Screenings from the Paley Center for Media Collection
Judy Garland: The Television Years
July 24, 2011 [festival runs July 20-August 18, 2011]
25 West 52nd Street
event web site: http://www.paleycenter.org/judy-garland-the-television-years
[Note: Alas, I will not be able to report in sequence on each and every event in the Garland festivals at the Paley Center and at the Walter Reade. Personal and professional obligations will take me to other theatres, other screening rooms, other job responsibilities from time to time. I do expect to attend at least 16 of the movies and events at the Walter Reade, and most of the 11 programs at the Paley Center, each of which will be presented twice to maximize availability. Today's entry reflects the first gap in my attendance -- the Saturday July 23 program I may catch when it is shown again August 5. And so it goes.]
Sunday July 24. The man behind the Paley Center admissions desk now doesn’t even ask to see my membership card — he has printed up my admission ticket (free to members — join up people) by the time I walk from the revolving door entrance to his location at the east side of the entrance hall, about 20 feet away. And at this moment, about 20 minutes before the screening is scheduled to start, I see a number of familiar Garland fans happily chatting, including our host John Fricke. We all greet each other as old friends. I do feel at home here. I ascertain that our screening venue is the big beautiful spot downstairs, down a dramatic staircase, which has held several of the prior events this week.
John Fricke provides, as usual, a few preparatory remarks. Today’s examples of Judy on television are drawn from 1966 and 1968, several years after the CBS series was cancelled, after she had performed concerts around the world. During these years, Fricke notes quoting another television critic of the day, you might find Garland in great voice, in great spirits, looking well — but rarely all three characteristics on a single evening. Yet “even when Judy was out of voice, she was never out of talent.” Today we will have two appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show from 1968, a May 1966 appearance on the Hollywood Palace, and a final view into 1966 on a Perry Como Kraft Music Hall special. Special mention is made of the fact that Judy sings the tunes of the young composer Johnny Meyer on her December 1968 Tonight Show appearance, reminding most of us of this fact just in time to welcome the New York resident songwriter himself as an audience member. More on this in a moment. And truly, there is something special, something telling, something evocative, something essentially Garland in each of these performances.
The Tonight Show appearances from 1968 are first up on the agenda. In June 1968 Judy appears resplendent in a white version of the Valley of the Dolls pant suit (or so it appears to my non fashionista eyes). She is in great good humor, is well represented by fans in the audience who provide the correct directions to Judy’s upcoming performances at the Garden State Art Center. She does not sing during this extended visit but tells many stories (remember the vaudevillian who consumed a mixture of kerosene and water and doused a fire), smokes with the host, enjoys his humor, and extols the virtues of her audiences. ”I love them,” she says. ”I like each person in the audience and its a sort of marriage of love.” My goodness, yes. Little moments are highlighted again — such as the gentle way Johnny Carson takes her hand as they go to the first commercial.
The second 1968 appearance on the Tonight Show in December is a bit more bittersweet. Judy appears in this segment in a black dress and red scarf, looking more fragile than ever, tinier than ever, and graces us with two songs. She enters onstage, alights upon a white stool-chair center stage and immediately delivers a tender “It’s All For You”. You feel her giving herself, addressing herself, to the audience she so lovingly described a few months before. Once seated by Johnny’s interview desk she engages in some shtick about sugar plums, and an impromptu routine of asking Johnny a question provided by sidekick Ed McMahon — “What turns you on?” Judy does not in the end actually ask Johnny this question as prompted, but her double take look back at Ed is quite priceless. When asked who her favorite singers are, Judy quickly mentions Barbra Streisand and Liza, of whom she observes when Johnny draws a connection between Judy and Liza’s singing styles that “her emotions are the same”. Stories abound including another version of the story of Happy Harry (the world’s saddest comedian) Judy shared on the December 1962 Paar show. As with any good story shared by a consummate storyteller, the story still works in the moment with new shadings and new rhythms. This woman knows how to work an audience. Judy goes on at some length about the nature of her childhood set lists selected by her mother (giving a child songs like “Brother Can You Spare A Dime” and “Bill” she finds ludicrous now). And finally, and most sweetly, Judy launches from her seat by Carson into “Till After The Holidays”. The community that has been formed by our knowing in our Paley Center screening room that the songwriter is with us watching Garland perform the tunes the then-young songwriter gave her to sing on this show is quite moving. When Judy notes after she finishes that her songs that evening were by a new young composer named Johnny Meyer, our audience erupts into loud and sustained applause for her, for him, for the moment.
The 1966 performances are a stunning study in contrasts. Fricke reminds us that the week she is scheduled to host May 1966 The Hollywood Palace (a variety show with painfully bad comedy writing, and a wide range of acts that has a different guest host each week) she is involved in the initial stages of divorce proceedings from her fourth husband Mark Herron. This appearance is one of those where she shines most in some of her singing performances, most notably for me are an awe-inspiring finale rendition of “By Myself” in a slim-fitting black skirt and sequined short jacket and her final exit straight upstage in silhouette. Such performance self-awareness, beauty, and ease at this moment.
The final show for the day is the Kraft Music Hall, hosted by Perry Como, that originally aired February 28, 1966. Judy is clearly quite comfortable with host Como, wearing first a shimmery white long dress with a deep slit up the side (and another dress with too many feathers), bantering with Como and fellow guest actor and comedian Bill Cosby, all of whom gamely suffer through more bad variety show comedy writing. Among the great duet and solo performances Judy gifts us with a “Just In Time” that make your heart sing.
And we gather and process and feel the performances as if they have been delivered for the first time.
© Martha Wade Steketee (July 25, 2011)