The Gumm Sisters
- Judy Garland came into the world as Francis
Baby Gumm. Whilst not actually born in a
trunk and nourished on a diet of grease paint, her family
did have a theatrical background. Both her parents were
besotted with show business - Frank Gumm possessed his
fair share of southern charm and a baritone voice
well-suited to sentimental ballads of the day, and Ethel
Milne was a skilled accompanist and arranger with a
reasonable voice. They formed a duo act calling
themselves Jack and Virginia Lee, Sweet Southern
- Looking for some security when they
married in January 1914, Frank Gumm took over management
of a movie theatre called the New Grand at Grand Rapids, Michigan. In the pit,
Ethel played piano accompaniment to the movies.
- Their first daughter, Mary Jane, was
born in 1915, and Virginia came along in 1917.
Ethels third pregnancy in the fall of 1921 was
unwelcome - she didnt want another child.
- Marc Rabwin, who was a friend of her
husbands and studying medicine at the University of
Minnesota, was consulted on terminating the pregnancy. He
counselled against abortion - it was not only illegal but
dangerous. Ethel agreed though Judy laughingly commented
many years later: She did everything to get rid of
me by rolling down stairs and jumping off tables.
- When a girl came into the world on 10
June 1922, Frank and Ethel were disappointed - they
wanted a boy. Frank became Frances Ethel.
Pearl Sieben: God made Al Jolson,
then he made Judy, and then he broke the mould.
- Judy Garland: Certainly my first
sort of large, blurry memory is of music, music all the
time, all over the house.
Christmas 1924, between the showing of Mary
Pickfords tearjerker Thru the Back Door,
a two-and-half years-old Frances Baby Gumm (pictured
right) made her debut on the
stage at the New Grand. She joined her elder sisters in
My Sugar Walks Down The Street,
finding no difficulty with the lyric, and did a nimble
- When her two sisters bowed out,
Baby sang her solo Jingle Bells, ringing the dinner bell that she
held in her hand at every phrase, and not stopping until
Frank came on stage to unceremoniously carry her off. The
tearful protest from behind the curtain, I wanna
sing some more!, was drowned out by thunderous
Judy: The roar of the crowd - that
wonderful, wonderful sound - is something Ive been
breathing since I was two years old. Ill never
forget the first time I heard it.
Lets Go to the Grand
(26 December 1924)
Thursday and Friday
Mary Pickford in one of the prettiest pictures she has
ever appeared in, entitled Thru the Back
A two-reel comedy Motor Mad completes the
Special for Friday night; the three Gumm children in
songs and dances; featuring Baby Frances, two
years of age.
- Quick to pick up a dance or a lyric,
Francis soon became a ham and it
wasnt long before she made her solo debut
performing a descriptive song and dance. Judy explained years later: If
I had any talent in those days it was inherited. Nobody
ever taught me what to do on stage. Like the words of the
famous song, I just did what came
- Both parents wanted to see if the
family could make it as vaudevillians and the five Gumms
began to perform in nearby towns. Ethel, a small woman,
solidly built, was a competent pianist and agreeable
singer with a mind of her own. Frank, handsome with an
attractive mischievous smile and an easy laugh, had the
ability, like Judy, to seduce people into enjoying
themselves. Though never betraying any hint of
homosexuality, there were stories and rumours that Frank
Virginia: Francis was always a very
determined little girl and never had any trouble making
her mind up about anything.
- Independent: A hatbox, larger
than usual, was carried out on the runway. The lid opened
and out came little three-year-old Frances Ethel Gumm,
who looked cautiously around and gave a lively
performance of the Charleston. This was the hit of the
evening and a round of applause greeted the little dancer
as she went through her antics like a seasoned
- The family was thrown into panic when
Francis suffered a severe case of acute acidosis and was
rushed to Duluth hospital. Her recovery was slow and
Frank began to think about a warmer, more gentle climate
for his family.
- Marc Rabwin, now qualified as a doctor
and resident physician at Los Angeles General Hospital,
wrote to Frank, saying that Los Angeles was an ideal
place for him to be - at the centre of the movie
industry. He invited Frank and his family over for a
vacation to view the lie of the land.
