Authors: Lorna Luft
Tags: #Biographies & Memoirs, #Arts & Literature, #Actors & Entertainers, #Composers & Musicians, #Television Performers, #Leaders & Notable People, #Rich & Famous, #Memoirs, #Specific Groups, #Women, #Humor & Entertainment
Then there were the changes in the entertainment industry itself. With talkies taking over the movies, “Jack and Virginia” were soon out of jobs as performers. Grandma Ethel was no longer needed to play the piano during the silent films, nobody was interested in “illustrators” to point out lyrics anymore, and fewer and fewer theaters wanted performers to entertain audiences between pictures. The result was that more and more vaudeville performers like my grandparents were out of jobs. Vaudeville was a dying art. If my mother hadn’t made the change from vaudeville to film when she did, I might be teaching singing at the local junior high today instead of carrying on my own show business career.
But of course, Mama did make the change. She stopped being Baby Frances Gumm and was rechristened Judy Garland. There are several stories about how my mother got her name, but they all involve George Jessel. It happened at the World’s Fair in 1934. This fair wasn’t in St. Louis as in Mama’s movie, but in Chicago. That year the fair was billed as “The Century of Progress,” and Grandma Ethel thought it would be a great experience for her girls to go. Grandma managed to book the Gumm Sisters in a vaudeville show hosted by George Jessel—a huge stroke of luck, since Jessel was already popular.
When George Jessel introduced the sister act, though, everybody laughed. They thought the name “Gumm” was just another of Jessel’s jokes. During the break following the second performance, Jessel told my grandmother she had to change the girls’ name. It wasn’t hard to convince her. All three girls and Grandma Ethel had been thoroughly sick of the name “Gumm Sisters” for quite some time. Over the years they’d been called everything from the Glum Sisters to the Dumb Sisters to the Wrigley Sisters (and every brand of gum you can think of). Jessel told Grandma that he’d think of a new name for them before the next show, so the next time they went on, he announced them as “The Garland Sisters.” Jessel’s version was that he got the idea from an old friend of his,
the New York theater critic Robert Garland, who happened to call him between shows that day.
My mother had a different story, though. Mama always said Jessel chose it because she and her sisters were “as pretty as a garland of flowers.” I like Mama’s version better. Whatever the reason, everybody liked the new name, and it stuck.
Mama chose her new first name herself. She got the idea from the Hoagy Carmichael hit, “Judy.” Mama said it was a “peppy name,” and she liked the lyric it came from: “If you think she’s a saint, and you find that she ain’t, that’s Judy.” My mother never said so, but she obviously knew that the line described her perfectly. The result was that at twelve years old, my mother stopped being Frances Gumm and became Judy Garland. Not coincidentally, “Judy” became the most popular name for American girls for more than ten years after
The Wizard of Oz
was released. “Baby Frances” soon became a distant memory for my mother. Nothing made her madder when I was a kid than being called Frances. Gene Palumbo, her musical director on her concerts years later, would do it occasionally to set her off. It worked.
ith a new name that had considerable marquee appeal, all that remained was for Mama to be discovered. By this time she had her own agent, and it was clear that if any of the Gumms were going to be stars, it was going to be Mama. She was a standout in any group. Mama had started getting some serious attention around town, and it all came to a head one day in the autumn of 1935. There are several versions of what happened that day, but as I heard the story, my mom was playing outside in sneakers and dirty playclothes when her agent called. He said she had to come to Metro immediately for an audition. She’d auditioned for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer once before, but it had come to nothing. Mama protested, saying she was a mess and needed time to fix herself up, but my grandfather told her she looked fine and stuck her in the car, sneakers and all. (Grandma Ethel had a fit when she found
out.) An hour or so later Mama was taken into the office of Mr. Louis B. Mayer himself and told to sing. She did. When she finished, Mr. Mayer didn’t say a word, so Grandpa took Mama home in a huff.
