“I was born in a trunk. I was raised in a Vaudeville family. We had lunch for breakfast, dinner for lunch and a show for dinner. From age five, my appetite for entertainment was keener than my taste for food. Work? Who’s afraid of hard work? I’d work twenty hours a day on the series if they’d let me!” - Judy Garland
The Judy Garland Show aired on Sunday nights at 9pm on CBS from 1963 to 1964 and this is its story.
Judy Garland had a limited movie career since she was fired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1950, but by the early 1960s she had conquered all mediums of entertainment. She’d spent a large part of the previous decade electrifying audiences throughout the world in record-breaking concert appearances. That run culminated with a historic show in New York City’s Carnegie Hall in 1961, the recording of which, “Judy at Carnegie Hall,” stayed on Billboard’s chart for 73 weeks, 13 weeks at Number One. That recording won five Grammy Awards, including “Album of the Year,” the first time a woman won in this category.
In February 1962, Garland starred in a one-hour special with entertainment heavyweights, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Despite those mega-watt co-stars, however, that special, which I am lucky
enough to own on DVD, is all about Judy as she mesmerizes with her astounding voice and energy. The concert segment at the end where she performs some of her signature songs solo is fantastic. That show, “Judy, Frank and Dean – Once in a Lifetime,” as it is titled now, brought CBS their highest audience ever for a special, with the exception of the annual CBS screening of The Wizard of Oz, which, of course, also starred Judy Garland. The “Judy, Frank and Dean” show also received four Emmy nominations. The reviews hailed Ms. Garland across the board:
“Judy Garland held television in the palm of her hand last night.” - The New York Times
Judy Garland was never more popular, not even at the height of her fame as MGM’s greatest asset, a fact that didn’t escape CBS brass.
As 1962 progressed there was a steady network war vying for Judy’s attention in hopes she’d agree to star in her own variety show. Her managers had also been trying to convince her for some time. No announcement yet made, Judy appeared on Jack Paar’s prime-time talk show on December 7, 1962 with an energy and wit that enthralled. She “killed ‘em,” as they say, leading many to speculate she was ready to agree to her own show. In truth she longed for steady financial security and thought it was a good time to spend more time home with her children, rather than being on the road touring. All the rumors were true – on December 28, 1962 Judy signed one of the largest deals in television history, not only in terms of money but also because it gave her full say as to whether she wanted to continue past the first 13 shows (One season) and they could not cancel her.
The Judy Garland Show began taping in June 1963 at CBS’ Television City. Judy Garland was 41 years old and at the top of her game – physically, emotionally – and in great spirits, despite recently having been separated from husband, Sid Luft and increasing signs that her managers were misusing her money for their own benefit.
The Garland Show taped in front of a studio audience and almost from the beginning the star and her “team” were in disagreement with CBS as to what the show’s format should be. While everyone wanted to showcase Judy’s talent and ensure she felt comfortable with the show’s set-up, they weren’t on the same page. The first example of this was CBS’ insistence that the show feature a “second banana,” a series regular that would supply comic relief, which Garland didn’t need because she was very funny and was a great ad-libber (is that a word?). Regardless, CBS won out and they hired
Jerry Van Dyke, brother of Dick, one of CBS’ biggest stars at the time to play the “second banana” role. Even the somewhat lame segments that featured Van Dyke, couldn’t diffuse the magic of Judy, however, thanks in part to the show’s behind the scenes talent who adored and supported her. The first five shows were produced by George Schlatter who would later produce Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in. Renowned singer/composer/arranger, Mel Torme signed on to create special musical material for Judy and her guests. Mort Lindsey, who’d toured with the star as her conductor and arranger was now with her in the same role on the show. Soon-to-be feature film director, Norman Jewison was executive producer for eight episodes of the show’s first season and Bill Colleran, who had many variety show successes under his belt by that time, followed as executive producer for the remainder of the show’s run.
Most, if not all, of the series’ season one shows followed the standard variety show format with skits (Jerry Van Dyke only lasted five episodes, by the way), banter with guest stars, and a “just Judy” segment where she stood with just a trunk on a stage. This is what I am always there to see when I pop in the DVDs and I suspect so was the audience back then. During these segments she sang standards, torch songs – some of the best ever written – show tunes and many songs from her old movies. Her extraordinary voice front and center, usually overpowering to the point of wonderment. How can it – SHE – be possible? Is my usual reaction.
