Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Loved By Others

Nov 28, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


“I believe in the idea of the rainbow. And I’ve spent my entire life trying to get over it.” 

Judy Garland Museum (opened 1996)

Grand Rapids, Minnesota

      In Frank L. Baum’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy told the Scarecrow, “There is no place like home.” For Judy Garland, the star of the book’s movie adaptation, home was in the picturesquely named city of Grand Rapids. To pay tribute to the actress and to the childhood classic, one can follow the yellow brick road to the Judy Garland Museum.

     Few films-no matter how much time goes by-bring to mind as many memories as does The Wizard of Oz. The 1939 classic evokes ruby slippers and gingham dress, witches good and evil, Munchkins and Flying Monkeys. But mostly the movie recalls Dorothy Gayle and her heartfelt wish to escape to the land over the rainbow.

     A star was born in 1922 as Frances Ethel, (Judy,) sister of Mary Jane and Dorothy Virginia. Their parents, Frank and Ethel Gumm, were vaudeville performers who put their three daughters on stage at the family’s Grand Theater where musical acts preceded silent films. Her 1924 debut occurred when her two older sisters stepped apart to reveal the two-year-old Baby Gumm who belted out “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street.” Frank carried his toddler off the stage as she kicked and screamed to remain. 

        The family’s nomadic life led to Judy’s assertion that she was born in a trunk. After a theater marquee accidentally spelt out Glumm instead of Gumm, the family transformed to the Garlands; the name Judy derived from a Hoagy Carmichael song.

      As the movie industry was forcing vaudeville to its swan song, in 1926, Ethel, children in tow, moved to the west coast. The essence of the pushy stage mother, Ethel doled out pep pills to her children “to keep those girls going!-” followed by evening sleeping pills. An adult Judy referred to Ethel as the “real Wicked Witch of the West.” While his wife booked performances and pushed pills, Frank propositioned boys in the back rows of his theater. The child-star sang, “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” on national radio while her father was in the hospital with meningitis. Frank died the next day that led Judy to remark, “It was the most terrible thing that ever happened to me in my life.” 

      In A Star is Born, actor James Mason told Judy Garland, “I never heard anybody sing…just the way you do.” At age thirteen, MGM studio bigwig Louis B. Mayer cried upon hearing her perfect pitch and signed her on the spot. She was well-aware of her God-given gift, “I have a machine in my throat that gets into people’s ears and affects them.” Because of Meyer’s badgering “to reduce” while Dorothy sang of lemon drops, Judy’s diet consisted of chicken broth and black coffee. There was a price to pay to fit her four feet eleven-and-a-half-inch frame into her blue-and-white gingham dress. Diet pills were added to the cocktail of pep and sleeping pills. A grueling schedule led Judy to remark, “I started to feel like a windup toy from FAO Schwarz.” Further problems were sexual harassment from Mayer and other MGM executives.

      Her 1939 role in The Wizard of Oz made the Minnesota girl the North Star in Hollywood’s firmament. Dorothy and Judy had similar lives: Midwesterners transported to lands of fantasy that only appeared beautiful while wearing green-tinted glasses. Judy received a special Best Juvenile Award that she christened her Munchkin Award. The same year, she left her hands and footprint in Grauman’s Chinese Theater. When she left for a visit to England, thousands awaited her ship’s arrival.

    Judy’s romantic life offered little respite. In the Emerald City, Dorothy exclaimed, “My! People come and go so quickly here” and the same could be said for Judy’s husbands. She had five unfulfilling trips down the aisle. Her marriage to director Vincente Minnelli resulted in the birth of Liza, christened after an Ira Gershwin song, “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away.”) She kept Ethel away from her grandchildren. Marriage to director Sidney Luft produced Lorna and Joe. Judy remarked she longed for the sincere love of a man rather than the applause of thousands of fans. She once asked, “If I am a legend, then why am I so lonely?”

       Self-medication took its toll; after fifteen years, MGM removed the star who had become a liability. The self-admitted “queen of the come-back” rallied and appeared in an acclaimed role in the 1954 film, A Star is Born. When Grace Kelley won for A Country Girl, Groucho Marx reportedly sent her a telegram, “Dear Judy, this is the biggest robbery since Brinks.”

