May 29, 2015 – “THANKS FOR EVERYTHING….” AND THEN SOME – PART ONE
[At left: Dorothy/Judy – as inseparable and perfect a match as exists anywhere in pop culture history: Judy Garland played L. Frank Baum’s heroine in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939). Center: The cover of my first “Judy Garland” record album – received as a sixth birthday present (1956). At right: The premiere “live” commercial Garland recording, taped at The Cocoanut Grove supper club in Los Angeles in 1958. When I heard it, a year or so later, I was enraptured by her charm, warmth, and humor – all in addition to the great songs and great orchestrations. Equally exciting: the sincere and ever-mounting acceptance and love poured out to her by the audience during the show. What was perhaps most thrilling to a juvenile Oz advocate, however, was the omnipresence of “Over the Rainbow” in her Overture, as her first encore, and as her bow music.]
Last week’s entry was an expression of appreciation (near the date of his one-hundred-and-fifty-ninth birthday anniversary ) to L. Frank Baum, the man who wrote THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ and made possible the joy in which so many of us revel -- and the passion which so many of us forcibly try to share! Admittedly, what I wrote for May 22nd drifted from a celebration of the man himself into a collection of personal reminiscences about some of my own preteen “adventures in Oz.” But HE was the motivating energy behind my venturesome antics, as well as THE rationale behind my limitless enthusiasm; in the process of recollection, I tried to make clear both the intentional and the implied homage. :)
All of that now leads me to another and equal gratitude. So often over the years, people have asked, “What came first?” for me: an awareness of the Oz stories and books? a liking for the 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie, THE WIZARD OF OZ? the appeal of the film’s star, sixteen-year-old Judy Garland? Those who have read here in the past might by now be mindful that my initial moment of spontaneous combustion was also a simultaneous situation: pretty much everything happened at the same instant, whether one wants to call it synchronicity, serendipity, or some form of mass (if singularly focused) hypnosis. Unexpectedly, I saw the MGM film on television…and promptly, hopelessly, elatedly fell prey to its tale, tunes, and talent.
As a result, today’s acknowledgement – in recognition of someone as much a life-changing force for me as Mr. Baum – does, indeed, go to Judy Garland. My preliminary fascination came with Judy-as-Dorothy-Gale; that plucky little girl from Kansas made for an “introduction” that soon morphed into a conduit. Within weeks of the encounter, and given my apparently ceaseless manifestation of wonderment, my parents made me aware of the fact that she was an actress, playing a role -- and at that point in her chronology (November 1956) a thirty-four year old woman. They went about this in an easy, logical manner: they gave me her Capitol record album for that year, JUDY, which consisted of eleven superlative popular songs, arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle. Thanks to Wally and Dottie, I’d already embraced a wide range of other phonograph music; I had my own little, three-speed, portable player and copies of many Walt Disney story-and-song combos, some light classical selections (including “The Nutcracker Suite,” “The Sleeping Beauty Ballet,” and “Peter and the Wolf”), a Bugs Bunny disc, ad infinitum. Yet that 1956 Garland amalgam of melodies and words gave me a crash course in classic American pop composers and lyricists and launched me to a new plateau of delights. I wouldn’t have realized the progression at the time, but thanks to her musical taste and That Voice, I began an early familiarity with the likes – or at least the output -- of Johnny Mercer, Eubie Blake, Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh, Buddy De Sylva, Lew Brown, Ray Henderson, Harold Arlen, and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg (the latter two separate and apart from their songs for THE WIZARD OF OZ motion picture).
The result, as I now joking explain it, is that I was one of the rare first-graders in Milwaukee who wasn’t singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” or “I’m a Little Teapot.” No, I was singing “I’M gonna love you like NOBODY’S loved you, come rain or come shine….”
The subsequent litany of Garland pleasures rapidly grew through my formative years. From age seven or so, my parents would put (or send) me to bed at my regular time: 8:00 or perhaps 8:30 p.m. But on any night that one of Judy’s films was scheduled for the TV “Late Show,” they would set an alarm clock in my room for 10:30, so that I could get up to watch. (They felt – both honestly and accurately – that there could be no harm in seeing Garland and Mickey Rooney “put on a show” in BABES IN ARMS or STRIKE UP THE BAND; in witnessing her walk up the avenue in the EASTER PARADE with Fred Astaire; or in enjoying the entertainment she and Gene Kelly delivered to the troops in the World War I settings of FOR ME AND MY GAL.) Across birthdays and Christmases, they bought me as many of her other records as they could locate. I found particular elation in the Decca “long-play” that highlighted six numbers from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS on side one and six from THE HARVEY GIRLS on side two.
