[Above: Judy Garland guested with TV host Jack Paar on three occasions; a moment from the first of these programs, telecast December 7, 1962, is shown here. The photo itself is the perfect exemplification of a statement made about Judy by a close friend, Mrs. Ira Gershwin: “Everywhere she went, there was laughter.” Well . . . it’s true! With Paar -- or during her own TV series in 1963-64, with Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, or Dick Cavett in 1968, or during numerous other interviews and performances -- Judy was never at a loss for an appropriate, often incisive, and frequently hilarious observation. She referenced her role in THE WIZARD OF OZ under such circumstances on a number of occasions, and sometimes she could be spirited, teasing, or impish in the recollections. Yet they were always delivered with underlying humor and (as you’ll read below) for the joy of any audience, anywhere. Some of her statements are part of this month’s JG centennial salute; the rest of the blog is comprised of our happy heralding of two of Broadway’s most gifted and accomplished young actresses. Their point in common? They’ve portrayed both Judy Garland AND “Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale” on film or stage during the last couple of decades.]
For any who might be coming “new” to these blogs, we are – with this posting – “eleven down and one to go” in our monthly series for 2022. All of this year’s entries have been assembled in celebration of the one-hundredth birthday anniversary of the all-around entertainer who played “Dorothy Gale” in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 film classic, THE WIZARD OF OZ. Joining her “in print” this go-round are two modern-day actresses who have – whether in a TV miniseries or onstage – played our centennial “Miss Show Business” in a biographical movie and theatrical musical. Their two names are, respectively, Tammy Blanchard and Ruby Rakos, and MGM’s star (and the girl portrayed by Tammy and Ruby) is, of course, Judy Garland.
[Above: When given the opportunity, both Tammy Blanchard and Ruby Rakos amply filled a pair of ruby slippers -- the former in LIFE WITH JUDY GARLAND, the latter in CHASING RAINBOWS.]
Full disclosure here: Back in 1999-2001, I served as a coalescence of consultant and historian on LIFE WITH JUDY GARLAND and have been on the CHASING RAINBOWS creative staff in pretty much the same classifications since 2010 or thereabouts. However, I had nothing to do with the casting of either of the two gifted women under discussion here, and my subsequent opinions of their achievements are predicated solely on their manifestations of professional acumen and versatility -- and their innate Garland-like ability to emotionally engage, involve, and thrill their audiences.
[Above: The video box cover for LIFE WITH JUDY GARLAND rightly and rightfully emblazons its awards history, and the poster for CHASING RAINBOWS provides an evocative image of Frances Ethel Gumm of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. It harks back to the days when – as Judy Garland – she began to pursue her future stardom in Hollywood, CA.]
Tammy got her start as a continuing and then prominent character on the GUIDING LIGHT daytime drama and has since amassed extensive film, TV, and stage credits. On Broadway, she played the title role of GYPSY (costarring with Bernadette Peters, who was seen as the infamous stage mother, Madame Rose); Tammy won a Tony nomination for both that stint and for her work as Hedy LaRue in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING. The latter performance also garnered her a THEATRE WORLD Award. Ruby Rakos has been working as an actor since joining the Broadway cast of BILLY ELLIOT at age twelve. She’s a graduate of the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan.
As the teenage, real-life Judy, Tammy Blanchard totally dominated the first hour of the four-hour ABC telefilm, LIFE WITH JUDY GARLAND: ME AND MY SHADOWS, based on the autobiography written by Judy’s daughter Lorna Luft. Originally telecast in two parts across two evenings in February 2001, the made-for-TV sensation devoted part of its first hour to the casting of Ms. Garland as “Dorothy Gale.” It also recreated a famed moment on the set on the Yellow Brick Road, when the young actress was inadvertently and unintentionally left trailing behind (and “crowded out” by) the actors in their cumbersome costumes as the Cowardly Lion, Tin Woodman, and Scarecrow. For her LIFE WITH JUDY GARLAND efforts, Tammy won the Emmy Award as Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie, and she was nominated for the Golden Globe in that same category.
