How Judy Garland’s career began (1942)

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Here is a heartfelt — though dramatized and beautified (and sometimes somewhat inaccurate) — story of Judy Garland’s early life, originally published in 1942.

Judy Garland article intro - Dec 1942

Pocketful ‘o songs

Listen! You can hear it — a melody sometimes strong and soaring; sometimes sad and faraway. The words make a story, too — the life story of Judy Garland

It was only six o’clock, but already it seemed dark and chilly in the cheaply-furnished room. The two children had been bundled into bed. They were not asleep, however, but stared with big round eyes at an electric sign reflected in the cracked and wavy mirror. “Rooms,” the sign spelled out and in smaller letters, “50c & Up.”

“Mama,” one child said, “what makes the words jiggle so?” “Hush, dear,” the mother whispered, “you’ll wake Daddy.”

“I’m not asleep,” a man’s voice said wearily. “Just lyin’ here thinking.”

Judy Garland story - Gumm Sisters“About what?” the woman asked quickly.

There was no response. “You’re worrying again,” the woman said. “Worrying about the act. About how we’ll never get a break…”

“The act will be all right, Ethel. I could do it in my sleep.” The man’s voice was muffled. “Tank towns! That’s the thing that wears me down. We play our hearts out and what does it get us? A fifth-rate room in Peoria.”

The woman moved quickly to his side. “Look, Frank,” she whispered earnestly. “You’re not losing your nerve, are you? The act will make the Palace yet. Last week we had them in the aisles.”

“Yeah,” Frank said dryly. “We had ’em in the aisles all right. They kept on walking till they reached the street.”

The woman sighed. “You’re just tired. Tired and blue. Things will look different in the morning.” For a time there was silence in the darkened room. Then two childish voices piped up in a defiant treble.

“Mama,” they announced in unison, “we’re hungry.”

The woman sighed again. “You’d think that gas jet would manage to burn just a minute longer. By then I could have had this oatmeal warm.”

“There’s a quarter in my pocket,” Frank offered.

“You keep that quarter,” Ethel advised hurriedly. “We’ll need it for the children’s milk tomorrow.”

She struck a match and took the short stub of a candle from somewhere inside a battered make-up kit. Its wavering light revealed a pretty, dark-eyed girl with bangs and locks brought back tightly from the temples in the highly fashionable hairdress of the early nineteen twenties.

Judy Garland as a toddler - 1920s“There,” she said and set the candle in its broken saucer on the dresser. “This is nicer. Lots, lots nicer.”

Virginia spoke with all the dignity of her seven years. “I’m tired of oatmeal.”

“Me, too,” echoed Mary Jane, aged five.

“Shh!” cautioned Ethel. “Eat your supper now and go to sleep. Listen, Mama will tell you a story. A beautiful story. Once upon a time, there was an agent who liked Daddy’s act so much…”

Little Miss Frances Ethel

Somehow the agent never came along. That is, an agent who believed enough to make a try for Broadway. Week by week the prospects dwindled.
Finally, Frank decided that he and vaudeville were quits. A moving picture theater in a one-horse town could be bought for little more than just a song. Frank had the song. Thus it happened that on June 10, 1922, the hottest day of the year.

Grand Rapids, Minnesota, was the town where little Miss Frances Ethel, the newest addition to the household of Frank and Ethel Gumm, made her initial debut.

“Another girl,” a neighbor said in disappointment.

“And am I glad!” Ethel retorted. “We have a trio now.” She looked with pride at the red-faced and yawning infant at her side. “Hear that? You make a trio, Frances Ethel. That’s good for top billing any time.”

What Frances Ethel thought about it she was too bored to say.

But not for long. In an amazingly few years, she could discuss top billing of a trio with the fluency of a Barrymore. And with almost the same results.

This later work, however, was pursued in a mild form of disguise. Garland was the chosen moniker — Judy Garland — and if that name does not rate top billing over any trio, then Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has been suffering long enough from hallucinations.

Lives filled with music

Sometimes, there in Grand Rapids, when Ethel walked into her orderly kitchen she surely thought of the days when she cooked cereal in a dressing room. Or on a more pleasant note, the never-to-be-forgotten sound of thundering applause. If she did, she gave no sign. It was owing to her, however, that in those early years her children’s lives were permeated with music.

Judy Garland 1928Ethel would sit at the piano and play for hours — her scarred upright piano with the white spot on the lid where Frank had spilled the glass of lemonade. The Gumms might not be able to afford rugs on their floors or curtains at their windows, but the piano was the heart of their whole existence. That slayed Grand Rapids.

“What can that mother be thinking of?” busybodies asked disapprovingly.

That mother was thinking of the stage. “You are of the theater,” she told her three wide-eyed and solemn children.

“You were practically born in it, and someday you must take your rightful place in it. When that day comes you must be ready.”

Frances Ethel, the youngest, early on showed a greater interest in music than the others. As a result more time was spent with her.

