Judy Garland: Live at the Actors Studio
By Neal Weaver
I believe it was 1963. I had signed on at The Actors Studio in New York as the stage manager for the Playwright’s Unit, and later was accepted for membership in the Unit. In December, the Studio was abuzz with talk about the upcoming benefit for the Studio. It was to be held at the Studio and I think it was scheduled for New Year’s Eve. It was rumored that the entertainment would have a roster of big stars, including Judy Garland.
I was helping set up the auditorium for the party and wishing I could afford the $100 admission price for the benefit, when actor Fred Stewart appeared and asked me if I’d be interested in volunteering to run the hat-check concession. It was Fred’s way of recruiting unpaid workers to get the chores done, and at the same time give us underlings the chance to attend the party we couldn’t otherwise afford. So of course, I said yes.
The Studio was housed in an old church, and the sanctuary had become the auditorium and classroom, and was the site of the party. It had a low balcony which housed the light booth, and had wooden benches on three sides. This was to serve as the cloakroom, not open to the guests.
The stage-manager of the Acting and Directing Units was working the door, keeping the riffraff out, and I was at a table beside him checking hats, and placing them on the benches upstairs. It was a very starry crowd, though I don’t recall many names. I remember thinking that I must be almost the only person there who wasn’t a star or a VIP. I know Keir Dullea was there, and Jan Sterling, and Salvador Dali squiring a beautiful, sullen young Latino stud who was clearly playing hard to get.
When the entertainment finally got under way, the rumors proved true. The headliner was Judy Garland, alongside other talent including Shelley Winters, Josephine Premice and Carol Channing. Joan Sutherland had been supposed to appear and sing “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” but Rudolph Bing of the Metropolitan Opera felt that was inappropriate behavior for his star diva, and vetoed it. Judy had just gone through a messy divorce from Sid Luft: She was convinced he was trying to kidnap her children, so she had brought the kids along; in an odd bit of casting, Ava Gardner was there to serve as duenna and guard the youngsters. She looked absolutely ravishing in a white, slipper-satin, floor-length, strapless sheath that fit her like a glove.
Judy, however, looked like the wrath of God. She was gaunt, her legs like toothpicks in a black satin pants-suit. She was obviously not in great shape, either physically or emotionally. She had a pot belly, a double-chin, and a defensive manner, as if she expected someone to pop up and accuse her of being a bad mother, or a hopeless neurotic. Looking at her, I thought she could never again make herself presentable for a public performance, but of course she did, later. She always had the ability to pull herself together one more time, even if it required herculean cosmetic assistance. And so it was when she began to sing. She introduced Ava and the kids, and I think she did a musical number with her children. Then she sat down on a wooden kitchen stool, and the crowd of glittery stars sat down on the floor in a circle around her. I remember seeing Jan Sterling, in a white bouffant formal gown, plunking herself down on the Studio floor.
I had managed to escape my hat-checking duties during the show, and placed myself in the balcony directly above Judy. I was almost close enough to reach out and touch her — my seat was the best in the house. And when she began to sing, the voice and all the old magic were there. Her rickety appearance was forgotten, and the crowd adored her. (Nobody loves celebrities more than other celebrities.)
She invited requests for songs, and ran through much of her repertoire. When someone requested “Over the Rainbow,” the crowd cried, “No, no!”, thinking she must be tired of it. But that wasn’t the case. It was her star turn and she was determined to sing it. So after a couple of other songs, she cajoled the crowd into asking for it again, and she sang it. Gloriously, of course.
After her performance, there was a grand finale, with Garland, Premice, Winters, and Carol Channing singing “Hello, Dolly!” It was somehow not surprising that the one who forgot the lyrics was Channing, who’d arrived late after a performance.
Midway in the finale, Ava Gardner, seated with the Garland children in an improvised VIP pen at right stage, decided she’d had enough. She was more than a little drunk, and since that was the only way to get out, she mamboed her way through the other performers and headed for the front door.
I had come downstairs to watch the finale from the foyer, and as Ava sashayed by me I followed her to the front door, where there seemed to be an altercation taking place.
A personable young man, probably from New Jersey or one the outer boroughs, had parked his car in the street before attending a party of his own in the neighborhood. Now he wanted to go home, but one of our guests had double-parked, blocking him in. He didn’t know anything about the Actors Studio and he was furious. There were a few moments of argument, and then he recognized the gorgeous creature now standing beside him. “Aren’t you Ava Gardner?” he asked, incredulous. She gave him a dazzling smile and replied, “Um-hum.”
“Gosh, I think you’re wonderful!” he said.
“I think you’re pretty wonderful too, Honey,” she said, pushing him backward in a deep dip, and giving him a long and passionate kiss.
Afterward, he just stood there, wearing a dazed smile, as she boogied her way down the steps and into the night.
By this time guests had started to leave. But I still had chores to do. The Studio had made some sort of deal with the PR people for Arpege perfumes. They had sent over a stack of LP records called “Promise Her Anything,” as sung by a Latin crooner whose name I can’t recall. Attached to each album was a tiny, ribboned bottle of Arpege, with a card that read, “Promise Her Anything…But Give Her Arpege!” It was my job to hand these out to the departing guests. They invariably asked me if I was the singer on the album; I assured them I was not.
I noticed a very drunk young man wobbling toward me. It was Keir Dullea.
“Can I have one of those?” he asked.
I replied, “Yes, if you don’t ask me if I’m the Latin crooner?”
He said okay, and I gave him a record. Then he giggled and said, “Are you the Latin crooner?” I wanted to smack him. And I remembered Noel Coward’s famous crack, “Keir today, gone tomorrow.”
When we finally finished the after-party clean-up, I filled my pockets with leftover balloons, took a copy of “Promise Her Anything,” and wended my way downtown to my apartment on East Sixth Street. But I was too over-stimulated to sleep, and not ready to pack it in.
I decided to make a side-trip, despite the late hour, and visit a charming young man who lived a few doors down. It turned out he was still up, and he invited me in. Without much ado, we tumbled into bed, providing a satisfactory denouement to a spectacular evening.
(And I gave him my copy of the record.)
This is the second in a series of memoirs by Neal Weaver. Here’s the first.