Even at the height of Judy Garland’s fame, to the people of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, she was Frances Ethel Gumm, the two-year-old, frilly-dressed girl known as Baby, who wouldn’t stop singing until she was carried offstage.
John Kelsch, the founding director of the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, recounts the story of Frances’s debut.
“She had a little dinner bell, and she sang ‘Jingle Bells,’” Kelsch says. “Her grandma Eva and her dad were in the wings. She kept singing it over and over again. And they both yelled, ‘Get off, Baby, get off!’ She looked around and said, ‘But Daddy, I like it!’ And the audience just roared. There were people alive here back in the ’80s who remembered being there.”
The singer’s relationship with audiences followed a similar trajectory throughout her career.
“I think I’ve come to understand what it must have been like, because there are few performers that generate such excitement before they go onstage,” says Kelsch. “There was just electricity … there was this charge in the audience. She’d be backstage, and scared, sometimes. But once she moved out from the wings, it was just total control.”
In Grand Rapids, Garland’s star status wasn’t always welcomed as it is today. Kelsch says some locals resented her because they believed she never returned to her birthplace. She did come back, though. In March 1938, she visited with a motorcade from Minneapolis. Garland’s son said she brought him to town, incognito, when he was a young boy. And when the governor asked Garland to sing at her home state’s Centennial Fair in 1958, she greeted the audience as a fellow Minnesotan and gave a full concert on a hot day in May, while fighting laryngitis.
Kelsch became sure of the town’s appreciation for Garland in 2014, when Grand Rapids celebrated the 75th anniversary of the theatrical release of The Wizard of Oz.
“We broke a Guinness World Record,” Kelsch says. “We had the community — 1,150 people in our town — dressed up in full costume from The Wizard of Oz.”
Each June, the Judy Garland Museum holds a festival marking Garland’s birthday on June 10, 1922, and honoring her role as Dorothy in the film that sparked her career. Garland’s costars Mickey Rooney, Donald O’Connor, Margaret O’Brien, and June Allyson have all attended in the past. This year, the museum hosts “Judy’s 100th Birthday Celebration” from June 9 to 12. Along with a showing of The Wizard of Oz, guided tours, and a 5K run/walk, there will be a gala birthday dinner complete with appearances from all three of Garland’s children. Liza Minelli, daughter of Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, and Lorna Luft, daughter of Garland and producer Sidney Luft, will both attend virtually. Garland’s son Joey Luft will attend in person.
“I just think there’s going to be an outpouring of joy, and surprises,” says Kelsch. “I think it’s going to be a great event.”
Kelsch says both Lorna and Joey Luft have visited Grand Rapids multiple times. Their consent allowed the museum to trademark their mother’s name, ensuring the Grand Rapids establishment is the only museum of its kind.
Garland’s own mother and father, Ethel and Frank, were aspiring vaudeville performers who, after becoming parents, were dedicated to the promotion of Frances and her older sisters, Dorothy and Virginia, as entertainers. In this pursuit, the family left Minnesota for California in 1926, and the Gumm Sisters spent much time on the road, performing.
“Ethel, she actually carried a portable stage in the trunk of their car,” Kelsch says. “It was a cardboard table with the legs cut short. She’d pull it out of the trunk in Duluth when they would go visit Grandma Eva, and she’d say, ‘Get up there, Baby. Show ’em what you can do.’”
In 1934, Ethel drove Frances and her sisters cross-country to sing at the Chicago World’s Fair. Kelsch says before they went onstage at the Oriental Theatre, the Master of Ceremonies said, “Oh, Gumm Sisters, no way. You’ll get a big laugh. That’s not a showbiz name.” He suggested the name Garland, and it stuck. Frances completed her showbiz renewal when she chose a new first name after hearing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy” on the car radio.
The Garlands moved to Los Angeles in 1936, and Judy Garland soon signed with MGM. A few years later, she starred in The Wizard of Oz.
Her career would become legendary. The films Meet Me in St. Louis, A Star Is Born, and The Harvey Girls were met with critical acclaim. She was nicknamed “One-take Judy” because of her talent and efficiency as a performer. She gained a significant following in England, where thousands awaited her boat’s arrivals from New York. She also became an icon and inspiration for many gay men in the late 20th century; The Advocate called her the “Elvis of homosexuals” in a 1998 tribute.
Fame became a burden, though, not lessened by the industry’s debilitating treatment of women and girls. As detailed in Gerald Clarke’s biography, Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland, Garland performed through anxiety, sexual misconduct, forced eating disorder and medication, substance abuse, grief, and four divorces. She died by accidental drug overdose in 1969. Her funeral drew about 20,000 people to the Frank E. Campbell Chapel in Manhattan.
Kelsch is in agreement with Lorna Luft, who told The Guardian, “She had great highs and great moments in her career. She also had great moments in her personal life. Yes, we lost her at 47 years old. That was tragic. But she was not a tragic figure.” Kelsch says Garland lived her life to the fullest. He calls her the top female performer of the 20th century, and his experience follows a familiar narrative of admiration.
“In college, someone gave me a cassette tape of Judy Garland’s greatest hits, and I must’ve played that in my car all winter long,” says Kelsch. “The force of her voice and the emotional delivery — she lived the song. Just blown away. Just blown away.”
Featured image: A publicity photo of Judy Garland from The Harvey Girls (Picryl)
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