- Two days before Frances fourth
birthday, the Gumm family set off by rail for California,
playing vaudeville theatres in towns on their way and
earning $300 extra in pocket money before their arrival
in Los Angeles. Not one to allow truth to spoil a good
story, Judy later embroidered their tour: It was a
lousy act . . . After Mother and Fathers act,
shed dash into the pit to play piano, and he would
dress us in our costumes backstage. I did those horrible
Egyptian bellyrolls in an Egyptian outfit with those big
balloon pants and a lot of ankle bracelets and
- As guests of Frank Rabwin and his son
Marc, they stayed for ten days in a small hotel on Sunset
Boulevard. Visiting several movie studios, they watched
scenes being filmed, shook hands with Lon Chaney, met
Marion Davies, saw Lillian Gish at work on Annie Laurie, did the traditional tour of movie
stars homes, and rubbernecked at the
famous Cocoanut Grove. Frank joked: Gloria Swanson
was in New York so couldnt invite us to
- The future in Hollywood looked bright
so the Gumms returned to Grand Rapids to make
preparations for a permanent move.
- On their return to Grand Rapids, Frank
sold his interest in the Grand Theatre and
the Gumms returned to California three months later.
- What Frank and I really loved
was the climate, Ethel explained later. Roses
and balmy skies in the middle of winter. This was the
place, we decided, this was it.
- After months of searching Frank bought
the dilapidated Valley
Theatre in Lancaster, a small
town seventy miles north-east of Los Angeles on the edge
of the Mojave Desert.
- Renovation of the theatre was needed
and new seats and a cooling system were installed, the
interior renovated, and after the Gumm sisters had
completely won the hearts of the audience with their
songs and dances, Frank began to have some success with
the theatre. But within a short time of their arrival
Frances took ill again with acidosis. Marc Rabwin
admitted her to Los Angeles General Hospital where she
was put on the critical list. Given the best care and
treatment supervised by Dr. Oscar Reiss, a prominent
paediatrician, she soon recovered.
raised in Lancaster: If you can live through Lancaster,
Judy, you can live through anything.
- Billed as Baby Gumm, Frances made a dozen appearances at
her fathers theatre during 1927 and 1928, and with
her sisters began to broadcast from Santa Monica on a
radio programme called The Kiddies Hour.
They even received a request from the great cowboy star
William S. Hart to sing Theres a Long, Long
- The Gumm sisters began special studies
with the Ethel
Meglin Dance School and over
the Christmas season they played at Loews State Theatre as part of Meglin Kiddies Revue. They sang, danced and posed, but it was
Francis who knew how to sell a song.
- Shortly after Frances seventh
birthday, the Gumms made their screen debut in a talkie
short called The
Big Revue featuring Ethel Meglins Famous
Hollywood Wonder Kids.
Vivacious and assured, Francis outshouted her sisters and
showed considerable screen presence.
Frances Gumm: Im going to be
a movie star some day.
- On 8 November 1929 the Ledger-Gazette reported that the Valley Theatre was to begin showing talkies, and that the
Gumm sisters were in Los Angeles rehearsing with an
organisation known as the Hollywood Starlets.
- On their weekly radio show the girls
were now billed as The Hollywood Starlets Trio and in July 1931 they featured in Stars of Tomorrow in a theatre on Wilshire Boulevard. This
extravaganza was staged
by Maurice Kusell, who ran a talent school.
- Ethel, delighted with her
daughters early successes, directed the eight piece
felt no need to push the children, because it was obvious
they had talent - especially Francis - and she was
confident this talent would speak for itself.
- In the summer of 1932, The Meglin Kiddies Revues booked the Gumm sisters into a dozen
theatres that culminated in an appearance at the Los
Theatre where Francis Gumm
received her first review in Variety.
- Though only ten years old
Francis voice was rapidly maturing. As Virginia
remarked: She didnt sound like Shirley
- Variety: Gumm Sisters,
harmony trio, socked with two numbers. Selling end of the
trio is the ten-year-old kid sister with a pip of a
low-down voice. Kid stopped the show, but wouldnt
The Gumms had been a very close family but
that was changing. Whilst Frank Gumm looked after the theatre in
Lancaster - no longer doing so well because of the Depression -
Mrs. Gumm and her daughters now spent most of their time in Los
Angeles. Enormously proud of their success, Frank would visit his
daughters in Los Angeles and travel to watch them perform
whenever he could.
Judy: My parents were separating
and getting back together all the time. It was very hard for me
to understand those things, and of course, I remember clearly the
fear of those separations.