Perhaps other children in Grand Rapids went to bed at eight o’clock, but other children in Grand Rapids could not recite a Shakespearean sonnet at the age of three. Frances Ethel could; could and did on the slightest provocation.

Strangely enough, it was in something far less dramatic that she made her theatrical debut. “Jingle Bells,” to be exact, and it was Christmas Eve on the stage of her father’s movie house.

It was a bit difficult for the audience to decide whether the little sprite up there behind the footlights was supposed to represent a pixie or a Christmas angel.

The costume said angel; hadn’t Ethel stayed up late three nights cutting and basting the cheesecloth to give the skirt that gossamer effect? But the little face peeping around the silvered crinoline wings said, “Hey! Hey! Ain’t we got fun?”

After the first chorus, the applause racked the rafters of the New Grand movie theater. Little Miss Gumm turned a pleased, excited face toward her audience, she immediately repeated the song. Again there was applause. Again she sang. After about eight choruses, however, Frank thought it best to walk out on the stage and remove his daughter amid loud wailing and kicking.

Ethel caught the child to her breast and hugged her warmly. “Baby,” she said triumphantly, “you’re a trouper.”

A big move west

It was about six months later that Frank’s finances, never very good even at high tide, took a sudden dip. His pleasant face began to wear a worried frown.

The Gumm SistersI keep worrying about how we’re going to make the grade this winter,” he told Ethel gravely. “There’ll be winter coal and winter coats.”

“Forget it,” Ethel said. “By the time the snow comes, we’ll be many miles from here.”

Frank was definitely startled. “But where?”

“Hollywood,” said Ethel calmly. “I’ve made up my mind that’s where we belong.”

Frank mulled it over for a couple of days, then fell into line. Penny by penny, the California fund was accumulated. Ethel estimated the cost of the westward trek to be around two hundred dollars.

By the first of August, she had most of that amount. It had been earned almost entirely by the talents of the three young Gumms. Some engagements paid the huge sum of fifty cents for listening to their melodies, and there had been one miraculous occasion when they received the princely wage of fifteen dollars.

At last the bags were packed. All of the furniture had been disposed of; even the piano with the lemonade ring on the lid was to be left behind. The Gumms were on their way.

Then, on the eve of their departure, came a chance to sing. It was with a dance band at a county fair. Very little money, but money just the same, and offering the one thing most precious to a performer’s heart — an audience.

Ethel’s mind, burdened with the riddle of how to pack three Gumms and six suitcases in the back seat of the car, slipped up in its eternal vigilance. She left the house door unlatched when she took her songbirds to the fair.

It was a common ordinary thief who took their summer savings. At least that was what the police conjectured. The Gumms never saw him. They saw only their shining dream turning into Minnesota dust.

“Frank,” Ethel commanded in the very midst of this staggering calamity, “sing the scale.”

Frank obligingly complied.

“Not bad.” Ethel said. “Not too bad at all. You can practice as we ride along.”

Frank and the children stared at her in astonishment.

“If you think,” Ethel announced with grim determination, “that a little thing like this is going to delay us, you are badly mistaken. We’ll sing our way to California. Only this time we’ll have two acts.”

Back on the road again. Ethel and Frank were like a couple of old war horses in sniffing distance of the enemy. Their act now had a verve which in the old days it had sadly lacked.

“We may get to Broadway yet.” Frank said one midnight after an especially successful performance.

Ethel nodded slowly. “Except we’re travelling in the wrong direction. I heard we were headed West.'”

“Times Square by way of Frisco,” Frank said jubilantly. “It’s been done before.”

Hollywood was the key

That night, Ethel looked long and thoughtfully at her sleeping children.”We’ll never get to Broadway,” she said aloud. “Frank and I just don’t have what it takes. We’ll never scale the heights.” She stooped and kissed them each with a prayer trembling on her lips. “We won’t. But maybe one of you will.”

Very young Judy GarlandGradually they worked westward. At last they reached Los Angeles. In that city, it was amazing the way money seemed to dwindle. Rents were higher, food was higher, and in less than a month the Gumm financial situation became alarmingly acute.

Then suddenly came opportunity. A theater in Lancaster, California, needed a manager. Like a swarm of locusts, the Gumms descended on the sun-baked desert.

From the beginning, life in Lancaster was disappointing. Less than one hundred miles away was Hollywood, Hollywood with all its glamour and its magic key to fame and fortune.

But try to invade its gates!

One day Frank brought home a clipping from a Los Angeles newspaper.

“It’s the death of vaudeville,” he said to Ethel. “Now maybe you’ll give up this dream.”

Ethel stared. “The Jazz Singer,” she read aloud. “Hear Al Jolson sing. The screen’s greatest miracle, etc., etc.”

“You see,” said Frank. “People aren’t going to pay any attention to us when for two bits they can see and hear the headliners of the world.”

Ethel read the lines again. Her face was a little white. “That settles it,” she said at last.

“Settles what?”

“The girls’ careers. Today we go to Los Angeles and register at the casting office. In this business, you can’t start too soon.”

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