April 23, 1961- Judy Garland was only 37 years old, but near death, addicted to booze & pills. Her acting & singing careers were considered finished. Defying doctors’ directives, Garland put all her eggs in one big show biz basket: a 1961 Carnegie Hall Concert. That performance became a moment in time for those who were there & a showbiz legend for everyone else. That evening is still considered the greatest night in show biz history.
Garland had not worked in films since A Star Is Born in 1954. In 1960, after a period of rest & careful nutrition, plus a more moderate indulgence in alcohol & pharmaceuticals, she had gradually built back a reputation for showing up on time, & giving well-regarded, nicely reviewed performances in all sorts of venues of all sizes in Europe & North America. But no one was anticipating the mania the evening she brought her act to Carnegie Hall. Her audience would call her back for encore after encore, even asking her to repeat songs after her conductor’s book of arrangements had been sung through.
On Sunday, April 23rd, 1961, 54 years ago, after the grand overture had built up the crowd’s emotions, Garland made her entrance 20 minutes late, looking exceptionally restored, thin & well put together. She was greeted by very loud ovation from the audience, including theatre performers & show biz greats on their Sunday night off (theatres were dark on Sunday evenings in those days). The celebrities were crazed in their veneration towards Garland & so was her regular gay audience.
Liza was there with her kid sister, Lorna Luft, & her brother Joey, 6 years old. Luft:
“The one thing I remember, when you’re a kid, adults are supposed to act like adults. They are not supposed to jump out of their chairs, screaming, yelling, running towards the stage. They’re supposed to be in control. There they were, all dressed up in the tuxedos, going nuts.”
The recording of this evening is the only Judy Garland album in my own collection. I don’t need another. She sings each song as if it were her last. The album is still stunning, vivid & vital. It was #1 on the Billboard charts for 13 weeks in 1961, & has never been out of print since. Judy At Carnegie Hall is an essential album for all gays & those who wish to understand the pop culture of the 20th century.
Garland’s return to the top would be brief. In 1962, Garland was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Stanley Kramer’s Judgment At Nuremberg & a CBS TV special she did with Sinatra & Dean Martin was a smash hit. CBS then signed garland to a weekly variety series. Plagued with difficulties from the start & up against the most popular series of the time, Bonanza. The Judy Garland Show only lasted 24 episodes.
We know the sad story: she couldn’t stay away from the pills & her health deteriorated. In 1967, Garland married Mickey Deans, who supplied her with drugs. 3 months later, soon after her 47th birthday, Deans found her dead of an overdose in the bathroom of their London flat. The viewing of her body at NYC’s Campbell Funeral Home (the place for dead Broadway performers), was a stupendous spectacle, with tens of thousands of mourners, just a few days before the Stonewall Riots, a coincidence connecting the 2 events stays in many gay peoples’ minds & cemented Garland’s status as The Ultimate Gay Icon. But Garland was a great artist & remains an icon to people of all persuasions, & the audience at that concert 54 years ago tonight was distinguished by diversity as well as devotion.