Thursday, June 10, 2010
The Judy Garland Show is one of the great what-if's in the history of television... Yet for every what if it had been allowed to run longer than 26 episodes there is a somewhat comforting what if it had never been made in the first place as a consolation. The lesson we can derive from this is one which is apt in other spheres of life as well; we can choose to dwell on what might have been but never was, or we can simply celebrate what was, even if it seems like what little bit we got was fleeting, illusory, or just plain not enough to satisfy whatever need we needed it to fulfil.
In the case of The Judy Garland Show, what we also have is a bridge between the vaudeville of the 1920s in which Judy Garland had been raised - both her parents had been vaudevillians, and little Judy herself had trod the boards with her two siblings as the Gumm Sisters - and the Vegas era of the 1960s with its gaudy showmanship and appalling glibness. It was the same format applied to The Ed Sullivan Show, only sincere, and without Sullivan's seeming contempt for his guests. Debuting on the CBS network in September 1963, the show became a showcase for Judy's own idiosyncratic musical taste, which ran every gamut of popular music in the American idiom but never strayed from being entirely focused on providing entertainment.
Case in point: in the above clip we see the lady herself and her 17-year-old daughter Liza Minnelli in only the show's third episode (filmed July 7th and aired November 10th) working their best Emmett Kelly shtick together. The songs they assay - Let Me Entertain You and Two Lost Souls, the former from Gypsy and the latter from Damn Yankees - were undeniably popular, but hardly spoke of vaudeville* in and of themselves - that is, until Garland got a hold of them.
Unfortunately for Judy CBS had put her and her show up against ratings powerhouse Bonanza; while it garnered respectable enough ratings, it brought in just half the viewers its competition did. CBS chief William S. Paley, in his zeal to unseat the Cartwright clan, did not have the patience to let Garland's showcase of sentimental obscurities find its audience; then again, once reports of backstage difficulties** began getting back to him, the man known for valuing acquiescence over talent pulled the plug. The final episode aired in March 1964, and featured none of the gimmicks that had been tried yet failed to bring in viewers, but merely an hour with the lady herself doing what she did best - singing her heart out...
*Although Let Me Entertain You was, of course, intended to be evocative of burlesque - notably the lowest form of show business.
**As chronicled in the 1970 book The Other Side of the Rainbow, written by the show's musical arranger Mel Tormé.
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