Despite the incredible support system she had at hand, CBS often posed huge hurdles for Garland to conquer. Relatively few of the team’s creative ideas were allowed to come to fruition without a fight. For instance, the network would continually push for a standard variety hour format, which worked well at the onset but both Garland and her producers felt a straight concert-style format, which would allow her to do what she did best would make the show a standout. The best example of this was right after the assassination of President Kennedy, with whom Judy was close. She initially wanted to cancel the week’s show but CBS told her she wouldn’t be paid if she did so, which was something she couldn’t afford to do. She then presented the idea to do a special concert show during which she’d sing patriotic songs in honor of the President. They refused to allow that as well. In the end the only tribute she could do was a heart-wrenching rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” during which one could see the strain on her face as she is overcome with emotion. You can take a look at what would become an unforgettable moment in television history in this clip, which includes commentary from a few of the key players.
Ironically, the idea to present The Judy Garland Show in a full concert format didn’t happen until the show was scheduled for cancellation in January 1964 when Garland and Colleran decided to ignore network brass and do what they wanted. By then the show’s ratings had fallen substantially. Although these “Evening with Judy” concert shows have moments of brilliance, the star was not the same energetic powerhouse she’d been during the first season. By then her troubles had escalated to include a custody fight for her kids. Also, CBS refused to change the show’s time slot, which almost guaranteed its demise as it was up against ratings powerhouse, Bonanza on NBC.
It’s worth noting that, as far as I know, only fourteen of The Judy Garland Show episodes – all from season one, which is telling – were released on DVD. Clips of performances from the show’s second season are included in compilation sets like the “Just Judy” release, which features Garland solo numbers from various shows. Clips of select performances are also available in several documentaries, but all 26 of the show’s episodes have not been seen since the The Judy Garland Show first aired. I must also mention that the liner notes (if they’re called that) included in the DVD releases of the individual show volumes, which is what I own, are written by Coyne Steven Sanders, who wrote Rainbow’s End: The Judy Garland Show and John Fricke who wrote, Judy Garland/ World’s Greatest Entertainer. Both books are the basis for the background information available in this post and are highly recommended by this fan.
“I cannot recall any series in television history where the production was so polished or the star shined with any brighter intensity…” – The San Francisco Chronicle
The title shot above is from the first taped episode of The Judy Garland Show. The title segment would change each week as the images showed Judy appearing on stage and the audience’s reaction. That first show featured a guest that brought out the best in Judy, a guest chosen by her to help kick off the series, her old friend and partner, Mickey Rooney.
Garland and Rooney performed in front of a star-studded audience, which included Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Natalie Wood and many others. Judy and Mickey did a skit as if they were the characters of the old Andy Hardy films they did together so many years before. Charming exchanges, making fun, in a warm way, of the characters and silly stories – the eventual big show in a big barn. But, as I’ll probably say yet again later, it’s the times when Judy’s alone on stage that are unforgettable. That was her element. And she was in extraordinary voice. That first show ended with what would be the regular “born in a trunk” concert segment and a rendition of “Ol Man River,” one of the defining performances of her career, that knocks your socks off. I’ve seen it countless times and its power only grows with each viewing.
By the way, the “born in a trunk” theme was one Judy referred to all her life, as you can see from
the quote that opens this post, and one that became a part of her series for the last segment in each episode featured Judy singing on stage alone with a trunk. The theme referred to the fact that she was on stage almost as soon as she was born, having been born into a Vaudeville family and performing as soon as she could walk. She also did a “born in a trunk” medley in George Cukor’s, A Star is Born, her 1954 Academy Award-nominated performance. It was in an interview during the promotion of The Judy Garland Show that she stated (paraphrasing) “I wasn’t really born in a trunk. Can you imagine how crooked I’d be if that were true?”
Those who were present at the taping of that first show – stars and journalists alike – felt that The Judy Garland Show could be the greatest triumph of Judy’s career. Unfortunately, that episode was not chosen to debut the series so what audiences saw didn’t match the reviews of those who wrote them based on what they’d seen during the taping. In addition, when the episode aired, several segments had been changed. That would be the norm for most of the episodes.