Ms. Blanchard was actually last-minute casting for the role; the producers and director had a very difficult time in their search to find the “young Judy.” Ironically, Tammy proved so effective in the part that many have since asked why she was replaced so early in the story and movie chronology by Judy Davis – equally brilliant but more difficult to believe as Judy-in-her-twenties than Blanchard. There’s a two part and simple explanation for this: Ms. Davis was the “name” performer associated with the project. Prior to LIFE WITH JUDY GARLAND, she’d already been nominated for two Academy Awards and won (among other recognitions) an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and citations from the National Board of Review, the American Film Institute, and BAFTA. As such, ABC had it in its contract with the LIFE WITH JUDY… film producers that Ms. Davis had to be “on camera” no later than the onset of the second hour of the four-hour telecast.
Regardless, Tammy made far-and-away the most of her time on screen. Her “reveal” as Dorothy Gale on the 1938 WIZARD OF OZ “Lion’s Forest” set was particularly telling, moving, and magical. The camera slowly panned up her figure, starting with the ruby slippers on her feet. As the TV screen finally filled with Tammy’s face, one heard a fellow OZ coworker marvel off-camera, “She IS Dorothy.” And so she was – and Judy, too.
A Blanchard interview quote provides a key to some of the inspiring believability she brought to her portrayal: “When you are playing someone who is real, you get their mannerisms, and you get their little quirks. But it still has to be something inside of you that connects with the role, or else you will not be any good. So . . . there was something in my own experience that I was bringing to the table -- definitely.”
The LIFE WITH JUDY GARLAND reviews were pretty much raves, and even when there were minor critical cavils about scripting or characterization, the two principal actresses scored all across the boards. In the February 25, 2001, WASHINGTON POST, veteran pop culture commentator Tom Shales summed it up best: “In the two-part ABC film, airing tonight and tomorrow night, Judy Davis becomes Garland as Garland is filming MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. No one's likely to be twiddling thumbs waiting for her to show up, though, because the producers also found a near-perfect performer to play Judy in adolescence. Tammy Blanchard seems uncanny at first encounter; like Davis, she doesn't do an impersonation of Garland but instead undergoes some mystical metamorphosis. Blanchard gets it just right -- the big bright eyes, the over-eagerness to please, the radiant spell that comes over her when she's singing.” That’s apparent here:
Thanks to -- at that time -- sixteen years of burgeoning friendship and trust extended to me by Judy’s daughter, Lorna (co-executive producer of LIFE WITH JUDY GARLAND), I was called upon to contribute to many of the movie’s creative departments during the making of the film. My work has pretty much followed the same path with CHASING RAINBOWS: THE ROAD TO OZ. Tina Marie Casamento Libby, the originator, conceptualizer, and lead producer of this new stage musical, initially reached out to me through my lawyer, asking if he could arrange a meeting between us. (Since then, Tina Marie and I have jokingly agreed that we’d one day return to the Westway Diner on NYC’s 9th Avenue and put a memorial plaque alongside the booth where we first “faced off.”) Ashamedly, I now admit that I willingly agreed to go along to speak with her, but – as I confessed up-front to the lawyer – it was ONLY to tell her what a terrible, rotten, mizzzerable idea I thought it was to try to bring to the theater a musical about Judy Garland from age thirteen-to-sixteen, culminating in the first days of production on THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Boy . . . did I change my mind!
In NO time at all, Tina Marie and her perspicacity, intelligence, and emotion (and especially the advance work she’d already done) had won me over. Five minutes into our acquaintance, I was sold and vowing to contribute anything I could; it’s a long story, but do you want to know what did it? She had already contracted with the music publishers, EMI/Feist, for the use in the show of countless popular songs (both familiar and unfamiliar to the public) from MGM films of 1929-1938 -- as well as others from the teens and twenties of the last century and used in the vaudeville acts done by Judy and her family. (As Metro’s musical arranger Roger Edens had written for Judy to sing in 1951, “The hist’ry of my life is in my songs.” Well . . . Tina Marie had “cornered ‘em”!)
