April 23, 1961– Judy Garland Plays Carnegie Hall
“I know. I’ll sing them all, and we’ll stay all night.”
She was only 37-years-old, near death, addicted to booze and pills. Judy Garland‘s acting and singing careers were considered finished. A year later, 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 large and small around Europe and North America. Yet, no one anticipated the Judy mania the evening she brought her act to Carnegie Hall on April 23, 1961. The audience called her back for encore after encore, even asking her to repeat songs after her conductor Mort Lindsey‘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 audience of gay men.
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 stayed on the charts for 71 weeks. It has never been out of print since. It won four Grammy Awards: Album of the Year (the first live music album and the first album by a female performer to win the award), Best Female Vocal Performance, Best Engineered Album, and Best Album Cover.
Judy At Carnegie Hall is an essential album for all LGBTQ people 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 an 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 Bonanza, the most popular series of the era, The Judy Garland Show only lasted 24 episodes.
We know the rest of 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. The 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 57-years ago tonight was distinguished by the diversity of the audience as well as the devotion.