The next day, though, the agent called back. Could Mama sing for Mr. Mayer again, this time on a soundstage? This time around Grandma got the call, and you can bet that she fixed my mother up in her very best outfit. A short while later Mama was taken into a huge, empty sound studio to wait for Mr. Mayer. As usual, Mama rose to the occasion. When L.B. arrived, Mama sang again, this time ending with Mr. Mayer’s favorite—the Jewish song “Eli, Eli.” Legend has it that L.B. was moved to tears. Two weeks later Mr. Mayer signed my mother to a contract—no screen test, nothing. Judy Garland was on her way.
But on her way where? MGM wasn’t really the lollipop land of the movies. It was a pretty overwhelming place to work, especially for a thirteen-year-old kid. Ready or not, though, my mother was processed into the MGM studio system.
t’s hard for us to imagine now what the system was like in the thirties. Things are so different today—most actors would kill for a multipicture deal. When my mother signed with MGM, though, that was the only kind of contract an actor could sign. There was no such thing as an independent agent. When you signed up with Metro, you weren’t just signing up for a job—you were signing over yourself, body and soul.
In those days Metro was turning out a film per week. Doing this required incredible planning and organization, and Metro had it. They kept a large group of screenwriters, producers, and directors on staff year-round. All of them were assigned projects as part of their contracts and had little say-so in what projects they worked on.
The creative heads were just the tip of the iceberg, though. Besides the seemingly endless costumers, musicians, and set
painters, there were thousands of secretaries, nurses, doctors, teachers, and the like. And, of course, there were hundreds of actors and actresses, contract players who moved in and out of parts as the studio heads chose. Not only was Metro a big company; it was a small city. Everything its “citizens” needed was right on the lot.
The school my mother attended was a storybook building right in the middle of the soundstages. It was a tiny replica of a one-room schoolhouse, complete with a front porch, a rocking chair, and a cobblestone lane leading to the front entrance. My mom’s class included Mickey Rooney, Freddie Bartholomew, and Deanna Durbin. Mama had met Mickey before, when they’d both attended Mrs. Lawlor’s Academy in Los Angeles, so they became instant best buddies. My mom was a good student, and she got plenty of attention in a classroom that averaged five children.
Traditional school subjects were only the beginning for these children. Every day there were voice lessons, of course, and dance lessons. There were also diction lessons, drama lessons, makeup lessons, charm and deportment lessons, and so forth. Mama was instructed in how to walk, talk, stand, and breathe—literally. She was also stripped down, measured, photographed and analyzed, all in the most humiliating fashion, and all as puberty was first beginning for her. The studio was not pleased with what they saw. My mother was written up as too short and too chubby, with a round spine and no neck. She had a bad bite, and her nose turned up too much, they said. Her eyes were the only thing that got a good review from the MGM makeover artists. Nobody ever mentioned her beautiful skin.
My mother was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. I always longed to look like her (instead of my dad!). But she wasn’t good enough for Metro. They thought she should fit the movie star stereotype: slender, glamorous, and preferably blonde. My mother was tiny, dark-haired, and barrel-chested. Not what
MGM had in mind. They loved her voice, but they weren’t crazy about her looks.
So they set to work to remake her. They put her on a diet. They squeezed her into corsets to make her middle look thinner, and they bound her chest to make her look younger. They inserted little rubber disks into her nose so it wouldn’t turn up so much. They made caps for her teeth. To make her feel better about the caps, her musical mentor, Roger Edens, gave her a little music box shaped like a piano to keep the caps in. My aunt Jimmy still spent a lot of time with Mama in those days, and she told me my mom accidentally broke the tooth caps one afternoon when she shut the music box lid on them. My mom got so scared when she saw what she’d done that she begged Aunt Jimmy to say that she had done it. Aunt Jimmy told me, “There was no way I was going to tell Mr. Mayer it was me because I could have gotten in big trouble.” When it got right down to it, my mother and her sister were still just a couple of kids from Lancaster who didn’t want to get into trouble with the grown-ups.
Overall, though, my mother loved being at the studio. People are always saying that my mother never had an adolescence. It’s not true; she did have an adolescence. It just happened to be on a movie set. My mother never, ever told me she was unhappy growing up on the MGM lot. When I was a kid, she told me she liked it, that it was fun. It was exciting to work at the biggest movie studio in the world. Mama got to meet some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and she got to watch as Metro created the magic of films.
