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Singers: Seance at the Palace

5 minute read

Curtain time. The crowd presses expectantly into Manhattan’s hallowed house of vaudeville, the Palace. One fan has come from as far away as Brazil. A woman from Long Island, in a $9.90 seat, has already followed the night’s star through four cities and at least 20 performances. As the pit band strikes up the overture, the now capacity crowd begins to peer anxiously toward the orchestra-section entrance.

Will the star make it? Many rise in anticipation. Then, dramatically, the spotlight splashes against the lobby door.

She has made it. In a sequined paisley pants suit, a fragile and unforgettable figure jogs down the aisle, hugging admirers, shaking hands and just plain shaking. She is—who else?—Judy Garland, now 45, and making her third Palace “comeback” in 15 years.

“This is going to be an interesting performance,” she begins hoarsely, “because I have absolutely no voice. But I’ll fake it. Oh, well, maybe I’ll hit the notes because you’re so nice and because it’s so good to be home.” From the balcony a male voice calls: “I love you, Judy.” “I love you too,” she replies. And so opens an evening that is less a performance than a love-in. Fred Finklehoffe, who worked with her in Hollywood, says: “Judy doesn’t give a concert—she conducts a seance.”

Pity & Terror. Another Hollywood character, the late Spencer Tracy, once said that “Garland audiences don’t just listen—they feel.” They also fear—and in some cases hope—that they may be witnesses to a breakdown, which is one of the compelling attractions exerted by this durable but disaster-prone star. Her audiences arrive, it seems, achingly aware of Judy’s tortured past: her teenage stardom and traumas, her voice crack-ups and innumerable busted contracts, her four broken marriages to increasingly younger men (she just broke off an engagement to a public relations man 16 years her junior), and her ailments and suicide attempts. As a result, she evokes a purgative pity and terror. Her concerts have the will-she-finish suspense of a marathon run, the will-she-crack-up tension of a road race. “Oh,” said a woman from Ohio after one performance, “I’m just relieved she made it through the evening.”

Moving lithely (her weight down to 96 Ibs.) to stage center, Judy opens with I Feel a Song Coming On. In the lower registers, at least, she still has the old belting power. “My, I’m a loud lady,” she says, striking the well-known hands-on-hips pose. “No crooner, I.” Next is Almost Like Being in Love. Then The Trolley Song, and by now the fans are clanging time with their feet. For Me and My Gal turns into a community sing. She wonders: “What should I do now?” Man in the mezzanine: “Just stand there.” Judy: “I get too scared to just stand there—guess I’d better sing.” On to more oldies like Swanee. A standing ovation for Old Man River. She sits down, her legs dangling over the edge of the stage for The Man That Got Away. “No more that oldtime thrill,” she trills with her terrible intensity, “for I’ve been through the mill. . .” Many in the audience weep. Some grope down the center aisle to the stage. She leans over and kisses a proffered hand.

Next, more sentimentality. To spell Judy in her nightly 90-minute appearances, there are song-and-dance interludes by her daughter Lorna, 14, and son Joey, 12. Neither has overpowering show-business potential, but the fans love them. Judy also gets a breather by coaxing such professionals in the audience as Duke Ellington or Bea Lillie onto the stage. Finally, and inevitably, comes Over the Rainbow. Some nights when she is too drained, it is more croaked than crooned. “Stay here and sing” someone cries amid the shrieks and bravos. “Don’t ever go away!” Later, when she emerges from the stage door, some 200 worshipers are waiting —even if it is 2 a.m. They don’t tear at her, though, as they might some other superstar. They reach out for Judy tenderly, as if she were the last frail leaf of November.

Happy Bluebirds. Such adulation, says her third husband Sid Luft, father of Lorna and Joey and producer of her current tour, “is greater than she ever had before.” Judging from the full houses at the Palace, he must be right. Curiously, a disproportionate part of her nightly claque seems to be homosexual. The boys in the tight trousers roll their eyes, tear at their hair and practically levitate from their seats, particularly when Judy sings: If happy little bluebirds fly

Beyond the rainbow,

Why, oh why can’t I?*

Psychiatrists offer multiple explanations for the phenomenon. Manhattan’s Dr. Leah Schaefer claims that homosexuals gravitate toward superstars because “these are people they can idolize and idealize without getting too close to. In Judy’s case,” she adds, “the attraction might be made considerably stronger by the fact that she has survived so many problems; homosexuals identify with that kind of hysteria.” Agrees another Manhattan psychiatrist, Dr. Lawrence Hatterer: “Judy was beaten up by life, embattled, and ultimately had to become more masculine. She has the power that homosexuals would like to have, and they attempt to attain it by idolizing her.”

But Garland affects a far broader audience than her ever-present little bluebirds. She has the true entertainer’s capacity for transmitting her feelings across the footlights. Nor is it a oneway message. “Audiences,” she says, “have kept me alive.” As she told her exuberant cult at the Palace last week: “Everything I want is right here.”

* A female impersonator at Manhattan’s East Village, who specializes in imitating Judy’s style and bills himself as Bonnie Garland, showed up at the Palace premiere in the same costume Judy wore.

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