Other relatives quickly got into the swing. My paternal grandfather, Gus Fricke, created a brief tradition across two summers when he treated my cousin Jim and me to a day at The Wisconsin State Fair. Grandpa would sit on a bench, people-watching and smoking his pipe, while Jimmy and I scurried from exhibit to exhibit and ride to ride – periodically returning to him for more loose change. The third year, however, Grandpa Gus gave us a choice: a revisit to the Fair or a different boon. In my case, the latter was the Capitol album, GARLAND AT THE GROVE, taped “live” at the famous Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel nitery one or two seasons before. It absolutely was no contest; Judy won. And I remember to this day my fervor as I listened to:
And when she invited them to “Sing it with me” during “For Me and My Gal” -- and you could hear the crowd begin to croon -- I was transported. (At age eight or nine, I thought only Judy and I knew the lyric to that song!)
My immersion increased when, at age twelve, I joined her United States-based fan club and received their thrice-annual publication, THE GARLAND GAZETTE; at age thirteen, when I began a subscription to the exemplary fanzine, THE GARLAND NEWS; and at age fourteen, when I became a member of her London-based group (still in operation today as The International Judy Garland Club) and marveled at their RAINBOW REVIEW journal. An extra and blissful offshoot: such participation led me into pen pal correspondence with other adulators from all over the world.
When I was fourteen – and, again, two years later, when I was sixteen -- my mom and dad saw to it that I was able to travel to Chicago to see Judy “In Concert” in three separate performances. Those experiences are, I guess, potential topics for future blogs; after all, everywhere Garland went, Dorothy Gale somehow was “in the building,” too. And Judy’s connection to (and seemingly perpetual public embrace because of) THE WIZARD OF OZ was something for which she felt a deep, genuine, and profound commitment. All-time case-in-point: Mel Torme once recounted a moment during pre-production of THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW TV series in summer 1963. He’d been hired to write special musical material for the program and to serve as her liaison in terms of determining what new songs – or those not previously sung by her -- might be worth considering for her repertoire. Beyond that, and in his own words, he and the other writers
suggested doing a rather funny bit built around “Over the Rainbow.” [Judy] regarded us with pure astonishment.
“You’ve all got to be kidding,” she said sternly.
“Uh…no…no, Judy, we thought it would be pretty funny if – “
“There will be NO jokes of any kind about ‘Over the Rainbow’!” she said evenly. “It’s kind of…sacred. I don’t want anybody, ANYwhere, to lose the thing they have about Dorothy or that song!”
Torme concluded, “To [Judy], ‘Over the Rainbow’ was nothing short of holy. And she regarded it with gratitude and awe.”
As noted, she felt the same way about the role that served as – in the words of THE NATIONAL OBSERVER – the cornerstone of her “eternal fame.” This increasingly was underscored throughout the 1960s, when the by-then-annual network telecast of THE WIZARD OF OZ had become a virtual national holiday in the United States. Thanks to those screenings, Garland’s constant fan base was expanded by ever-vigilant and rabid youngsters, emotionally dazzled by Dorothy. Another case-in-point: Upon arrival at the Charlotte, North Carolina, airport in 1965, she was swamped by “a predominantly youthful crowd.” The waiting reporters described “a circle of outstretched autograph books [that] fenced her in,” and then logged forty-two-year-old Judy’s greeting to the kids as, “Hi! Didn’t think I’d look like THIS, did you? I’m a little older, maybe?!” The press rhapsodized, “But the children couldn’t care less,” overwhelmed as they were at meeting Dorothy.
Judy also took action when afforded the opportunity to provide wish-fulfillment on a one-on-one basis. As referenced above, her live concerts invariably included exchanges when the jubilant paying customers would call out for their favorite songs. Garland was adept at bantering with such shouts and, when possible, sang the numbers for which she’d been asked. During an October 1967 engagement in Hartford, Connecticut, a woman spoke up on behalf of a child who had accompanied her to the show. Evidently, the tyke had heard grown-ups around her making their requests of Judy and realized that the star would do her best to comply. Thus….
Women in audience: “Hey, Judy! This little girl wants to ask you something!”
Judy (encouragingly): “What does she want to ask?”
Little Girl (around six years old; blurting nervously): “Nuthin’!”
Judy (gently, solicitously): “No, really…. What is it, sweetie?”
Little Girl (shy and almost inaudible): “’Yellow Brick Road’!”
Now, twenty-eight years post-OZ and pretty much after-the-fact, “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” wasn’t a song for which Judy carried an orchestration. But she hesitated merely a moment and then leapt right in:
Judy: “Oh…. All right!” (Singing a cappella and doing the Dorothy-&-Company skip around the stage of Bushnell Auditorium:)
“Follow the yellow brick road.
“Follow the yellow brick road.
“Follow follow follow follow follow the yellow brick road!
“Follow the yellow BRICK!
“Follow the yellow BRICK!
“Follow the yellow brick road….’”
There was a pause, and then she continued – simply and quietly and personally to the little girl,
“Yes. I was Dorothy.”
There was a beat of silence as her statement registered with the onlookers. Then, as if someone had cued an imaginary ovation machine, there was a roar – a wall of sound: applause, cheers, and huzzahs of acknowledgment, admiration, affection, comprehension, confirmation, and debt.
Next week: The forty-five year (and counting) resonance of “Thanks for everything.”
Article by John Fricke