How Judy Garland’s career began (1942)

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Five lean years

The next five years were lean years. Dimes must be hoarded because gasoline cost money. And a car used to transport talented hopefuls to Los Angeles did not run on air. Even though some of their employers seemed to think the “hopefuls” did.

Thus the Gumm sisters sang often. In fact, every time there was a chance, and the town of Lancaster was familiar with and not at all impressed by their talents.

Judy Garland with mother EthelOne day, the papers were filled with the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair. Ethel gathered up her girls. Little more than a few cents were in their shabby purses. But they had courage and faith; and a pocketful of songs.

In Chicago, they began the weary task of securing a booking. Finally through a friend an audition at the Oriental Theater was arranged.

Such a flurry that morning in the furnished room of the Gumms! The girls wore white dresses with yards and yards of ruffles. It took two hours to iron each dress, and there were three to do. Ethel made her charges rest before this important tryout; not so much because they were sheltered flowers, but for the simple reason that they had had no food.

Thus it was that the Gumm Sisters sang on empty stomachs and their mother accompanied them with hands blistered from six solid hours of ironing. They were hired. “But,” said the manager, “you have to get rid of those awful ruffled dresses.”

Ethel quietly swooned.

Gumm to Garland

One night a soft-voiced, personable young man watched this trio from the wings. It was George Jessel. “Your act is good,” he told them. “But too many cracks are made about your name. The Dumb Sisters, The Crum Sisters, The Bum Sisters, etc. Why don’t you change it?”

“That’s a wonderful idea,” the girls agreed. “But change it to what?”

“Why not Garland?” Mr. Jessel said.

So the Gumm Sisters became the Garland Sisters — and with the change of name came a change in fortune.

Meanwhile, back in Lancaster, Frank Gumm began to think things out. Life was so short, he reasoned. In just a year or two, his girls would be out of childhood’s enchanted land. And he hardly knew them!

Even now at times, all three seemed quite grown-up. His baby Frances was rounding out with adolescent chubbiness. Lately he had begun calling her his Princess Pudge. She didn’t like it very much, but just the same that was what she was — a pudgy little Princess.

The Gumm Sisters - Judy GarlandAnd no wonder he didn’t know his girls. How could he? Auditions in Los Angeles were becoming more and more frequent. It was a lonesome drive back to Lancaster after nightfall and one which he would not permit Ethel and the girls to make. Why not move to Los Angeles for good and all?

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He caught a bus and paid a visit to a certain Los Angeles concern. When he returned to Lancaster, he was no longer the owner of Gumm’s Valley Theater. At least not in Lancaster, California. The family again was scheduled for a change in a place to hang their hats. Huntington Park, a stone’s throw from Los Angeles, was the new address.

From Frances to Judy

About this time, Ethel and the girls finished their engagement in Chicago. They started on the homeward drive, making Lake Tahoe their principal stop. “Now, remember,” Frances cautioned, “our name is Garland. Forget about the Gumm.”

“What about first names?” Ethel asked. “Are you going to change yours, Frances?”

Frances regarded her with wide, solemn eyes.

“I’d like to take mine from my favorite song,” she said and sang in her golden voice:

When you think she’s a saint, but you know that she ain’t
That’s Judy, My Judy;
She’s as sweet as pie, and I know that I’d die
For Judy, My Judy.

For a time there was silence in the moving car. Then Ethel said, “Judy Garland. That’s a lovely name, dear.”

When they reached Tahoe, they sang at the Lodge. It was here that Judy for the first time sang “Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart.”

For the first time, too, someone was in the audience who saw more than just a big-eyed kid with a “low-down blues” voice — a talent scout from M-G-M who made a note to pass the name of this child singer to the studio higher-ups.

On a certain October day in 1934, life moved as usual on the M-G-M lot. Glamorous big-name stars were bowed into the presence of the Important Ones and unknown names, lucky enough to pass the gates, got the highly specialized Hollywood “brush-off.”

Over on a noisy testing stage, above the bedlam, a talent scout was attempting to convince a hard-boiled casting director that he had heard a kid singer at Tahoe who had what it took.

“All right, Al,” the casting director said wearily. “Get her over here. But I warn you, if I have to listen to another sweet young darling shriek a take-off of Al Jolson singing ‘Mammy’…”

“Report immediately”

Out in Huntington Park in the Garland home, Frank and Judy were alone. They were absorbed in a red-hot checker game.

“It’s your move,” Frank reminded her, when suddenly the phone rang stridently.

“Let it ring,” Judy said with a fine and high disdain.

“Better answer it. Might be Mother.”

A crisp, unfamiliar voice came across the wire. “Report to M-G-M immediately. An audition has been arranged.”

Frank repeated, “Report to M-G-M immediately.”

Judy Garland young - teenPanic reigned immediately.

“What’ll we do?” Judy cried. “Mother isn’t here. I can’t sing unless she plays. What’ll we do?”

“Do?” asked Frank calmly. “Why, we’ll go, that’s what we’ll do. You’ll sing for them. If they like you that will be swell. If they don’t, that’s all right, too.”

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Judy glanced down at her plain sweater and skirt. The skirt could have stood a little pressing. “I don’t think it matters much how I look, do you? They don’t want me anyway.”

“You look beautiful to me, Pudge,”

Frank said. “Let’s go knock ’em for a loop.”

At the studio, the casting director took one look at Judy’s unconcerned and youthful face.

“No soap,” he said brusquely. “She won’t do.”

Judy was twelve years old. Behind her was twelve years’ experience as a trouper. Her black eyes flashed. “I’m no glamour girl,” she spouted in the director’s startled face. “I’m a singer. And I didn’t come to you. You sent for me. The least you can do is listen to me sing. Besides, you broke up our checker game.”

Sitting up and taking notice

Casting directors are notoriously hard-boiled. Nothing fazes them. Nothing influences them; not temper, not vitriolic sputtering, not even rank insults. But something in this little girl made this one sit up and take notice. Perhaps it was that same spark which since then has made the whole world sit up and take notice.

“All right,” he said curtly. “Sing.” A tall young man went quietly to a piano. “What’s it to be?”

Judy eyed him dubiously. “Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart.”

Young Judy Garland - first contractWhen she finished, the man at the piano stared at her for a long long lime. “My name is Roger Edens,” he said unexpectedly. “Will you sing again for some people we are going to call?”

“Certainly,” Judy said unconcernedly, and sat herself down to wait.

Soon, people started streaming into the room from everywhere. One woman with beautiful white hair was addressed as Mrs. Koverman. She listened to Judy’s songs. They all listened and were strangely silent.

Finally a man came for whom it seemed that entire group had been waiting anxiously — Mr. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Judy stood before him in her simple garb, a faded sweater and a pleated skirt — a lone twelve-year-old child singing songs straight from her youthful heart.

At last a man said, “That will be all.” She was dismissed like that!

That night, even Ethel was a little staggered when the telegram arrived. “Come to the studio to sign a contract.”

No questions. No screen tests. Just a contract.

“To think you did this all alone.” Ethel marveled. “I wasn’t even there to play for you.”

Judy laughed. “Have to go on my own sometime,” she said. “Who knows? Lots of things might happen.”


Judy Garland sings “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart”

A clip from the 1938 movie, “Listen, Darling.”

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