I’ve never looked through a keyhole without finding someone was looking back – Judy Garland

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MargOH Channing

By MargOH! Channing

There were three things my mother always had plenty of around the house; booze, boys and Baby Gumm. The latter being in the form of Judy Garland records, specifically the soundtracks to Easter Parade, Meet me in St Louis and my personal favorite Judy at Carnegie Hall.

I remember watching in anticipation as mother would pour herself some Jack Daniels, light a cigarette and put the Carnegie Hall album on the phonograph. First the crackle and pop and then the overture would begin.  I’d lie at mother’s feet… eventually becoming her foot rest. The excitement would build as I imagined Judy walking to center stage and taking her place in the spotlight to sing “When You’re Smiling”. Even mother croaking along to the record never bothered me because it was always Judy singing just for MargOH!

I would examine the album jacket and read the liner notes as the excitement would build in my heart. I imagined being in the audience and rushing the stage to touch her hand. Unfortunately, on too many occasions, I’d wake from my daydream to the sloshing and splashing of Jack Daniels spilling from my mother’s glass (and onto my head) as she fell asleep. But I never would fall asleep until Judy would say “Good night, god bless”. The recording is a magical piece of entertainment and history that never ends for me.  It’s the one gift that mother gave me that has lasted a lifetime, my love for Judy.

My mother often looked through the keyhole when I was playing in her room. To say I was obsessed with Judy as a child would be an understatement. I spent hours in front of the mirror applying make-up to try to look just like her. I would take the lead of the neighborhood kids to do mini-productions of the Wizard of Oz and a Star is Born down by the docks (I often cast lobster and herring in the role of the Munchkins). I would charge the drunken fisherman $1 to be in the audience and another $1 to Kiss Glinda the Good Witch on the lips ($1.25 to slip her the tongue) when she arrived in Munchkin Land. My productions became somewhat of an event and I was the talk of Bangor, Maine. Though not all of it good.  The mayor said my gingham Dorothy dress was too short and Micki, the prostitute I had play Glinda, gave a lot of men the clap causing a local health epidemic. I didn’t care though because all the attention led me to the title of Little Miss Lobster Roll.

This obsession has lasted well into my adulthood. I would put on full Judy at Carnegie Hall performances for the lesbians at Aunt Trudy’s bar on Delancey Street, after I moved to New York City. If only the backroom hadn’t been a secret, maybe I could have been as big a Judy impersonator as Jim Bailey. But then Judy once said “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else”. I really took that statement to heart and set out to be the best MargOH! I could be (of course always with a twist of Judy on the side).

It was just a couple of years after I moved to New York when my dream of seeing Judy in person finally came true. It was at the Palace and she was radiant in her sparkling pant suit. I remember being so jealous of her children and wanted to run up on stage and tackle Lorna to take my rightful place next to Judy (somehow I think she could have kicked my ass).

We had so much in common, really…my father died when I was a little girl and we were raised by unstable mothers. We both worked our fingers to the bone and became the household bread winners. Well, of course I shucked oysters and Judy starred in movies.

Love Finds Andy Hardy, The Ziegfeld Girl, For Me and My Gal, The Pirate, Summer Stock, A Star is Born, Judgment at Nuremberg, A Child is Waiting and  I Could Go on Singing

Judy Garland was a busy lady making over 40 films, thousands of concerts and hundreds of radio and television performances. Of course we know that her addiction to prescription drugs were introduced to her by MGM doctors to keep her weight down. Louis B. Mayer called her his “Little Hunchback”.  These drugs would later create the chaos and paranoia that crept into Judy’s psyche about her looks and talent. Though she had a stupendous career and enjoyed a luxurious life there was always a sense that Judy never had a chance to truly enjoy it. I think, although she had many happy moments throughout her life and had a legendary sense of humor; Judy was always searching for the happy, laughing little girl within.

In November of 1959 all of the stress and busy schedule took its toll on Judy and she was hospitalized for hepatitis and told she would never work again. Her reply to that was “The pressure is off me for the first time in my life”. But as the show must go on, she quickly recovered and performed at the London Palladium the following August. This series of concerts led to the tour that would include the now historical April 23, 1961 performance Judy at Carnegie Hall.  From this success came the opportunity for a weekly television series.

