Through The Years - The Judy Garland Story

As part of the celebration of the centennial of Judy Garland’s birth, The Judy Room presents “Through The Years – The Judy Garland Story.”  This new section features pages devoted to presenting a unique interactive overview of Judy’s amazing life and career – through the years.

More pages will be added as we get closer to the anniversary of Judy’s birth on June 10, 1922. The goal is to have her entire life story (well, all of the main highlights – there are so many!) completed by June 10, 2022. 

To open, we naturally start at the beginning of Judy’s life journey in her birthplace of Grand Rapids, Minnesota.  This page ends just before the momentous year of 1935 and her fateful audition with MGM.

For a more in-depth look at Judy’s life there is no shortage of biographies about her that can be found at any online retailer that sells books.  Some are out of print but can be purchased on eBay and other auction or used book sites. Recommendations:

Get Happy – The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clarke – Well written in-depth biography about Judy’s entire life.

Judy and I – My Life With Judy Garland by Sid Luft and Randy L. Schmidt – This book brilliantly focuses on Judy’s life with third husband Sid Luft and her post-MGM years.

Judy Garland the Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Legend by Scott Schechter – Literally a day by day timeline of everything Judy did in her life and career.

As 2022 progresses I’m sure there will be new books about Judy which I hope will be every bit as great as some of those that have been previously published.

1922 - 1934

As 1934 came to a close, 12-year-old Frances Gumm (Judy Garland) was a seasoned show business professional.  She had already performed in hundreds of stage shows that ran the gamut from family shows on the stage of her father’s movie theaters to professional Vaudeville engagements across the Midwestern and Western United States.  At the end of 1934 she had also made her film debut (being featured in no less that four film shorts at eight years old) and had already appeared on many radio programs.  A seasoned pro indeed!

With a big voice and natural almost inhuman talent that was far beyond her years, she was regularly stopping the show in such “big time” venues as San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theater and Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, among others. 

Judy wasn’t literally “born in a trunk” but she might as well have been.  Like many of her peers, she was born into a show business family.  Her parents were Vaudevillians and at the age of 2 1/2 little Frances Gumm (Judy) joined her two older sisters in the family act.  It was the beginning of one of the most unique and legendary careers in all of show business history.

The information featured here presents highlights from Judy’s early life and career.  These are the years that gave her the foundation to become the legendary icon that she is today.   As we celebrate the centenary of her birth (June 10, 1922), scroll down to see, hear, and enjoy the story of these fascinating early years. 

For even more details and photos be sure to visit the “On this Day” section of the Judy Garland News & Events blog.  Every day of the year and every year of Judy’s life and career are presented in great detail with tons of photos, newspaper clippings, media, and more!

1922

June 10, 1922

Judy Garland was born Frances Ethel Gumm at the Itasca Hospital in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.  She was the third and youngest daughter of Francis (Frank) Avent Gumm and Ethel Marion Milne Gumm. Her two older sisters were Mary Jane (Suzy/Suzanne) Gumm and Dorothy Virginia (Jimmie) Gumm.

The family was a show business family.  Frank and Ethel had toured the southern and midwestern United States as the duo “Frank and Virginia Lee – Sweet Southern Singers.”  They settled in Grand Rapids to start their family.  Frank owned and operated the local movie theater.  Frank, Ethel, Suzy, and Jimmie provided live entertainment between films and before long, “Baby” (as Judy was affectionately called) joined the act.

Photo below:  A family portrait before Judy’s arrival; Frank and a friend in front of the family home circa late 1910s.

1924

December 26, 1924

Judy Garland’s official stage debut, age two-and-a-half, at her father’s movie house, “The New Grand Theater,” in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, during the evening performance.

Her debut had been announced two days before, on December 24, 1924, by “The Grand Rapids Herald-Review” newspaper when they noted the appearance of “Baby Frances, two years of age.”

