the trick. Betty Hutton replaced Judy. The movie was a smash. Hutton became a big star and, as far as everyone in Hollywood was concerned, the Garland career was over and done with.
Everyone knew the stories about her suicide attempts, her failed romances, her erratic behavior on the set. Then, she did not help matters by immediately gaining a ton of weight and wedding Sid Luft, a shady character whose only claim to fame was marriage to a Grade B movie star, Lynn Bari. Luft promptly promoted himself to the post of Judy’s manager and producer; a final nail in her coffin, as far as the industry was concerned.
But the wags were wrong because Luft figured out just what to do with her. Her movie career was finished. She was not getting any offers from TV. Radio would not pay enough to make a dent in her enormous debts. She was too weak to take on a major tour. What she needed was something that would keep her grounded, get her enormous exposure and take her back home, where she belonged – before a live audience.
Luft, to everyone’s amazement, said the answer was in a dead and buried venue: Vaudeville. He was going to bring back the two-a-day with Judy at the top of the bill and he was going to produce it at the jewel in Vaudeville’s crown, New York’s Palace Theatre!
He got to work, making deals, refurbishing the theatre which had fallen on bad times as a tired movie house. He put Judy on a diet, got her to rehearse, built up her confidence, all the while touting the venture to the papers.
And it worked. The combination of affection for the old medium, the past glories of the Palace, everybody’s memories of being young in New York, and Judy Garland, America’s sweetheart gone sour, offered a breathtaking emotional roller coaster ride. Of course, every gay guy in Manhattan rushed to get a ticket because her vulnerability, her sense of drama, her self destructive tendencies, her trembling vibrato were so comforting and familiar that she was known as Queen of the Friends of Dorothy.
Judy did a ninety minute show, capping it with “We’re A Couple of Bums” from “Easter Parade,” in the famous hobo outfit: blackened tooth, tattered clothes, rouged cheeks, matted hair, clown nose, silly hat; a guaranteed laugh-getter.
Then, she sat on the apron, legs crossed under her like a kid. The lights dimmed so that her tiny, dirty face glowed in the dark and, astonishingly, with her in that silly outfit, the audience still beaming, the familiar intro to “Over The Rainbow” throbbed up from the orchestra pit; the anthem to lost youth and dreams that she had first sung as a fresh faced teen, and even the ancient walls of the Palace trembled as Judy started to sing it again.
Over the rainbow…”
It was a totally manipulated moment, having her sing that song in her Raggedy-Andy costume, a piece of shtick which could have been inspired, everyone said, only by Sid Luft with his vulgar, carny taste.
But it worked brilliantly, striking a chord in every chest so that Judy felt the waves of love coming over the footlights and, every night, she was reduced to tears, which glistened in the pin spot.
Over the rainbow…”
The gay guys went bonkers and even the straight boys and girls in the house reached for one another. I was there one night, transfixed in the balcony. Those were tough times for gay guys. Everyone was closeted. The Vice Squad was always watching. Stonewall was over a decade away. Nobody talked about gay liberation.
I am 84 years old now but I still remember what that moment meant; what art can whisper in your ear. Stay hopeful. Keep fighting. We have dreams. They get punctured. We get hurt. We fall down. Somehow we go on.
Edward M. Cohen’s story collection, “Before Stonewall,” was published by Awst Press; his novel, “$250,000,” by G.P. Putnam’s Sons; his novella, “A Visit to my Father with my Son,” by Running Wild Press; his chapbook, “Grim Gay Tales,” by Fjords Review. This memoir originally appeared in Santa Fe Writer’s Project Journal.
Eric N. Peterson is from Atlanta, Ga. He’s been drawing cartoons all his life. He leans towards the absurd, imaginative, and the surreal, as that’s where all the flavor is.