Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thanks for the Memory

Was New York in the 1950's really as glamorous as we here at SSUWAT like to think it was? Listening to the fabulous anecdotes of our beloved friend Merle Bassett, the answer seems to be a resounding "Yes!" Over the next few months, we'll be sharing some of Merle's memories of a bygone Manhattan with you. We'd like to thank him for his time and graciousness in this endeavor, which we admittedly begged him to participate in! We inaugurate this series with what may not be the dishiest or raciest of his tales (keep watching this space!), but one which describes his (near) encounter with the most elusive superstar of them all.

Greta Garbo by Cecil Beaton, 1946

"I often dreamed of meeting the great Greta Garbo and in 1959, almost did! She lived on 52nd Street and the East River; I lived on 51st Street and 3rd Avenue. There was a Swedish delicatessen near my studio and I often went there to get sandwiches for me and my model. One cold winter afternoon I went to this delicatessen for sandwiches. When I got there I saw Garbo smiling and chatting (yes, chatting!) with the counterman! I froze in my tracks as I was about 15 feet away from this film icon, trying desperately not to stare. I stood there, watching the lady out of the corner of my eye. I was unsuccessful in hearing what she was saying and decided to leave before I made a complete fool of myself. When I returned to the studio, my model asked 'Where's our lunch?' I had forgotten all about our sandwiches." - Merle Bassett

Merle Bassett, 1950's

Friday, July 22, 2011

Good Time Gal

"I looked over at Margaret, who was surrounded by five guys in a booth. There she was with the hair, the furs and the big gestures. I thought, 'Boy, now that's New York! That's glamour!' I had to meet her." - Jack Wrangler

July 22, 1924 - January 10, 2011

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dear Friends,

Well, obviously, we're back! And we missed you terribly. We also were immeasurably cheered by your thoughtful comments and notes, so thank you, thank you, thank you.

After nearly a month without the Internet, and only the most rudimentary e-mail access, you can imagine that we're a bit backlogged, and not just with SSUWAT-related affairs. So please be patient as we continue to get back into the swing of things; updates may not be very frequent at first.

In the meantime, we hope you enjoy our return post about Madame Gumm -- we purposely made it one of our more long-winded ones (and with videos, yet!), so that you won't miss our daily updates too much.

Did we mention how much we love and appreciate you?

The Comeback Kid

"Every time I go to the powder room," Judy Garland once quipped, "I have to make a comeback."

By 1955, the 33 year old legend had witnessed enough career ups and downs to fell a dozen other, lesser stars. A very public firing from MGM in 1950 after a dozen years, followed by a suicide attempt, caused nearly everyone to declare Judy Garland's career all but dead. Instead, she won some of the greatest reviews of her life by taking her show on the road and knocking 'em dead at the Palladium in London and the Palace in New York.

Program from the historic 1951 Palladium show

Judy was back at the top, professionally, and with husband Sid Luft, formed a production company with the intent of bringing a musical remake of the warhorse A Star is Born to fruition. Warner Brothers agreed to finance the film, and yet another comeback was underway. But, as with nearly everything in Judy Garland's life, nothing came easy, and certainly not without a price. A Star is Born (1954) earned Garland the finest acting reviews of her career, and despite its mammoth length (over three hours!), the film was doing excellent business. In an almost inexplicable move, then, Warners unceremoniously sliced and diced the film -- which had already been released and reviewed -- leaving gaping holes in the plot. Garland and director George Cukor were devastated; and in spite of her Oscar nomination for the film, Warners' essential disemboweling of Star almost guaranteed its ultimate financial failure. Yet, once again, Judy was handed most of the blame: she and Sid were reckless with money, Warners charged; Judy held up production with her illnesses and insecurities. But even with its infamously chaotic backstage dramas, A Star is Born could have been a profitable film for Warners, had it left well enough alone.

Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich at the premiere of A Star is Born (1954) -- one of the few times an audience saw the film as originally intended.

It was against this backdrop of uncertainty for the future that Judy Garland made her live television debut in 1955. (Technically, it was her second live appearance: the celebrity-studded premiere of A Star is Born had been broadcast live from Hollywood; Judy made a very quick appearance at the microphone to murmur her thanks and gratitude, her sweetly off-center behavior no doubt the result of the bottle of vodka hidden inside her fur muff -- which she had instructed designer Michael Woulfe to make big enough precisely for that purpose!) Judy didn't want to do live television; the idea terrified her. But when CBS offered $100,000 for a single special (the highest salary ever paid to a television performer to date), she and Sid couldn't turn it down. As she would be until the end of her life, Judy Garland was severely financially strapped, and CBS's virtual bag of gold was a godsend.

The Ford Star Jubilee was conceived as a monthly spectacular, featuring the biggest names in show business. Certainly, even with her controversies, there was no bigger name than Judy Garland; and it didn't hurt that Henry Ford, the sponsor, was such a huge fan, he would take his private jet around the country to see Judy's concerts. So it was only natural that Judy would inaugurate the 90 minute color extravaganza. It seemed simple enough: the script was based around Judy's famous concert at the Palace, with mostly-familiar songs from her repertoire, many of which she had just recorded for her debut album with Capitol, Miss Show Business. She would be supported by "Judy's Eight Boyfriends" (her male chorus), Broadway and Hollywood star David Wayne, and most bafflingly, a twelve year old Japanese singer, Mitsuko Sawamura, who guested here, and in MGM's Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956), then all but vanished.

