Manuel Betancourt on how he came to know and love Judy at Carnegie Hall
Judy Garland lights up the screen. To watch The Wizard of Oz or A Star is Born is to understand why she remains one of the most beloved screen icons of the twentieth century. But to read about her live performances is to realize that the camera could only ever capture a fraction of what “the world’s greatest entertainer” could accomplish on the stage. Her musical numbers in the Rooney-Garland films, her dancing alongside Fred Astaire in Easter Parade, and her singing in pretty much any production she starred in hint at it, of course. But you always feel like the screen, no matter how big, couldn’t really contain within its frame what made Judy Garland so electric when performing live. Her variety series, The Judy Garland Show, comes closest to recreating such feats, and it was through a clip of that short-lived CBS show that I first glimpsed why so many before me had fallen under her thrall.
Hearing her sing a “Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy” duet with a then-sprightly young Barbra Streisand was revelatory. This merging together of so-called Old Hollywood and New Hollywood—bridging two generations of gay icons at that—is just divine, with Garland’s booming voice melding quite effortlessly with Streisand’s velvety vocals as they simultaneously sing these signature tunes. Moreover, to see the two bantering back and forth is to get a glimpse of why their charisma has so endeared them to legions of fans, especially gay ones, for decades.
“You’re so good that I… hate you. I really hate you!” Judy ribs Barbra. “You’re so great that I’ve been hating you for years,” Streisand retorts, “You know, it’s my ambition to be as great a singer to be hated by as many singers as you.” Happening upon it on YouTube soon led me to many more performances from that show, which in turn led me to hunt down more of her recordings. Which is how I eventually found Judy at Carnegie Hall.
That double-album, recorded at Garland’s 1961 New York City concert, is the closest we can get to truly feeling what it might have been like to see the performer on stage. Unburdened by her need to play to the camera (as in her studio films, her CBS performances or the many other televised bits she shot in the 1960s) you can hear her wholly devoted to her audience. There’s something ineffable that she conjured up in live performances and which led many of her critics and fans alike to come up with ever more hyperbolic ways of describing her concerts when she was at her prime. As Shana Alexander put it in a Life magazine profile of Judy soon after, “a Garland audience doesn’t just listen, they feel they have to put their arms around her when she works.” That’s what’s long fascinated me about Garland as a figure, and Judy at Carnegie Hall as an album.
When I first dreamed up the idea of submitting a proposal for a 33 ⅓ book on that album, I knew that Garland’s connection with her fans and the palpable way that comes through in that 1961 live recording would be a perfect way to frame it. In writing it, I was driven to explore the gap that exists between what’s performed and what’s recorded; I tried to put into words why it is that Garland’s live vocals brim with an immediacy that makes you feel like she’s singing just for you. Whether you’re a diehard Judy fan who knows all of Judy at Carnegie Hall by heart or a neophyte who knows her just from her film roles, I hope the book makes you listen to the album anew.
Do you want to put your arms around Judy Garland when you hear her sing? Check out Judy Garland’s Judy at Carnegie Hall, a loving embrace of the icon.