Judy Garland‘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 Singers.’
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. Ethel’s third pregnancy in the fall of 1921 was unwelcome - she didn’t want another child.
Marc Rabwin, who was a friend of her husband’s 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.”
 
Young Judy At Christmas 1924, between the showing of Mary Pickford’s 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 singing ‘When My Sugar Walks Down The Street’, finding no difficulty with the lyric, and did a nimble tap-dance.
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 applause.
Judy: “The roar of the crowd - that wonderful, wonderful sound - is something I’ve been breathing since I was two years old. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it.”

“Let’s Go to the Grand Show!”
New Grand
(26 December 1924)
Thursday and Friday


Mary Pickford in one of the prettiest pictures she has ever appeared in, entitled “Thru’ the Back Door.”


A two-reel comedy “Motor Mad” completes the program.


Special for Friday night; the three Gumm children in songs and dances; featuring “Baby Frances”, two years of age.

Baby Frances’ song
‘Jingle Bells’

 
Quick to pick up a dance or a lyric, Francis soon became a ‘ham’ and it wasn’t 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 naturally’.”
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 was bisexual.
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 ‘Follie’.”
 
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 Father’s act, she’d 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 spangles.”
 
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 couldn’t invite us to dinner.”
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.
John Wayne, 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 father’s 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 ‘There’s a Long, Long Trail a-Winding’.
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 Meglin’s Famous Hollywood Wonder Kids’. Vivacious and assured, Francis outshouted her sisters and showed considerable screen presence.
Frances Gumm: “I’m 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 ‘juvenile extravaganza’ was staged by Maurice Kusell, who ran a talent school.
Ethel, delighted with her daughters’ early successes, directed the eight piece orchestra.
Maurice Kusell: “Ethel 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 Angeles Paramount Theatre where Francis Gumm received her first review in Variety.
Though only ten years old Francis’ voice was rapidly maturing. As Virginia remarked: “She didn’t sound like Shirley Temple.”
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 wouldn’t give more.”

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. Lawlor’s School for Professional Children. Child stars were in demand. A tot called Shirley Temple, recently graduated from ‘Mom’ Lawlor’s 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 friendship.

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 traveller’s checks.
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 World’s 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 couldn’t stop. The ability to laugh in adversity was one trait that Francis inherited from her mother.
With the aid of Mary Jane’s 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 Algrena Handelpotz.”
 
The Garland SistersThe 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 Grauman’s 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 she’s a saint and you find out she ain’t, that’s Judy.’
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 Rabwin’s parties, Mankiewicz arranged a screen test at M-G-M. Nothing came of it.

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 Jolson’s 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 isn’t 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 love.”
Henry Pleasants: “Her voice was open-throated, almost bird-like vocal production, clear, pure resonant and innocent.”

Judy GarlandLew 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 wasn’t 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 isn’t any age. She isn’t a child wonder and she isn’t grown up.’”
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. Mayer’s executive assistant, and Frank’s nervous piano accompaniment impressed no one. Roger Edens, an elegant Southerner and M-G-M’s pianist and vocal arranger, was sent for. Louis B. Mayer came down from his office to listen to Judy’s rendering of ‘Zing Went the Strings of My Heart’. At the end he said: “Very nice. Thank you very much.”
At this platitude, Frank got angry and protested: “This is all ridiculous. My child is tired.”
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 Creek.”

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 Merman’s, 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-M’s youthful star Jackie Cooper, she was introduced on the air in NBC’s The Shell Chateau Hour radio show and naively told host Wallace Beery: “I want to be a singer - and I’d like to act too.”
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 meaning across.”
 
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 shattered.
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 father’s 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 O’Connor and Mickey Rooney, but none of the films released in 1936 by M-G-M featured Judy Garland.
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 Transylvania.”

The studios decided it did not have room for two young singers and Deanna was dropped, though quickly signed up by Universal.
After recording ‘Swing Mr. Charlie’ and ‘Stomping at the Savoy’ for Decca with Bob Crosby’s 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 several critics.
Judy: “I’d thought I’d look as beautiful as Garbo or Crawford . . . My freckles stood out. I was fat. And my acting was terrible.”

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 Judy’s 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 Oakie’s College’ radio show and she became a regular for the rest of the season.
Judy: “I’ve been in show business ten years, and Deanna’s starred in one picture and I’m 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.
Judy and Clark GableEarly 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 called ‘Everybody 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 star.”

Judy began work on two pictures at once. In Thoroughbreds Don’t 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 Loew’s 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-M’s 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 eat.”
Judy:
“My life was a combination of absolute chaos and absolute solitude. I’d be alone with my teacher for ten minutes reciting my French lessons, then some assistant director comes along and says: ‘C’mon, kid, you’re 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 wonderful sensation.”

Listen DarlingThe 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 film’s honours out of Rooney’s 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.”
The Gumm Sisters
 
Over the Rainbow
 
Meet Me In St. Louis
 
Playing the Palace
Judy Garland

Judy Garland

A Star Is Born
 
Judy at Carnegie Hall
 
The Judy Garland Show
Sherwood Times