Judy Garland, David Wayne and Mitsuko Sawamura in rehearsals for the Ford Star Jubilee special

As so often happened in her life and career, though, Judy skirted dangerously on the precipice of disaster. Nervous about appearing live before millions of people, Judy was unable to sleep the night before taping. Desperate for rest, in the early morning hours of September 24, the day of the broadcast, Judy overdosed on sleeping pills. When she was finally revived, Judy was not only groggy, but devoid of voice. For the dress rehearsal, Judy hit her marks and went through her paces -- without once ever uttering a note. Cue music, raise the curtain: and, miraculously, as Ford Star Jubilee made its national debut, the famous Garland voice issued forth: admittedly raspy at times, but growing in strength, power and nuance with each number.

Viewing the surviving kinescope today, the flaws are glaringly obvious: Judy is clearly ill at ease in the beginning, and slightly lethargic; still carrying extra weight from giving birth to son Joe a few months earlier, her gowns are uniformly unflattering (one wonders what grudge designer Irene Sharaff was holding against her); appearing "boxed in" by the staging, and without her beloved microphone -- and cord! -- to keep her hands busy, Judy seems unsure of what to do with them: at one point, she starts whipping the panels and scarf on her gown in the same manner she would have with a microphone cord, if she'd had one. (Note: only 60 black and white minutes of the original 90 minute color production survive; according to Garland historian John Fricke, this constitutes all of Judy's musical numbers. What was lost is what Fricke refers to as "the dead weight": guest comedians and sketches.)

David Wayne, who had performed so brilliantly on stage (Mister Roberts) and in film (Adam's Rib), has the thankless job of acting as quasi-emcee for the evening; he's stiff and unprepared beyond belief. On the plus side, he's touchingly tender and gentle with Judy, and in their musical moments together, he shines. The other guest, Mitsuko Sawamura, performs an atonal Japanese folk song and, more humorously, a threeway rendition of "It's Delovely" with Judy and David Wayne. It's inconsequential, but charming, and at least Judy seems to be having a good time.

Actually, considering the near-disaster which preceded the broadcast, Judy is in remarkably high spirits. Overcoming her initial jitters and unease, she's loose and relaxed and displays her legendary sense of humor -- much of it self-deprecating. At one point in their scripted banter, the slightly-built Wayne says it's a relief to be performing with someone shorter than he; in what appears to be an ad-lib, judging by Wayne's delighted reaction, Judy wryly raises an eyebrow, slaps a slightly expanded waistline, and cracks, "I'm just glad you didn't say 'wider' than you!" And during a recreation of the "Get Happy" production number from Summer Stock (1950), Judy stumbles slightly as she dances over the prone body of one of her chorus boys. Seizing the comic moment, she grimaces and then makes an intentionally ungraceful leap over the next dancer.

Judy's voice also grows stronger throughout the program. Some of the numbers were pre-recorded because of the movement and dancing involved ("Get Happy," for instance), but the majority were performed live, and the improvement in Judy's instrument is noticeable, particularly in her rip-roaring rendition of "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody." By the time she sat at the lip of the stage, still dressed in her hobo costume from "A Couple of Swells" (with David Wayne a more than passable replacement for Fred Astaire), and began to tremulously sing "Over the Rainbow," Judy had the audience where they always ended up: in the palm of her hand.

If, in 1939, a 16 year old Judy Garland sang "Over the Rainbow" with all the innocent, wistful yearning of a young girl, then her 1955 rendition could only be described as opera set to popular music. Hope, despair, rage, longing -- all of these emotions burst to the fore. It was, as one astute critic wrote, the blurring of the line between entertainment and fine art.

Ford Star Jubilee's debut with Judy Garland drew a whopping 40 million viewers. But, as other performers before and since have asked (or wailed), Who can follow Judy Garland? The next Ford Star Jubilee special, starring Mary Martin and Noel Coward, drew a significantly lower audience. After only a year, CBS decided not to go forward with the expensive show -- but they ended it the way they began, with Judy Garland: The Wizard of Oz had its first television airing on November 3, 1956. Who can follow Judy Garland? No one; except Judy Garland herself.

The Paley Center in New York City is hosting a month-long screening of Judy Garland television appearances. Ford Star Jubilee was one of the shows which opened the event on July 20. For a complete schedule, please click here.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Brief Update

Dear Friends:

Thank you for your inquiries of concern. At the moment, SSUWAT is on an indefinite hiatus, but with every intention of being up and running as soon as possible. Our sincere wish to live permanently in 1962 has suddenly been granted, and we are currently Internet-less. (Thank you to the friend who has let us mooch off of their laptop, in order to give you this update.) At the moment, we are at the mercy of the cable company, our pocketbook, and our own complete ineptitude when it comes to anything remotely technological. However, we are doing our best to be back as quickly as we can. Thank you for your patience and fabulosity, darlings!