June 5, 2015 – “THANKS FOR EVERYTHING…” AND THEN SOME – PART TWO
[At left: Judy Garland “in Concert” at Chicago’s Arie Crown Theatre, McCormick Place, on May 7, 1965 -- photographed by Nancy Barr Brandon. Center: Same singer, same town, different venue: The Civic Opera House, September 14, 1967. At right: At a promotional press conference for the latter engagement, September 13, 1967; with Judy is her twelve-year-old son, Joseph. The last two photographs courtesy David Price.]
Last week, I was able to share some preteen memories about falling, and falling hard, for Judy Garland. The entry also included several of her own observations about (and later active-reactions to) having portrayed Dorothy Gale -- and quintessentially so -- in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 movie musical version of THE WIZARD OF OZ. That role infused both her offstage persona and her professional work for the remaining thirty years of her life; to this day, it serves as the foundation of Garland’s ongoing legend and twenty-first century familiarity to most people over the age of three.
There are a number of reasons for posting Judy-related recollections right now. For one thing, her ninety-third birthday anniversary falls on June 10th. She left us just forty-six years ago as of June 22nd. And last month marked the fiftieth anniversary of my first Garland concert; ‘twas Friday, May 7, 1965, at Chicago’s Arie Crown Theatre at McCormick Place, and it’s been a hallowed date ever since. Beyond the obvious chronological milestone, this year was particularly telling, in that Sue LeBeau Parry – whom I’d met at the performance that night – traveled to New York with her youngest daughter Emily from their homes in Southern California a few weeks back, JUST so that we could enjoy a joint celebration of our five decades of friendship. Except for a brief period in the 1970s, Sue and I never have lost touch. Her husband and girls are cherished, extended family, and our reunions (no matter how sporadic) always are cause for laughter, joy, energy, tears, and some out-and-out gratitude.
Judy’s show itself fifty years ago was fraught with electricity, thrills, and unforgettable extremes. She was having vocal difficulty on the softer passages of her eighteen songs – and so worried about her voice that she forgot lyrics here and there as well. But when she opened up to belt out a big note or a big number, she never missed. There’s no question that the most unique and memorable moment came with her final encore, when she was unable to sustain the softer notes of “Over the Rainbow.” She stopped singing after the first few bars and confessed, “I’ll have to talk it.” Garland the Actress never was more in tune or attuned; she underplayed the emotion and emphasis, and the audience was hushed and mesmerized. To cap off the number, she bravely began to sing at the very last phrase, surmounted a broken note on her first word, and hit the rest of ‘em head on. The responsive roar in appreciation from forty-five hundred people was indescribable. (A murkier-than-murky audio recording of that particular performance can be found on You Tube: https://youtu.be/g37Npu3mRGE It’s worth a listen…and then some.)
Two years later, when I was sixteen and she was eighteen, Sue and I shared two additional Garland concerts, this go-round at Chicago’s Civic Opera House. On Friday night, September 15th, Judy delivered an amazing twenty songs in ninety minutes. Saturday night – the final show of a three-performance run – she came on as scheduled at 10 p.m. -- and stayed on for just over two hours. There were extra songs, an ovation that continued long after the curtain came down and the houselights were turned up, and an all-ages audience that spontaneously began to chant, “We want Judy!” After two or three minutes of this, the houselights were doused, the curtain suddenly and unexpectedly went back up, the orchestra crept back into the pit, and Judy returned from her dressing room to generously, elatedly put across a fourth encore.
These blogs on behalf of The Oz Museum of Wamego, Kansas, wind up next week -- it was a year-long contract! -- so we’ll all have to align at some future date and location to share in further details of the Garland concerts. (That saga also includes the side exploits of the teenage team of LeBeau & Fricke… how Sue and I discovered which Ambassador East Hotel suite Judy had taken for her stay in Chicago…and what happened when we bought her a box of candy…went up to the eleventh floor…and knocked on the door of “Le Salon Bleu.”) (Truth be told, the answer is: “Not much.” But it’s still a fun story to the two of us!)
