ST. PAUL — Frances Ethel Gumm was born on June 10, 1922, in Grand Rapids, Minn. More than 97 years later, the world is still talking about the woman she would become, Judy Garland.
Renee Zellweger won raves for her sure-to-be-award-nominated turn as Garland in the film “Judy,” which opened in September. Saturday night, St. Paul’s History Theatre debuts a new production of “Beyond the Rainbow: Garland at Carnegie Hall,” an original musical the theater first staged in 2005.
To mark the occasion, here’s a look at Garland’s life in five acts.
Act one: Minnesota
The youngest child of vaudeville performers Ethel Marion and Francis Avent “Frank” Gumm, Garland made her first stage appearance at the age of 2 1/2 when she joined her sisters Mary and Virginia on stage at her father’s theater to sing a chorus of “Jingle Bells” at a Christmas show.
According to Gerald Clarke’s 2000 biography “Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland,” she soon took a full-time role in the Gumm Sisters and traveled the state performing on any stage that would have them. Unfortunately, Frank Gumm quickly earned a reputation for being too friendly with male teenage ushers and, in June 1926, he moved the family to California.
Act two: Judy Garland is born
In 1928, the Gumm Sisters started taking dance lessons, which led to appearances in several short-subject films. The sisters toured the country and, in 1934, shared a bill in Chicago with actor/singer/producer George Jessel, who suggested a name change for Frances.
“It was I who named Judy Garland, Judy Garland,” Jessel said in a 1954 television special. “Not that it would have made any difference — you couldn’t have hid(den) that great talent if you’d called her ‘Tel Aviv Windsor Shell,’ you know, but her name when I first met her was Frances Gumm and it wasn’t the kind of a name that so sensitive a great actress like that should have … and so we called her Judy Garland.”
Act three: Hollywood
In 1935, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer head Louis B. Mayer signed Garland to her first movie deal. But the studio didn’t know what do with her. At 13 years old and just 4 feet 11.5 inches, Garland was older than most child stars, but not mature enough to take on adult roles. Her girl-next-door look was also at odds with traditional, glamorous MGM stars like Lana Turner and Ava Gardner.
It’s been well documented that Mayer, who referred to her as his “little hunchback,” took an unusually harsh approach to mentoring Garland, whom he encouraged to take amphetamines to make it through long days on the set and, later, sedatives to help her fall asleep at night. That grew into a dependency that plagued Garland for the rest of her life.
A test still from the production of the “Wizard of Oz” that’s on display at the Judy Garland Museum. Garland was 16 when she was cast for the role of Dorothy.
In 1938, Garland played the role that (eventually) made her a worldwide superstar, Dorothy Gale in “The Wizard of Oz.” While warmly received by critics, the film didn’t become a hit until subsequent re-releases that began in the ’40s and continue to this day.
Garland spent much of the next decade making a series of hit films for the studio, but by the time she was shooting 1947’s “The Pirate,” Garland suffered a nervous breakdown, fueled by her addiction and crippling self-doubt. She bounced back the following year with the smash “Easter Parade,” but continued to struggle personally. In 1950, MGM dropped her and word around town was that she was through.
Act four: The Comeback(s)
Bing Crosby gave Garland her first post-MGM work on his radio show “Kraft Music Hall,” introducing her to the audience as such: “We got a friend here, she’s had a little trouble recently. You probably heard about it — everything is fine now, she needs our love. She needs our support. She’s here — let’s give it to her, OK? Here’s Judy.”
From there, Garland hit the road for reinvigorating tours of the States and abroad. Her October 1951 residency at Manhattan’s Palace Theatre exceeded all previous records for the theater and for Garland, proving that Hollywood may have given up on her, but her fans most certainly had not.
Garland spent the ’50s touring, appearing on television and radio. She even returned to the silver screen in 1954’s “A Star Is Born.” One of the biggest triumphs of her lifetime arrived on April 23, 1961, when she headlined Carnegie Hall in a performance later deemed “the greatest night in show business history.” The double album recording of the concert spent 73 weeks on the Billboard charts, 13 of which were at No. 1. It won four Grammy Awards, including album of the year, the first time a woman had won that honor.
“Beyond the Rainbow” at History Theatre in St. Paul replicates much of the Carnegie Hall show, but includes additional songs and dialogue that help tell Garland’s history. Written by William Randall Beard and created in collaboration with History Theatre’s Ron Peluso, the show has played in more than two dozen regional theaters across the country.
The latest staging boasts few new twists, including fresh faces playing the young version of Garland, a few extra songs and choreography from her films. Ivey Award winner Jody Briskey returns as Garland.
Act five: The Bitter End
After the Carnegie show, Garland signed a deal with CBS to star a series of TV specials that led to her own weekly variety series, “The Judy Garland Show,” in 1963. Despite rave reviews that deemed it one of the most sophisticated shows to hit the still-new television medium, it struggled in the ratings against NBC’s “Bonanza” and suffered from an endless amount of creative interference from CBS, which canceled it after a single season. (There’s an entire book — a fascinating one at that — devoted to the show, Coyne Steven Sanders’ “Rainbow’s End: The Judy Garland Show.”)
From there, Garland found work where she could, but was left in deep debt after her managers embezzled much of her earnings. In February 1967, she landed a role in the film “Valley of the Dolls,” but was soon dropped by director Mark Robson.
The film “Judy” takes place just months before her death in June 1969. Financial pressures forced her to agree to headline a five-week run in London at the Talk of the Town nightclub. But her demons threatened to get the best of her, despite the best efforts of everyone around her.
It’s a terrific, if devastating, look at a woman who once said: “The story of my life is in my music.”
‘Beyond the Rainbow: Garland at Carnegie Hall’
- When: Saturday through Dec. 22
- Where: History Theatre; 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul
- Tickets: $65-$20 via 651-292-4323 or historytheatre.com