In the autumn of !933 Frances and Virginia
enrolled at Mrs. Lawlors School for Professional Children. Child stars were in demand. A tot called Shirley
Temple, recently graduated from Mom Lawlors
academy, had become a star overnight with her rendering of a
song, Stand Up
and Cheer. It was here that
Francis met Mickey Rooney, already a star from dozens of Mickey
McGuire short comedies and the couple struck up an instant
- So far, Ethel and the girls had been
playing at show business, but early in 1934 Ethel began
to take her daughters show business career
seriously. Embarking on a tour of the Pacific Northwest,
the Gumm Sisters opened in Portland, Oregon, and played
Seattle, Vancouver and several small towns.
- In May they played the Movie Star Frolics, starring Eddie Cantor, at the New Gilmore Stadium where their act was a solid hit; and the
following month, Ethel and the girls set off on a road
trip to Chicago that was to last for four months. Despite
his initial opposition, Frank finally relented to the
trip and gave Ethel several hundred dollars in
Judy: My mother is a
strong-minded woman, but she was never a stage
mama. She was part of an era that was hard on women
. . . Mother had to succeed at whatever she undertook . .
- Chicago was holding the Worlds Fair and the Gumms were booked for four weeks at
the Old Mexico
Cafe within the fairground. In
the middle of the second week the Cafe closed and when
Ethel remonstrated with the manager she was threatened:
Forget about the money owed or you might end up at
the bottom of Lake Michigan. Ethel was shaken but
later began to laugh about it and couldnt stop. The
ability to laugh in adversity was one trait that Francis
inherited from her mother.
- With the aid of Mary Janes
trumpeter boyfriend, Jack Cathcart, they found work
filling-in at short notice at the Oriental Theatre. George Jessel, topping the bill,
introduced them as the Glumm Sisters as
though they were a comedy act and got a big laugh.
Nevertheless, they stopped the show and George Jessel,
horrified that his first introduction had produced a
laugh, suggested they call themselves after a friend of
his, Robert Garland, drama critic of New York World-Telegram.
Jessel advised them to capitalise on Frances
magnificent voice which needed no microphone and their
act was moved up to second closing.
- George Jessel: But she would be able
to make you tingle when she sang, make you laugh and cry
with her, if her name was Frances Gumm, Minnie Ha-Ha, or
- The girls were taken up by the William Morris Agency. The act was becoming polished (portrait of sisters
pictured right). Francis did
torch songs, wrapped in a shawl and partially hidden by
her sisters, and at the end of her song would reveal
herself as a diminutive twelve-year-old. The audience,
already won over by her mature, powerful voice, would be
bowled over at this revelation.
- The Garland Sisters returned home to a
tearful Frank and an engagement at Graumans Chinese
Theatre in Hollywood.
- George Jessel: Even at the age of
twelve, Judy Garland sang like a woman with a heart that
had been hurt.
With the expenses incurred by his girls career and
keeping two separate residences, Frank fell behind with
his payments, and lost his Valley Theatre.
Re-joining his family in Los Angeles, he took on another
theatre in Lomita, an isolated suburb twenty miles away,
and as if wanting to cut off his past, also changed his
name to Garland.
- There were other name changes: Mary
Jane became Suzy, Virginia became Jimmy, and not to be
outdone, Frances became Judy taken from the line of a
song by Hoagy Carmichael - If you think shes
a saint and you find out she aint, thats
- Marc Rabwin had married Marcella
Bannett, an assistant to studio chief David O. Selznick,
and both were friends of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a young
but respected writer on the M-G-M lot. After hearing
Frances sing at one of the Rabwins parties,
Mankiewicz arranged a screen test at M-G-M. Nothing came
Judy acquired a new agent after a chance encounter after
an engagement at the Cal-Neva Lodge at
Lake Tahoe. At the close of the season the Garlands
started for home but returned because of a forgotten
hatbox belonging to Suzy - she was a hat freak. Ethel was
asked by the manager to bring Judy to the bar where some
important people were waiting to see her - Harry Akst,
songwriter and Al Jolsons accompanist; Lew Brown of
the song writing team of De DeSylva, Brown and Henderson;
and agent Al Rosen. Surrounded by slot machines, Harry
played his own number Dinah on the
piano while Judy sang and was impressed enough to say:
Terrific! Why isnt this little gal in
pictures? The captivated Al Rosen: the
greatest discovery of my career - became her agent.
- Harry Akst: I was three feet away.
The volume nearly knocked me flat. Her pitch was perfect,
her breathing and timing naturally flawless. And she had
those saucer-shaped, brown eyes swimming with anxiety and
Henry Pleasants: Her voice was open-throated,
almost bird-like vocal production, clear, pure resonant
Lew Brown later arranged an audition for her at Columbia Studios but Harry Cohn, president of Columbia, felt she was
too young for pictures. Neither did any of the other studios know
what to do a twelve-year-old girl with such a mature voice.