I would like to share, however, one additional and particular aspect of that weekend, as it was then that I was privileged to have a single, very brief, one-on-one conversation with Judy -- at around 2:30 a.m., Saturday, September 16, 1967, in the Pump Room restaurant of the Ambassador East In our dozen exchanged sentences, she manifested welcome, warmth, kindness, sharing, and (finally, and of course) humor. She had completed her show around 11:30 p.m., returned to the hotel around 12:30 a.m. with her two youngest children (Lorna, then 14, and Joe, then 12), headed upstairs with them to say good-night, and then come down to unwind and enjoy her after-work meal.
As I recall, she was sitting with former husband (and once-again manager and money-mangle-r) Sid Luft and her conductor Bobby Cole. Their table was all about quiet conversation and dinner; there was nothing theatrical about her presence, and she was wearing the pert little white Bonwit Teller suit she’d donned for her press conference two days earlier. (See photo above.) But – hey! – it was Judy Garland, and with absolutely no effort at all, she was the cynosure of the room. The Stanley Paul Trio was subtlety playing her songbook in the background, the other diners and dancers were ever-so-casually and politely jockeying to ogle her, and the wait staff was beaming at her presence. (Celebrated journalist Shana Alexander later would recall a comment of her mother’s, who heard Garland sing at a Hollywood party in the mid-1930s when Judy was barely in her teens. She said that the young girl’s personal charisma, talent, and voice “oxygenated the air.” It was the same thing at the Pump Room – and she wasn’t even singing.)
By absolute sheer luck, the four of us – John Walther, Dana Correll, and Carolyn Dollar – were led to a table just across a narrow aisle from Judy & Company. John was eighteen and had been a Wisconsin Garland-fan-friend for over three years. Dana (from Southern Illinois) and Carolyn (from Indiana) were in their late twenties, but I’d been Garland-fan-pen-pals with Dana for over three years as well. So we were all in thrall and ENthralled together on this occasion.
I, however, ended up in a chair with my back to Judy. NOT cool. What, of course, was less cool was my holding up my $5.00 glass of Coca Cola (the 1967 Pump Room price, thank you very much) to try and catch the Garland reflection over my shoulder.
It didn’t work.
So…when she was done eating, I started to stand up. My companions were appalled; there was a general hissing of, “You’re NOT going to go over there!” (They later explained that they, themselves, were too scared to make such a move and were reacting only to my supposed bravery. I just think they had better manners than I and were too classy to cross the aisle….)
But I riposted: “I might never get another chance to talk to Judy Garland!” And as I’d figuratively been in love with her for almost eleven years, I needed to – in so many words – say so. It certainly wouldn’t much matter to her; it meant everything to me.
The two gentlemen at her table were, at that moment, talking between themselves. So when I quietly ventured, “Judy?,” she instantly looked up and gave me the kind of convivial smile that offered, “I’ve been waiting all my life to meet you.” (And THAT was Judy Garland; it had nothing to do with me and absolutely everything to do with the kind of human being she was.)
At age sixteen, I have been charitably described as “the Opie of Mayberry of Milwaukee” and/or “a fetus in a coat-and-tie.” Anyway – I warn’t prepossessing, on any level. But my red-haired, freckled countenance certainly posed no threat, and I was momentarily speechless when that Garland Gaze fell upon me. I remember two VERY specific perceptions on my part:
a) Her eyes were so big and so dark brown as to almost be black; and
b) I couldn’t believe there was an actual human being who looked like those hundreds of photographs I had at home.
Immediately grateful for her attention, however, and not wanting to waste her time, I quickly launched into an unprepared, very spontaneous, and very enthusiastic monologue: “I don’t want to bother you, but I just had to tell you how wonderful you were tonight, I’ve never seen you perform better” – which, coming from someone who looked nine years old couldn’t have carried much weight (but…!) – “and it was so much fun to see Lorna and Joe in the act with you, and I just had to say so!”