    In Cabaret, for which Liza Minnelli won the Oscar that had eluded her mother, as Sally Bowles she reminisced about a prostitute named Elsie, “The day she died the neighbors came to snicker: ‘Well, that’s what you get from too much pills and liquor.’” In 1969, Judy passed away from the same affliction that plagued Elsie; the difference was, rather than snicker, her death unleased an avalanche of grief. Her former teenage co-star, Mickey Rooney, said, “She was-I’m sure-at peace, and has found that rainbow. At least I hope she has.” For hours 20,000fans waited in line behind police barricades at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home to gaze their last on the actress in her white and gold coffin. Bouquets arrived from Fred Astaire, Irving Berlin, and James Stewart. A huge wreath of peonies shaped like a rainbow made for a heart-rendering arrangement. Attending the funeral service were Lauren Bacall, Katherine Hepburn, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant. Even in death the restless Judy did not rest: in 2017, her children arranged for their mother’s remains to be exhumed from the Ferncliff Cemetery north of New York and reinterred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The Judy Garland Pavilion is in the vicinity of fellow celebrities ranging from Rudolph Valentino to Hattie McDaniel.

    For fans of the icon, and for those whom the childhood classic holds a treasured niche, one can head to the home where Judy spent her first four years. Although Judy rarely returned to her Minnesota hometown, in a 1958 movie magazine she stated, “Basically, I am still Judy Garland, a plain American girl from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, who’s had a lot of good breaks, a few tough breaks.” The owner of pleasure domes in Los Angeles, Malibu, London, Manhattan, there was no place like the home of her birth on 2727 Pokegama. The Gumm/Garlands lived in a late nineteenth century charming white clapboard house. New York based interior designer (and Judy enthusiast,) Marc Charbonnet explained, “This little farmhouse has been blown around like the house in The Wizard of Oz.” He referenced the fact that that the 1892 structure moved twice after the family sold it: in the 1930s it relocated to a site a dozen blocks away, then, in the 1990s, to its present location. Charbonnet spent two years acquiring period furnishings, wallpaper, and fabrics and household items to make the museum appear as it would have when the Gumms walked its halls. Some vintage artifacts: Singer sewing machine, Underwood typewriter, and camera. The stairs hold the ghosts of the three sisters who stood on them to entertain while their mother accompanied them on the piano. Her family understood Baby was a prodigy when the two-year-old stood by the banister and belted out “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” In the upstairs master bedroom is Judy’s crib with a doll, teddy bear, and quilt. A walled in front porch holds a scooter and roller-skates, the sisters’ variation of Rosebud.

    Adjacent to the residence is a museum, a shrine to Garland and The Wizard of Oz whose pathway is a yellow brick road. Behind plexiglass is Dorothy’s blue and white test gingham dress, on a wall is an Andy Warhol serigraph with the silver screen queen and the phrase “What becomes a legend Most?” A green-hued room reveals the carriage, on a rotating stand, that had carried the Scarecrow, the four friends around the Emerald City. The museum had purchased from Christie’s Auction House the 18863 pole that supported the canopy from an authentic President Lincoln. carriage. A Winkie Spear is nearby as if in protection. Other treasures are a first edition of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz and an original script from A Star is Born. In 2014, the museum merited mention in The Guinness Book of World records when 1,093 people dressed in Oz costumes congregated.

      In 2005, John Kelsch, the senior director of the Judy Garland Museum, had just stepped out of a shower when he received a call from Kathe Johnson, “They’re gone!” Feeling as if he were caught up in a cyclone, John arrived at the museum to discover all that was left of the ruby slippers was a single red sequin. A donor offered a million-dollar reward for the shoes that are valued at approximately $3.5 million. It took far more than three clicks of the heels to bring the revered memorabilia home; after thirteen years, the police solved the who dunnit.

   Viewing her life through the lens of her fractured family rand broken romances, Judy rued she had never obtained the land where the blue birds sing. Tragically, she should have heeded the wisdom of the Wizard, “A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.”

A View From her Window:

Standing on the balcony of her childhood home, Judy would have seen the 1850s Old Stone School, so called as the builders made it from stone quarried from the Grand River. Frances Ethel Gumm would have been part of its study body had her voice-the architect of her triumph and tragedy-set her on the road less taken.