BORN Frances Ethel Gumm, into a showbiz family, from the moment Judy Garland emerged from a hat box on stage and did a sensational impersonation of Al Jolson at the tender age of two and a half, the world was captivated.
The Gumm Family were entertainers and Ethel Gumm, Judy’s mum, was determined that her youngest daughter was going to be a star. Her entire childhood was defined by her mother’s burning ambition, and it could be described as anything but idyllic!
Over the Rainbow: The Judy Garland Story tells the enthralling story of Judy Garland’s life and the heartbreak that lay behind those carefree songs and dance sequences.
Judy’s parents, Frank and Ethel, were showbiz, song and dance people, and played six nights a week in vaudeville. They already had two girls so they weren’t exactly thrilled with the idea of an impending third baby as it would impact on their work. But they were hopeful it would be a boy, so the arrival of another baby girl, Frances Ethel Gumm, on June 10, 1922, was a huge disappointment to them.
Frank and Ethel provided the entertainment in the local cinema, when the film reels were being changed between the movies. Like Cork’s own Fred Bridgeman on the organ in the Savoy!
They were later joined on stage by their two older daughters. But it was Frances (or Baby as she was now called) Gumm (Judy) who stole the show from the moment she first burst onto the stage.
The audience effusive’s response to the child with the big voice set her parents thinking.
Ethel had big plans: she had set her sights firmly on Hollywood.
‘The Gumm Sisters’ began a grueling touring programme. It was not a happy experience for Baby and things were not going well for the Gumm parents either. As time passed, Ethel became more and more contemptuous of her straying husband and more obsessed with pushing Baby on towards stardom. Ethel became the stage mother from hell!
It was towards the end of 1929 that things began to take a more sinister turn. Baby was still only seven and that gruelling touring regime was beginning to take its toll. She was prone to chest infections and sometimes too tired or too sick to perform. But she got no maternal sympathy.
Garland told Barbara Walters in a 1967 interview: “Momma was very jealous because she had absolutely no talent herself. She would stand in the wings… and if I didn’t feel good… she’d hiss, ‘You get out there and sing or I’ll wrap you around the bedpost and break you off short!’ So, I’d go out there … and sing.”
And sing she did, with a big painted smile on her face.
As time passed, Ethel Gumm became more and more determined to make Baby into a star. If Baby was sick or listless, Ethel would panic, seeing her ambitions frittering away. And eventually, she started making Baby take pills.
By the age of ten, Baby was on a regular diet of drugs: uppers and downers. It is no surprise that the adult Judy remembered very little of those touring days. For Baby, showbusiness had become a nightmare.
And her name, Frances Ethel Gumm, didn’t exactly roll off the tongue either. So at the age of 10, Baby’s name was changed to Judy Garland and Ethel persuaded Frank that they should all move to Hollywood where her ambition was to get Judy into films.
When they arrived in Los Angeles, Judy secured a coveted audition with the head of MGM studio, the legendary Louis B Meyer. Judy wowed him with her amazing voice and nine days later, Frank and Ethel stood by as their 13-year-old daughter signed a seven contract with MGM at $100 a week. Ethel’s dream had come true!
By that time, Judy had already been singing on the professional stage for 11 years. When she was cast as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz in 1939, she became known and loved the world over.
During the next few years, spellbound audiences watched as child-star Judy grew up on the screen. Judy starred in a series of musical films that brought millions of dollars into the MGM coffers. But her personal life was a rollercoaster. She had soon married and divorced twice.
Her life now revolved around medication. You have to wonder how Judy was able to function at all. Her behaviour became more erratic and she ultimately got fired from the studio.
Her fall from grace was as rapid as her rise. She spent months in therapy and managed to get off the drugs and medication, at least for a while. But her phone had stopped ringing, no more invitations dropped into her postbox, her mother had cut off all contact with her and her funds were running low.
Then, one day, Bing Crosby rang to invite her to sing with him on his radio show. He generated an atmosphere of calm and joviality that worked wonders for bruised and battered Judy.
In a way, it was back to the very beginning for her. An almost empty stage, a little girl with a big voice and an audience that adored her. Her appearances on the Bing Crosby Show and the dozens of records that followed, helped people realise that, at heart, Judy Garland was a singer. And by 1955, she was the highest paid entertainer in the world.
To hear the full story of Judy Garland, come and see Over the Rainbow: the Story of Judy Garland on Sunday, March 31, at 7.30pm in the Everyman Theatre. Tickets €25, see www.everymancork.com