The third show taped in the series proved a huge hit with audiences and was a peak in the life of The Judy Garland Show. Yet another familiar guest was her 17-year-old daughter, Liza Minnelli who was just off her off-Broadway debut. Both mother and daughter exhibit their talents in solo numbers and duets, which are the first “official” performances they do together. Although they’d performed together before, they’d always been impromptu numbers. This episode ends with a wonderful duet of “Two Lost Souls,” which becomes the only time in the series’ history that the show ends with a duet, rather than a Garland solo.
Judy Garland matches her performance of “Ol Man River” in the first show with two solo numbers in the third show. The first a rendition of “Come Rain or Come Shine” that seems to surprise even Garland herself as she looks especially astounded when the song concludes. I know nothing about music other than what I like and what I don’t and the arrangement of this song seems particularly difficult to sing as it goes in as her voice goes in and out with the music rather dramatically. She hits an incredible note to end the song, hence her own amazement. Take a look and listen here. I also can’t help but wonder whether there’s a bit of competition going during this number as Liza is standing just off camera view as Judy belts out this song. She’s seen clapping for her mother as Judy takes her bows.
Finally, during the “born in a trunk” segment on that same show, Judy sings the torch song, “As Long As He Needs Me,” from the musical, Oliver! and it turns out to be my favorite of all her performances, which is saying a lot. I mentioned this particular instance in a previous tribute I did to honor Garland in my classic film blog but am repeating it here because it’s a standout. A standout, by the way, not only because she delivers the song with haunting feeling, but also because of its interesting back story, an example of how she fought network interference with the show as much as she could.
Part of the song’s lyrics go like this…
…The way I feel inside.
The love, I have to hide…
The hell! I’ve gone my pride
As long as he needs me.
In reviewing the line-up for that particular week’s show, the censors took note of the word “hell” in the song and demanded Judy sing an alternate version of the lyric or face a hefty fine. Keep in mind that at the time she needed her income. So, she agreed with the censors, stating she wouldn’t sing the original lyric – to their face, that is. Following is that performance where, she not only sings the lyric as originally written, but gives the censors at CBS a distinct, if ever so brief, dirty look right into the camera (at about 2:32). Just one more reason to love her as an artist. I dare you to not get chills as you watch and listen – simply standing behind a trunk, living each word, when that music swells and her voice sores. This is Judy. My goodness.
Judy would sing that same song again in an episode in the show’s second season. In dire need of money should couldn’t take a fine and changed the lyric to the song. It never fails to break my heart when I hear it and see her, only a year later, significantly aged and tired.
The episode that actually premiered the series was the seventh show filmed, which had a very special guest, the great, Donald O’Connor. Judy and Donald are joyous to watch together. According to Sander’s book (noted above), Garland had reminisced about never having worked with Donald O’Connor but that he was “her first boyfriend,” the two having met in the Vaudeville circuit, he was four and she, five. As they performed in the same theaters they played hide-and-seek, he showed her how to play jacks and they watched the shows from the wings together. The two never lost touch through the years and the history and affection they shared is evident in this outing of The Judy Garland Show.
Throughout its run, The Judy Garland Show would feature many more of Hollywood’s greatest stars, some of whom had a history of working with Judy during her days at MGM. One of the more memorable performances and stars was Lena Horne, with whom Garland belts in a stunning medley of songs in a friendly diva competition at the conclusion of which Judy whispers to Horne, “not bad for a couple of MGM rejects.” Other notable guests were Count Basie, Louis Jourdan, Peggy Lee, Ray Bolger, Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett, the best comedy sketch of the series with Bob Newhart and many others.
Perhaps the most famous duet/pairing that resulted from the Garland Show was between the show’s star and then newcomer, Barbra Streisand who appeared prior to her starting rehearsals for Funny Girl on Broadway. She was 21. That show, the ninth taped, aired second after the O’Connor show. CBS scrambled to air it only a day after it was taped, recognizing history in the making. This was true not only because of the now-iconic duets between Garland and Streisand, but also because of a surprise appearance by Broadway legend, Ethel Merman late in the show where she joined Garland and Streisand. As Norman Jewison later stated, “The three belters. God, they were sublime.” I’m not sure I would call them sublime as you can barely hear Garland or Streisand over Merman, but it’s still a historic moment. I particularly love how Barbra seems a bit overwhelmed by Merman. And who can blame her?
