She would’ve been 97 years old today…and just to give you an idea, she was born just a few months after Betty White.
It just feels very fitting that she both came into the world and left it in June, the month that is now synonymous with LGBT Pride…and not only that, her death occurred a week before the Stonewall Riots. As a kid, I always assumed her death somehow fueled the riot…which, of course, was a silly notion.
I had started a “series” of sorts where I hoped to post various clips of my favorite Judy Garland performances and I wanted to be sure to definitely do so today considering this was her birthday.
Today, I decided to focus on her short-lived but now legendary variety series aptly titled THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW, which aired for one season on CBS from 1963-1964. It was a typical case of a series that had a small but strong fan base and relative critical pedigree but they just so happened to air it opposite one of the biggest successes on television: NBC’s western BONANZA.
Garland had always been wary of the idea of performing on TV, as a lot of film stars often were, but due to her many trials which also included hefty debts and back taxes, she ended up taking the gig in hopes that her TV salary would help her jump from the red to the black. Garland did end up saying she wanted to spend more time caring for her children so with that and the low ratings, CBS cancelled the show and Garland never truly recovered in the financial department.
Her variety show was wonderful, but also incredibly flawed. Garland herself knew her strengths so as the season went along, we got more of Garland singing as opposed to being in sketches…and if she would only have a rapport with her singing guest stars which worked out a lot better.
The show also gained a significant boost when after the series began airing, critics and the small audience alike instantly took a dislike to the show’s resident comedian, Jerry van Dyke. After filming his 10th episode, they fired him on the spot and then the remaining episodes proceed much more smoothly.
Garland’s performances were splendid on the show, but I am going to limit myself to discussing five as opposed to…well…all of them.
“AS LONG AS HE NEEDS ME”
–This would’ve been pretty much brand new to most people at the time considering it originated from the musical OLIVER, which had just opened on Broadway the previous year. Definitely one of her more subtle efforts (although it ends with some nice belting and some of her trademark tics) and this is always the version I go to if I ever want to hear the song. I also love the violin accompaniment in the background.
“BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC”
-Judy Garland was a close friend of then President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie…and obviously was devastated by his infamous and legendary death in 1963. Following this, she wanted to perform a special song on the show, which in the clip, states that it has been rarely heard on TV. She never explicitly says that it was meant as a dedication to JFK but the story behind it was well known and she got it on the air despite CBS not really wanting the religious song on the air. The result was a very militant and emotional performance that, despite a small lyric flub during the second verse, moved the audience to leap to their feet for a standing ovation. In some ways, I think this is a contender for one of her best performances ever.
“GET HAPPY/HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN”
-I do have to say that when it comes to my Gay Card, some people might want it revoked when I say that I have never been a passionate fan of Barbra Streisand. Having said that, her early work which was much more brassy and raw than what she would eventually become by the 70s, is usually always stellar. In many ways, this duet is a passing of the baton and you can truly sense how floored Garland is by Streisand’s intense presence and unique timbre…and remarkably enough, Garland lets Streisand steal the spotlight because she earned the moment.
“OLD MAN RIVER”
-Not much to say about this one…but I guess I will come up with something. As a true classic originating from one of the most important musicals ever written (that being SHOWBOAT), I feel like Garland’s take on this song is just, simply, quite powerful. She was always great at finding such rich emotion in whatever she sang.
“WEST SIDE STORY Medley”
-I do have to mention that I have never exactly been a big fan of WEST SIDE STORY. I certainly acknowledge its groundbreaking importance in musical theatre and it does have some lovely music at times, but it just never really latched on to me as one of my all-time favorites. The reason I include this particular duet (which was actually lip-synched but whatever) is because both her and Vic Damone sound great together but also, Garland ends the medley while belting an F, which was a higher note than she typically would hit in songs. The first time I recall seeing this clip, I noticed the key change in the final stanza and I thought “Wait, is she going to hit the note I think she is going to hit?”…that she did…and it was glorious. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason it was not done live was because she was afraid of the note.
So, those are some random selections that stood out for me from her show, and that isn’t even going to her duets with her daughter Liza Minnelli or Ethel Merman and…I could go on but I will stop because they joy will be too much and I am already distracted at work now!
Happy Birthday Judy…you were one of a kind and no one will ever come close to what you achieved.