Not only did she have the rights to use them in CHASING RAINBOWS, but she and husband David Libby -- musical adapter, arranger, and orchestrator -- had already found interesting and out-and-out glorious ways to use them. (Please read the captions for the next three photographs for a sterling indication of this.)
[Above: First, in rehearsal: Frances Ethel Gumm and Joseph Yule, Jr. – later Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney (and here personated by Broadway’s Ruby Rakos and Michael Wartella). In this musical number, they’re recreating the manner in which the teen (Mickey) and pre-teen (Judy) first met, pre-MGM, at “Ma” Lawlor’s Professional Children’s School in Hollywood. He instantly champions and befriends her in CHASING RAINBOWS, as Mickey did in real life -- and his drumming, singing, and dancing with the other pupils provides the stage show with one of its most effective Act One production numbers. Of course, the routine soars to extravagant new heights when Frances/Judy/Ruby joins in to vocally swing “hot” with the gang and knocks ‘em sideways; again, this is a only a slight variation on the real-life immediate impression Garland made when she was first enrolled in the school. Tina Marie knocked ME sideways during OUR first meeting when she explained that she and her husband had taken the revival meeting-flavored song, “All God’s Children Got Rhythm” from the 1937 MGM Marx Brothers’ vehicle A DAY AT THE RACES and changed one word in the title and lyric so that Mickey could welcome Judy to Lawlor’s: “All God’s Children . . .” (which fifteen-year-old Judy had also recorded for Decca in 1937) became “All Ma’s Children . . .”; it sure works! The second photo here shows the finish of the song and dance in actual CHASING RAINBOWS performance; Broadway’s Karen Mason is up top and center as “Ma.”]
Tina Marie also discovered “our” Judy for CHASING RAINBOWS, encountering young teen Ruby Rakos at a NYC showcase competition. On that occasion, Ruby was singing the Garland classic, “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart”; the girl was already a full-fledged fan of the vintage Great American Songbook AND Judy Garland. The CHASING RAINBOWS creative team has since auditioned literally hundreds of others for the role, but they’ve yet to find anyone who comes near to what Ruby brings to stage -- and sight and sound and soul -- of the teenage Garland.
Perhaps this is because Ruby has been working as an actor since joining the Broadway cast of BILLY ELLIOT when she was twelve. The girl is a graduate of the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan, and where CHASING RAINBOWS is concerned, she’s sung, danced, and acted her way into tens of thousands of hearts during productions of the musical at the Flat Rock Playhouse in North Carolina, the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, and in staged readings and workshops in both New York City and London. In a reminiscence she wrote at my request in 2017, Ruby introspectively (and on her own) offered reflections on being Dorothy, on being Judy-as-Dorothy, and on being Judy -- not “just” as Judy Garland, but as Frances Ethel Gumm, the little girl from Minnesota who has seemingly come to be Judy Garland and Dorothy Gale for all time:
“To be honest, I can’t remember the first time I watched THE WIZARD OF OZ movie. Or the second. Or the tenth. THE WIZARD OF OZ has always just BEEN THERE, like the half-read issues of THE NEW YORKER that covered every flat surface in my parents’ house. I do remember dressing up as Dorothy in the third grade and refusing to take off the ruby slippers! But that was probably the last time I gave much thought to THE WIZARD OF OZ until eight years later.
[Above: In 1937, Judy Garland made the first of ten motion pictures in which she was billed with Mickey Rooney: a minor “programmer” racetrack drama, THOROUGHBREDS DON’T CRY. Mickey was a jockey, Judy was the niece of the woman (Sophie Tucker, no less!) who ran the jockeys’ boarding house. Only one song made it into the release print of the film, a catchy, swingy ’30s-style “Got a Pair of New Shoes.” This leads to another riveting factoid that Tina Marie shared at our first meeting -- when she ultimately and MOST easily corralled John Fricke for CHASING RAINBOWS: She and husband David took that nonsensical pop song and built it into an Act Two production number, in which Judy is presented with a shoe box to indicate that Shirley Temple was (once and for all and completely) out of the running for the part of Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ. One guess which pair of shoes were in the box – and as you can see from this photograph of that sequence in the show, Mickey and all of MGM come on the scene to tap their congratulations to/with Judy on landing The Role.]