Anyway, all stories go that Judy Garland was famously generous and supportive of her guests – newcomers and legends alike – allowing extraordinary time for solos to all, no matter what their talent. The Streisand appearance is evident of that as the young star was given several opportunities to duet with the show’s star and a wide berth to showcase her talents alone on the stage as well. Quite unique of a diva of Garland’s magnitude.
“Judy always gave a thousand percent to the other performers, to make everybody else look good. As vulnerable as she was, I don’t think she had a problem with knowing how much talent she had.”
I grew up, as so many others did, watching The Carol Burnett Show, which remains one of my all-time favorite shows. That show is also responsible for why I became enamored of the variety show in general. Now a lost art, I watched many as they aired through the years, Sonny and Cher, Donny and Marie, The Flip Wilson Show. Even Tony Orlando and Dawn. Remember that? Later, as my nostalgia obsessions grew, I started seeking out the older classics, falling in love with Sid Caesar and his troupe in particular. A show, as I later learned, that influenced Carol Burnett as she used to watch the rehearsals from the rafters while she was on The Garry Moore Show, another classic variety show. One can see the similarities between the Caesar and Burnett shows too. Two wonders of comedic talent. But I digress…
I knew nothing of The Judy Garland Show growing up. I was familiar with Judy only through her films, my absolute favorite (if forced to choose one) being Vincente Minnelli’s, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). I happened across the show by accident (or destiny) one fine day in New York City. As it turns out, the first “real” job I had was located on 51st Street and Fifth Avenue, one block away from what was then the Museum of Broadcasting, which later became the Museum of Television and Radio and is now The Paley Center for Media. Anyway, I used to spend most of my lunch hours and many evenings there perusing through their huge collection of videos of classic television and radio shows. One day I “searched” Judy Garland and there it was, a treasure trove of titillating talent! That’s what I thought then and it happens that I was actually correct, The Judy Garland Show is actually a treasure as it is the only existing audio and video record the world has of the legend and icon at a peak point in her life as an entertainer, not as a character in a movie. (Sanders)
As fans we are offered the best opportunity to see the real Judy through The Judy Garland Show. Her warmth, joy, humor, soul, and yes, even heartache are evident. Although the show fits snugly into the genre of “variety,” for me it is more an “experience” for rarely (I admit) is the “variety show smile” on my face as I watch. This is not lighthearted fare – it is emotional and tissues must be at the ready for much of it.
A woman whose films made over $100 million, whose star shown brightest at the studio that boasted “more stars than there are in the heavens,” shows decades later what it means to be an entertainer by the standards of a day when reality meant her voice cracked and the fact nearly broke us. With an extraordinary voice and a palpable sadness Judy’s days on television are unforgettable. If passion is a means by which we judge greatness then the fact that she evidently left her guts on that stage with each song must mean something. No one else, I dare say, could elate and destroy as she could. And nowhere else did she do so more profoundly than on The Judy Garland Show.
The Judy Garland Show’s legacy is that it exists, chronicling an important part of the career of an extraordinary talent. I rarely speak in absolutes when it comes to the classics in both film and television. That’s mostly because I know so little and partly because there is so much that’s great that comparisons are ridiculous. But here is an instance when I am absolutely certain. By way of a variety show that barely lasted two seasons, as the final (26th) episode was never really completed, Judy Garland solidified her place in the pantheon of entertainment. In a league of legends she must reign supreme. The Judy Garland Show is the last chance to witness the greatest entertainer of the 20th Century in her glory. A must.
“Somewhere inside, Judy had to know that she had what nobody else had. She just had to know that.” – Bill Colleran
As I compose myself I must mention this post is part of the Classic TV Variety Show blogathon, hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association of which I am a proud member. There are many more entries dedicated to classic television variety shows that cannot be missed. Please take a look here.