Judy’s segment opened with “When My Sugar Walks Down The Street,” a tap dance routine during a three-song segment with her sisters, and then her solo of “Jingle Bells.” The legends are true. Judy kept singing “Jingle Bells” over and over until her father carried her off the stage. Backstage she exclaimed, “I wanna sing some more!” Judy would later talk about how her love affair with audiences began at that point.

The sisters regularly performed locally, at parties, school and community functions in addition to their regular – and quite popular – performances at their father’s theater.

1926

October 27, 1926

The Gumm family moved to California.  Earlier in the year they had a working/vacation trip from Minnesota to California.  They were billed in theaters along the way as “Jack and Virginia Lee and Three Kiddies.”  The trip included Judy’s first time on a stage outside of her hometown of Grand Rapids, MN, at the Grand Theater in Devils Lake, North Dakota, on June 9, 1926.  Years later Judy remembered the fun the family had on the trip, with the girls loudly applauding their parents, then going on stage while their parents loudly applauded them.

Photo below:  Judy and her sister Virginia clowning around in Los Angeles in 1927.

1926 - 1928

The family spent the rest of 1926 in Los Angeles before moving to Lancaster, California,  in March 1927.  At that time the town was over an hour’s drive from LA.  Frank bought the Lancaster Theater and became the manager.  

The moved proved lucrative for the girl’s show business careers, especially Judy’s, being so close to the action in Hollywood.  The sisters began performing locally and around the Los Angeles area thanks to Ethel’s persistence.  They enrolled in the Meglin Kiddies school for professional children.  That association increased their visibility and kept them busy.  By the end of 1928, Frances was regularly performing solos and sometimes stopping the shows.  Of the Meglin Kiddies’ Christmas show at Loew’s State Theater in Los Angeles, the “Los Angeles Record” stated about Judy’s solo on “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “We have no names with which to lay tribute to.  One small miss shook these well-known rafters with her songs a la Sophie Tucker.”  Frances was already being singled out as a Baby Sophie Tucker or a Baby Nora Bayes. 

The family photos featured here are circa 1926, in Lancaster, California.  The photo of Judy on the pony is circa 1927 or 1928.

1929

The Gumm Sisters in "The Big Revue"

Below, surviving film of Judy Garland’s film debut in the 1929 short The Big Review as one third of “The Gumm Sisters” hence the introduction by the uncredited girl as “The Gumm sisters, not the Wrigley Sisters!”  The trio sings “That’s The Good Old Sunny South.”

Play Video

Listen to the surviving audio from the following shorts (the footage no longer survives)

When The Butterflies Kiss The Buttercups Goodbye (The Gumm Sisters)
A Holiday In Storyland (1929)

Blue Butterfly (Baby Gumm – Judy’s first on-screen solo!)
A Holiday In Storyland (1929)

Hang Onto The Rainbow (Baby Gumm)
The Wedding of Jack and Jill (1930)

Photo below:  From the set of The Wedding of Jack and Jill filmed in December 1929.  Judy is seen behind the right shoulder of John Perry who is in the front as “Jack.”  Peggy Ryan is “Jill.”

Below, promotional photo from the 1929 film short, Bubbles (released in 1930).  The Gumm Sisters are the three on the far right in the balloon pants.  Photo provided by Aureo Brandão.  Thanks Aureo!

Below, the Gumm Sisters sing “The Land of Let’s Pretend” in their final film short of 1929, Bubbles (released in 1930).  Frances Gumm (Judy) gets a nice closeup and solo bit. 

Play Video
June 11, 1929

Judy Garland’s film debut!

From June 11 through June 13, 1929,  Judy and her sisters (The Gumm Sisters) made their first appearance on film. They were featured in the short The Big Review produced my Mayfair Pictures, Inc. and filmed at the Tec-Art Studios in Hollywood.  The trio sang “That’s The Good Old Sunny South” (see video).