Ruby went on, “When I was sixteen, I began working on CHASING RAINBOWS: THE ROAD TO OZ, a new musical about Judy Garland’s childhood and her early years at MGM. I was the same age as Judy when she filmed THE WIZARD OF OZ, but other than the fact that she’d played Dorothy, I didn’t know much about her. So, I set out to learn everything I could.
“In late 2015, during the months of the developmental production of CHASING RAINBOWS at the Flat Rock Playhouse in North Carolina, the local movie theater happened to be showing a different old motion picture every week. THE WIZARD OF OZ was their film shortly after we began rehearsals, and the whole cast and creative team went to see it one night after we finished. This was the first time I had watched the movie since I’d started working on CHASING RAINBOWS and also the first time I’d ever seen OZ on the big screen. When the opening chords of ‘Over the Rainbow’ began to play, my heart stopped. Judy was so REAL. Life-size.
[Above: It will probably come as no surprise to anyone that Ruby Rakos sings “Over the Rainbow” as the concluding song of CHASING RAINBOWS. During the two-hour-and-twenty-minute production, however, she and/or other members of the cast also offer nearly thirty additional 1920s and 1930s Garland-associated standards, including “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” “You Made Me Love You,” “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Meet the Beat of My Heart,” “Dear Mr. Gable,” “In Between,” and “Everybody Sing.”]
“I had read all about her, and listened to her voice, and watched her movies on my little MacBook Air. But this was the first time she seemed like a real person. I could see every freckle on her face. I could tell just which scenes were filmed at or near the same time by the length of her braids -- or whether she had a blemish on her chin. I saw her hide her face in Toto’s fur to keep from laughing at Bert Lahr in the Lion’s Forest.
“That’s when Judy Garland stopped being JUDY GARLAND to me. Instead, I saw Frances Gumm, the little girl who dreamed of sharing her voice with the world . . . who wanted nothing more than to keep her family together.
“The little girl who became Judy Garland.”
[Above: After singing and speaking as a special guest at the annual Chittenango, NY, OZ-STRAVAGANZA! in 2019, Ruby Rakos returned in June 2022, just to participate as a festivalgoer. (Chittenango is the birthplace of L. Frank Baum, author of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ and thirteen more of the original Oz books.) After 2022’s Friday night programming, Ruby gleefully posed with Betty Ann Bruno, who appeared as one of the Munchkins in MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ eighty-three years ago. (Betty Ann was then one of eight or ten pre-teen girls from Hollywood dancing schools who were pressed into service to help fill up the huge Munchkinland plaza on the film set.) Meanwhile, Yours Truly is the ham in the middle . . ..]
LIFE WITH JUDY GARLAND: ME AND MY SHADOWS has been available on home video, although it may require some sleuthing to find a copy now, this long after the original telecast. (It is, however, very much worth the search!) Meanwhile, development of CHASING RAINBOWS has continued, and a forthcoming announcement is soon due; watch for it!
And now we bring on the “real” Judy for her centennial moment of the month – and offer you some lesser known (or new!) Oz-related mini-anecdotes from her incomparable and legendary career.
If it’s possible to be both playful and reverential – and simultaneously so – it’ll probably come as no surprise to anyone reading here that Judy Garland herself managed it. In an amalgamation of her amazingly sharp wit and ever-omnipresent heart, she could, did, and would increasingly reference her OZ connection many, many times over the three decades between 1939-1969.