Joe Mankiewicz: Her voice was something incredible
even then and you knew that you were in the presence of something
that wasnt going to come around again in a long time.
Judy: Al towed me
all over California. I think I had an audition at every studio
and everyone kept saying: She isnt any age. She
isnt a child wonder and she isnt grown
Harry Cohn: What
can we do with a little Huckleberry Finn?
- In the autumn of 1935, a phone call
from Rosen summoned Judy to Culver City for an audition.
Ethel was out and Frank took Judy as she was, dressed in
slacks and sneakers.
- Judy sang for Ida Koverman, Louis B.
Mayers executive assistant, and Franks
nervous piano accompaniment impressed no one. Roger
Edens, an elegant Southerner and M-G-Ms pianist and
vocal arranger, was sent for. Louis B. Mayer came down
from his office to listen to Judys rendering of
the Strings of My Heart.
At the end he said: Very nice. Thank you very
- At this platitude, Frank got angry and
protested: This is all ridiculous. My child is
- Judy said later: Daddy and I
thought it was a great big nothing.
- A fortnight later Judy signed a
contract at $150 a week.
Roger Edens: I knew instantly in
eight bars of music - the talent that was inbred . . .
She was just so high and chubby, wearing a navy blue
middy blouse and baby-doll sandals, with lots of hair and
no lipstick. It was like discovering gold at Sutter
Roger Edens and Judy took to each other straightaway. For
two hours every day they worked together. From their
first lesson she trusted and listened to him, and he,
knowing her voice was loud like Ethel Mermans,
realised that she must learn to use it with discretion.
- The only thing she did not do at M-G-M was make movies. Alongside M-G-Ms youthful star Jackie Cooper, she was
introduced on the air in NBCs The Shell Chateau Hour radio show and naively told host Wallace
Beery: I want to be a singer - and Id like to
Judy: I was born at the age
of twelve on the M-G-M lot.
Roger Edens: She
had the perfect anatomy for a singer, built round a super
muscle of a diaphragm. She had a wonderful memory. What
could I teach her? How to sing a lyric, how to get the
- A few weeks later Judy returned to the
Shell Chateau show to sing, Zing Went the Strings of My
Heart which was all the
more impassioned because she knew her father would be
listening at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital where he had
been taken suffering from a painful ear infection.
- The following morning the family were
informed by Marc Rabwin that his condition was serious -
he had developed spinal meningitis. He died at 3 p.m that
afternoon. Judy had always been his favourite and was
- Treated as the baby of the family,
Judy was a warm-hearted little girl with an
affectionately demonstrative nature and said years later:
I think my fathers death was the most
horrible thing that ever happened in my life.
- At M-G-M studios she
found two old friends in the studio schoolroom - Donald
OConnor and Mickey Rooney, but none of the films
released in 1936 by M-G-M featured
- The studio had signed another girl of
the same age, Deanna Durbin, and the two girls were
brought together for a one-reeler called Every Sunday, shown at an M-G-M exhibitors
convention. Deanna sang classical, trilling away in the
upper registers, while Judy sang jazz, belting out a song
in her usual style. Judy explained: I had an apple
in my hand and a dirty face, and she was the Princess of
The studios decided it did not have room for two young
singers and Deanna was dropped, though quickly signed up
- After recording Swing Mr. Charlie and Stomping at the Savoy for Decca with Bob Crosbys
orchestra, she was loaned out to 20th Century Fox to feature in Pigskin Parade.
- Singing The Balboa, supposedly the latest dance craze,
with great gusto and two other songs, she impressed
Judy: Id thought
Id look as beautiful as Garbo or Crawford . . . My
freckles stood out. I was fat. And my acting was
By the end of the year, seven-year-old Shirley Temple was
the top box office draw and it looked as though Judy
Garland had missed the boat by seven years.
- To add to Judys frustration,
Deanna Durbin became an instant star when Three Smart Girls was released by Universal Studios.
- Judy did become a hit when she
appeared as a guest on Jack Oakies College radio show and she became a regular
for the rest of the season.
Judy: Ive been in show
business ten years, and Deannas starred in one
picture and Im nothing.
- Preparation for stardom turned out to
be being half-starved all the time. Tiny and
a little plump, Judy had huge eyes and mouth that
stretched into a grin at the slightest provocation. Often
she became so pent up she appeared to be out of breath.