Besides, along with the unkind remarks from the makeup department, there was also the flattery. Mama got a lot of attention for her singing. She got a lot of attention, period. The studio aimed to please. And there was the money, lots of money, remarkable amounts for a kid her age. She was guaranteed $100 a week to start and $1,000 a week by her twentieth birthday, huge sums in the middle of the Depression, even for a six-day work week. In reality, it turned out even better than that, for MGM repeatedly raised her
salary over the years, paying her far more than their contractual obligation. For the Gumm family, this was overwhelming prosperity after the years of struggling financially in Lancaster.
The money caused problems, though. When she signed her contract with MGM, Mama became the chief breadwinner for the family. Both of my grandparents continued to work, but their income couldn’t compete with their daughter’s. It’s never healthy for one family member, especially a child, to support all the rest. My grandparents did their best to handle my mother’s finances responsibly, but it was hard. My mom had never developed any sense of discipline about money (her parents had never even made her stick to an allowance). None of the family was very good with money, and nobody was exactly sure where it all went—another family pattern. During her Metro years my mother got used to having money whenever she wanted it, and later in life this caused problems.
In the middle of all these changes, good and bad, came the biggest blow of my mother’s childhood, maybe the biggest blow of her life. My grandfather Frank, the light of my mother’s life, the source of all her emotional security, died suddenly of a massive hemorrhage. Four years later, on the anniversary of his death, my grandmother married another man. My mother never got over either event.
While my mom struggled to survive her personal loss, the studio was trying to figure out what to do with her professionally. She had reached what they call the awkward age. At thirteen she was too old to play the Shirley Temple-style kiddie parts, but she wasn’t old enough to play a teenage romance, either. She was rapidly developing the figure of a young woman, but her face still had the wide-eyed innocence of a little girl. She just didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. Time was going by, and Mama was beginning to wonder if she was ever going to get a real part. And that’s where Roger Edens came in.
Roger had started his career as a pianist for George and Ira Gershwin. He was the pit pianist when Ethel Merman did
on Broadway, the show my mom did as a movie years later. Roger was an incredibly gifted musician, and Metro soon became interested in hiring him. Shortly before MGM signed my mother, Roger also went to work for the studio. Professionally, Roger “created” Judy Garland. He recognized not only my mother’s extraordinary musical gifts, but also her emotional sensitivity. It was his gifts as composer and arranger that gave my mother the chance to shine on camera. From the first time he heard her sing, he knew she was something very special. He also knew that if Mama was ever going to come into her own, she would have to stop imitating the popular singers of the day (the way Grandma Ethel had taught her) and learn to trust herself. He worked hard with my mom to get her to stop belting out numbers like a miniature Ethel Merman and start singing like Judy, the fourteen-year-old girl who missed her father and longed for a boyfriend. It was Roger who gave Mama the courage to let the softness, the vulnerability that was a part of her into her singing. Without Roger we might never have had “Over the Rainbow,” at least not the way we all remember it.
I loved Roger Edens when I was a little girl. Roger had an amazing speaking voice and a deep southern accent; I loved to listen to him talk. He came into my mother’s life at a time when she really needed him. Mama adored him, and he felt the same way about her. Roger was one of the very few people that my mother completely respected. My mother learned young how to intimidate people when she wanted to, but it didn’t work on Roger. Roger was the only man besides my father who could say no to my mom and get away with it. I think Roger knew my mother better than anyone in the world except us. He stayed with her to the very end. He died shortly after she did.
It was Roger who got my mother the break she needed. Clark Gable was having a birthday, and they were going to have a party for him on the Metro lot. My mom had a huge crush on him. So
Roger got the idea to have Mama sing to Clark Gable at the party and wrote “Dear Mr. Gable” for her. She sang it right to him, simple and sweet the way Roger had taught her. Clark Gable was completely taken by her, and so was everyone else. Mr. Mayer said they had to get my mother a property. In 1938 they got one. That property, of course, was
The Wizard of Oz.
My mother was cast as Dorothy, “Over the Rainbow” was written for her, and the rest, as they say, is history.