Her humor was much to the fore on such occasions, and the anecdotes were never “bitter,” delivered “bitterly,” or even tinged with “bitterness.” (NO apology here to Aljean Harmetz for calling her out about the use of such inaccurate verbiage in the book, THE MAKING OF “THE WIZARD OF OZ.”) Judy could see comedy in almost anything, and her talk show appearances with Jack Paar and on THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW were charming and – reports to the contrary -- never minimizing of her coworkers. Among my own personal favorites:
* her one-time recollection of the skywriting sequence of the film in which the Wicked Witch of the West flew over the Emerald City; Judy, with (one suspects) tongue firmly in cheek, remembered the smoke-in-the-sky directive as “Dorothy Go Home” (!).
* the standard “lull” during virtually all of her concert appearances, when she’d rest a moment between songs, cool her throat, and then light-heartedly and alternately offer: “Don’t worry; it’s just water” -- or mock-complain, “This is water, dammit!” 😊 On one occasion at the London Palladium, she specifically asked someone watching from the wings for “a sip of water.” She retrieved a tumbler, and then (for laughs) drily complained in disgusted tones, “It’s WATER!” One evening in February 1966, however – in the midst of an engagement at the Diplomat Hotel’s posh supper club in Hollywood, FL, she lifted a beaker from atop the piano, sipped, and mischievously told the audience: “This ISN’T water. It’s . . . uh, well . . . it’s a DRINK! My name is NOT Dorothy, and I’m not from Kansas still.”
[Above: This press picture was taken during “The Weekend I ‘Spent’ With Judy”; saw two of her three concerts at the Chicago Civic Opera House on September 15th and 16th, 1967; and met her off-stage after one of the shows at 2:30 a.m. During the performances themselves – and after the first brace of energetic and opening up-tunes (“I Feel a Song Comin’ On,” “Almost Like Being in Love”/“This Can’t Be Love,” and “Just in Time”) -- she sat down to informally chat with the audience and soothe her larynx. A drink was handed up to her from the orchestra pit, which somehow became a signal for local newspaper photographers to gambol down the theater aisle to do some up-close snapping. In a self-deprecating spin that only Judy Garland could put on such a moment, she joked, “They’re always waiting to get me with a glass in my hand!”]
Finally, in the late 1960s, someone created a prop/ersatz checkbook for Judy, so that she had something to autograph when people approached her and didn’t have their own paper or items to offer to her to sign. The creativity behind the checkbook must have delighted her, as she willingly used it, and the preprinted slips of paper looked – at casual glance -- for all the world like legitimate checks. Of course, the giveaway came with closer inspection. The checks were, indeed, on the account of Judy Garland. Her address, however, was indicated as “Legend Lane” in “Gale, Kansas,” and her funds were to be drawn from the “Bank of Oz” on the “Yellow Brick Road.” 😊
Judy’s dedication to Dorothy, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and her theme song will be celebrated in another anecdote next month. For now, though, here are some potent press quotes about what would be the final, formal concert of her career, in March 1969. She was appearing in Copenhagen for the first time, against some challenging odds and in the face of decades of rumors, myths, legends -- and truths -- about her life. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) their years of preconceived notions about Judy Garland and her decades of adverse publicity, the critics were overjoyed and wrote with glowing praise of a performance that no one knew would be her last: “[Her] voice was, in truth, under control and bright with infectious vitality. It struck sparks; she flung her hit songs into the microphone in a way that produced dramatic and brilliant effects. Witty, warm, and winning all hearts, her mode of delivery was strong and glowing, her personal charm incontrovertible.”
One of the critiques in particular paints a comprehending capture of the concluding moments of that show: “For fifty minutes, we had enjoyed the rhythmic finesse of her songs. . .. After a large number of curtain calls, she finally gave in to the deepest wish of the audience. She sat herself down on the stage floor and began to sing ‘Over the Rainbow.’ It was as though she sang it for the first time, with fervent innocence and sweetness. It was so lovely that tears came to one’s eyes. All the spectators arose and cheered Judy Garland. She had a great triumph.”
So . . . the rendition was as potent in 1969 as it had been in 1939. And to say its potency has only grown in the intervening fifty-three years is a given understatement.
Or an understated given! 😊
Thanks for being here and reading!
Article by John Fricke