The Judy Garland Show that ran for a season on CBS from 1963-64 showcases some of Judy’s best work. Her performance of “Ole’ Man River” shows the pure velocity of Judy’s vocal range while her version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is an example of Judy’s impeccable comic timing.  “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, a tribute to President Kennedy after his assassination, is still said to be one of the greatest moments in television history.  Personally one of the highlights of the series is her Christmas special where Judy celebrates the season with her children Liza, Lorna and Joey – for a moment giving us a peek at the intersection where her two joys, entertaining and her children, came together.  In this episode we see Judy at her best, happy and relaxed.

It’s important to note that Judy was also a very giving artist and loved working with contemporaries such as Peggy Lee and Mickey Rooney or emerging artists like Barbra Streisand. The Judy Garland Show itself has been described as a masterpiece in television production that used new and innovative sets, cinematography and lighting to accompany Judy. Though there was a tumultuous relationship between Judy and CBS she managed to present some of her best work in this series. The pressure of ratings and the competition of a Sunday night slot against Bonanza made for a toxic environment. Judy learned prior to the taping of her last show that she had been cancelled by CBS. The final episode taped well into the morning hours and much of the footage was unusable. Though Judy’s final performance of “The Last Dance” in the final episode was a triumph and a telling end to the series.

Judy continued to work throughout the sixties performing concerts all over the world including the famed Judy and Liza at the Palladium in 1964. She was a guest on several television shows like The Hollywood Palace, The Jack Paar Show, The Merv Griffin Show and her last American television performance on The Johnny Carson Show. Though at this time Judy was frail and obviously struggling with her health these performances are some of my favorites.  Judy’s performance of “For Once in My Life” on The Mike Douglas Show never fails to bring me to tears, sobbing into my champagne (side note:  salty champagne…even I can’t drink that!).  She will do that to you every single time!

On June 22, 1969, while living in London, Judy Garland died at the age of 47 due to an accidental overdose of barbiturates. So adored was she that when she was returned to New York for burial there was an estimated crowd of 20,000 people who waited hours to view her body at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home. As her co-star in The Wizard of Oz Ray Bolger stated very simply “She just plain wore out”.

Judy Garland’s death also coincided with the “Stonewall Riots” on June 28, 1969, the event that is said to be the spark which set off the gay liberation movement. Whether it was pure coincidence or the pure pain and grief of Judy’s death that gave the community the will to fight back is something that may never be answered but will remain part of LGBT history and lore forever.

Judy Garland is my hero; she gave me a voice when I didn’t think I could sing and the confidence to finally believe I could sing.  When I’m down in the dumps and three quarters through a case of champagne I always turn to her and she lifts me up. Whether it’s “San Francisco”, “Smile”, “Hello Bluebird”, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, “Just in Time”, “I Could Go on Singing”, “Danny Boy”, “Carolina in the Morning”, “If Love Were All” or my all time favorite “By Myself”.  And when I’m ready to celebrate…she’s there for me as well.

Today is Judy’s birthday and it makes me sad to think she would have only been 88. Think about it – Betty White is 88 and is enjoying a hearty career and again changing the face of age in our culture. I bet Judy would have been that type of gal.  I often wonder what amazing things she could have done had she had the strength to continue; more movies, recordings, Love Boat, Fantasy Island, a tour of “Sugar Babies” with Mickey Rooney…the fifth Golden Girl???  Goodness the possibilities! But I give myself a swift slap in the face to snap out of it because even though she left us way too early there is so much she left behind.  Her music, her movies, her tv and stage appearances and her spirit are her legacy.  And her legacy is strong, stronger than many who live twice as long.  Even 41 years after her death her star burns as bright as ever and her voice still continues to reach new ears.  She was given a gift and she shared that gift with the world.  This is what real legends are made of and this woman is quite simply…a legend.

Judy Garland has stood the test of time and is truly “The World’s Greatest Entertainer”.

Happy Birthday Judy !

By MargOH! Channing

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