When I finally ran down (she’d looked at me warmly and attentively throughout the all-on-one-breath diatribe), Judy jumped in: “Well, thank you very much; that’s very nice of you. We do have a good time together, and of course, you know”—the implication being that I was so terribly bright and “intime” with every aspect of her life and plans – “this is their last weekend in the show. They have to go back to New York on Sunday to start school on Monday.”
(At that point, I wanted to make notes on the cuff on my shirt, so I’d not forget ANY thing she shared….)
I listened, glowing and grinning, and when she paused, I just offered, “Oh!” (Noel Coward, I wasn’t….) And then, not wishing to impose any longer, I concluded (the smile never leaving my face, as it hadn’t left hers), “Well, I just wanted to tell you….” She bobbed her head in acknowledgement, and I turned to go.
Then I remembered ONE more thing I wanted say, and (perhaps afraid that she’d suddenly vanish into thin air), I whirled back around. She did a mock little “take,” and we both kind of chuckled, and I blurted out, “Oh! And I’m coming to see you again tomorrow night!”
Whether it was the impulsivity of my physical move, the verbal declaration I’d extended, or the obvious need I had to make that announcement, it struck her as funny, and she threw her head back and really laughed. Not at me…but, contagiously, suddenly, with me. (If you’ve ever heard Judy Garland laugh, you know it’s one of the richest, happiest, up-and-down the scales sounds ever manifested.) And when we both stopped laughing, she gave me the narrow eye and said, “Well…you’ve got a lot of courage to sit through two of them.”
We both laughed again, and I just kept on smiling and protested, “No, no…it’s my pleasure.” Then I paused and summoned up the only words that came to mind: “Anyway…thanks…for everything.”
It was the first moment in our brief encounter that the smile left her face. And with immeasurable sincerity and grace and kindness, she looked deep into my eyes and said – very quietly and very simply -- “Thank YOU.”
At that moment, I would have done anything in the world that she’d asked of me.
Those three words came back to me on a couple of future occasions. I’d never felt any desire to see Judy’s final resting place, just north of New York City, where she was taken less than two years after our few moments together. She’d always seemed so much more omnipresent (and eternally alive) in so many other locales – the New York theaters she’d made her own, for example…or in my family’s recreation room in Milwaukee, or in my Manhattan apartment. Thus, I'd never felt a special need to visit a mausoleum. But somewhere in the late 1970s, another Wisconsin friend made his first trip to NYC, and he was determined to go up to Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale to pay his respects. To accommodate him, I made the trek, too.
En route, we stopped at the florist across the street from the peaceful grounds and ordered a low-key, rose-based arrangement to take over with us. Sean left it to me to pen a suitable card. Without making the connection to 1967, I wrote: "Thanks for everything."
The fact that the phrases were identical honestly didn't occur to me until thirty-five years later. In 2012, I was contemplating some sort of written contribution to offer the Yahoo Internet Group, The Judy Garland Experience, for their en-masse acknowledgement of her ninetieth birthday anniversary in June. And once again, that simple and direct conflation of gratitude was the first thing that leapt to mind.
THEN the realization finally hit...along with the fact that "of all the words in the world," those three took and held prominence and preeminence in my thoughts.
Yes, Dorothy Gale started it. Judy Garland – and Esther Blodgett and Esther Smith and Lily Mars and Jenny Bowman and Hannah Brown and Betsy Booth and Irene Hoffman and Ginger Gray and Jo Hayden and Jane Falbury and Carnegie Hall and The Palace and The Palladium and the TV series and the friendships thereof derived -- and Frances Ethel Gumm…exploded it way, way, way, way beyond “just” the girl from Kansas.
One more time.
And for the record:
Thanks. For everything.
Article by John Fricke