- Already with a gift for self-mockery
and a highly-developed sense of the ridiculous, she had a
knack of taking everyday incidents and twisting them to
display the absurdity of life that she found all around
her. She was a brilliant mimic with an immaculate sense
of timing; her voice would dissolve into an infectious
laugh, so self-deprecating, you could believe whatever
she had just told you - no matter how preposterous.
- Judy did begin to lose weight and
while Roger Edens worked with her everyday, there was
still no screen part for her.
- Early in 1937 a surprise thirty-sixth
birthday party was planned for Clark Gable on the set of Parnell. Edens arranged for Judy to deliver a
monologue portraying her as a besotted fan of Clark Gable
and singing You Made Me Love You to his photograph.
- Introduced by Roger Edens, Judy was
trembling like a leaf, stage frightened for the first
time, but her performance was received with tremendous
applause, a few tears, and a big hug from Clark Gable (pictured right).
Judy: Looking at him close
up, my knees almost caved in. and then I cried, and it
was simply heavenly.
M-G-M decided that Judy Garland would sing
Dear Mr. Gable to a photograph of the King
in Broadway Melody of 1938. Judy also sang a snappy, jazzy number
Sing and though seventh in the
cast list, people began to take notice of Judy Garland. Two songs
from the picture that she recorded for Decca both sold well and
pictures of her began to appear in fan magazines.
Hollywood Reporter: A certain new picture
- Judy began work on two pictures at
Thoroughbreds Dont Cry
starring C. Aubrey Smith as a grandfather and Mickey
Rooney as a jockey, Judy was billed as The girl you loved in
Broadway Melody. It was
her first film with Mickey Rooney and she later
remembered how much he helped her: He would tell me
how to walk into a scene off camera and he would suggest
to me how to get the best out of a line.
- Judy was cast as a swing-singing
daughter of a theatrical family in Everybody Sing, and at the preview of the film with Mickey
Rooney, she planted a kiss on the cheek of Louis B. Mayer
when the audience liked it.
- To promote Everybody Sing, M-G-M sent Judy, accompanied by her mother Ethel,
on a six-week, seven-city tour appearing before live
audiences. Opening on Broadway at Loews State, she
was accompanied on piano by Roger Edens who later
recalled that she had the sensitivity to be petrified at
her New York opening though he never heard such an
ovation for an unknown as she got.
- After a brief triumphant interlude in
the real world of her home town Grand Rapids, she
returned to Hollywood one step nearer stardom.
- Judy Garland was on the verge of being
one of M-G-Ms brightest stars but a Hollywood
studio was hardly a healthy environment for an insecure
teenager. Too busy to attend the statutory schoolroom,
she had a tutor to teach her in between making films and
studying with Edens. As a property in which millions of
dollars were invested, the studio had to keep their
investment neat and photogenic.
- From the start, studio executives
advised that Garland simply did not have the shape for
stardom. The voice and eyes - yes, but she was not slim
enough. Accomplished designers tried to disguise the fact
that she had no waist but the strict diet she was obliged
to follow took a heavy toll.
No one saw any wrong in using pills to
control her weight so diet pills were prescribed. The pills
killed her appetite for food but increased her hyper-activity so
that she was wide-awake when she should have been going to bed.
Then taking pills to help her sleep, she woke drowsy and was
given pills to wake her up - Judy always wanted to cram a hundred
minutes into every hour. She was overdosed, overworked and
underfed for stardom.
Frances Marion: She had all the
characteristics of a chipmunk: she hated to sit still for moment,
her bright eyes always on the alert for fun or the threat of
danger . . . forever greedily searching for something tasty to
Judy: My life was
a combination of absolute chaos and absolute solitude. Id
be alone with my teacher for ten minutes reciting my French
lessons, then some assistant director comes along and says:
Cmon, kid, youre wanted on set.
Katherine Hepburn: I
thought Metro was like a wonderful school from which you never
graduated . . . Your problems were taken care of. It was a
successful, low-budget Andy Hardy films
with Mickey Rooney had begun a year earlier and the third
offering entitled Love Finds Andy Hardy featured Judy Garland as Betsy, a sort of
visiting-girl next door. She helped Rooney out of his
domestic and romantic troubles and was close to taking
the films honours out of Rooneys hands.
- Listen, Darling took over two months to complete because
Mary Astor was laid up after a fall from a horse. The Christian Science Monitor summed it up as a little laughter, a
little tears, a little singing by the fair Judy.
Mary Astor: She got the giggles.
There goes Judy! would be the cry. And we
just had to wait till she got over it.