April 23, 1961– Judy Garland Plays Carnegie Hall
She was only 37-years-old, but near death, addicted to booze and pills. Her acting and singing careers were considered finished. Defying doctors’ directives, Garland put all her eggs in one big showbiz basket: A Carnegie Hall Concert. That performance became a moment in time for those who were there and a showbiz legend for everyone else. That evening is still considered the greatest night in entertainment history.
Garland had not worked in films since A Star Is Born in 1954. In 1960, after a period of rest and careful nutrition, along with a more moderate indulgence in alcohol and pharmaceuticals, she had gradually built back a reputation for showing up on time, and giving well-regarded, nicely reviewed performances in all sorts of venues of all sizes around Europe and North America. But, no one was anticipating the mania the evening she brought her act to Carnegie Hall on Sunday, April 23, 1961. Her audience called her back for encore after encore, even asking her to repeat songs after her conductor’s book of arrangements had been sung through.
After the overture had whipped up the audience’s emotions, Garland made her entrance. She was almost a half-hour late, looking exceptionally restored, thin and pulled together. She was greeted by a deafening roar from the crowd, which including theatre performers and showbiz greats on their Sunday night off (theatres were dark on Sunday evenings in those days). The celebrities were zany in love with Garland and so was her usual gay audience.
15-year-old Liza Minnelli was there with her younger sister, Lorna Luft, and her brother Joey Luft, just 6-years-old. Joey 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 vivid and vital. It was number one on the Billboard charts for 13 weeks in 1961, and it has never been out of print since. Judy At Carnegie Hall is an essential album for all gays and anyone who wishes to understand pop culture of the 20th century.
Garland’s return to the top was brief. In 1962, she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Stanley Kramer’s Judgment At Nuremberg. A CBS television special she did with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin had huge ratings. Impressed, CBS signed Garland to a weekly variety series. Plagued with difficulties from the very beginning and up against the most popular series of the era, Bonanza, The Judy Garland Show only lasted 24 episodes.
We know the sad story: she couldn’t stay away from the pills and her health deteriorated. In 1967, Garland married Mickey Deans, who supplied her with drugs. In 1969, just three months 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 number one choice 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 two events stays in many gay peoples’ minds and cemented Garland’s status as The Ultimate Gay Icon. Garland was a truly great artist and remains an icon to all sorts of people. The audience at that concert 56-years ago tonight was distinguished by diversity as well as devotion.