Beginning in the third quarter of 1928, the career of the trio was burgeoning past the local level, thanks to their association with the Meglin Kiddies Profession School as well as mom Ethel’s determination.  The girls debuted on radio in August 1928 on KFI Radio’s “The Kiddies Hour” (aka “The Children’s Hour”) broadcast out of Los Angeles.  They performed on the show on a regular basis through October 1928.

In March 1929, Ethel rented an apartment at 1814 1/2 South Orchard, near Washington Boulevard and Vermont Ave which was near the Los Angeles theater district.  The move was to better serve the girls’ stage career now that they had begun to establish themselves.  Frank stayed in Lancaster managing the movie theater.

In November and December 1929 (the exact dates are unknown), the sisters were a part of “The Vitaphone Kiddies” in three “Vitaphone Varieties” film shorts for Warner Bros.:  A Holiday in Storyland, The Wedding of Jack and Jill, and Bubbles.  The first two were released in 1929 and although the footage is lost the audio remains (thanks to the Vitaphone disc system) which includes Judy’s very first film solo, “Blue Butterfly.”  The footage for the third, Bubbles was found in the 1990s and features a nice close-up of Judy during her solo bit singing “The Land of Let’s Pretend.”

Photo below:  A promotion photo of The Gumm Sisters in their costumes from The Big Revue.

In November and December 1929 (the exact dates are unknown), the sisters were a part of “The Vitaphone Kiddies” in three “Vitaphone Varieties” film shorts for Warner Bros.:  A Holiday in Storyland, The Wedding of Jack and Jill, and Bubbles.  The first two were released in 1929 and although the footage is lost the audio remains (thanks to the Vitaphone disc system) which includes Judy’s very first film solo, “Blue Butterfly.”  The footage for the third, Bubbles was found in the 1990s and features a nice close-up of Judy during her solo bit singing “The Land of Let’s Pretend.”

Photos below:

Is that Judy Garland’s first leading man? “Baby Gumm” on the Warner Bros./First National Studios backlot, circa December 1929, with John Perri.

A rare Vitaphone disc featuring Judy’s second screen solo “Hang Onto The Rainbow” from The Wedding of Jack and Jill.  The disc image is from the collection of John Newton.

For more about the Gumm/Garland Sisters short films, check out The Judy Room’s Gumm/Garland Sisters Shorts Page here.

early

1930s

Judy Garland (Frances Gumm) 1931
The early 1930s

The early 1930s was a busy time for Judy and her family.  She and her sisters, as “the Gumm Sisters,” continued their association with the Meglin Kiddies as well as new partnerships with “Big Brother Ken” (who sponsored children’s radio and stage shows during which the Gumm Sisters were often featured) and Maurice Kusell, another impresario of children’s acts who also had a studio that specialized in training professional show business children.  This sisters were a part of his shows as well. 

The experience Judy gained as a result of these associations was invaluable.  She wasn’t performing every now and then, she was performing almost weekly in multi-night or week-long (or longer) engagements.  Although she was almost always part of a bigger groups of kid performers in these shows, with or without her sisters, she was regularly stopping shows with her solos. 

This was the era when movie theaters featured live acts which created a high demand for talent.  Children’s shows were extremely popular.  Judy’s natural gifts and incredible musical instincts allowed her to soak in all of that experience and craft like a sponge.  As a performer she learned and retained more in these five or six years than most, and that stored knowledge came in handy when she returned to the stage full time in 1951, after her MGM years

Photo below:  The Gumm Sisters, 1933.

In 1932 the sisters received their first “Variety” review that noted, “Gumm sisters, harmony trio, socked with two numbers.  Selling end of the trio is a ten-year-old sister with a pip of a lowdown voice.  Kid stopped the show, but wouldn’t give more.”

The Gumms (Frank and Ethel included) traveled up the West Coast which included a major engagement at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco in August 1933.  By this point Judy was the standout and the one who was singled out in reviews.

1934

The Garland Sisters at the Curran in San Francisco
The Garland Sisters in Chicago 1934
Gumm to Garland

By 1934, Frances Gumm was well known on the Vaudeville circuit on the West Coast.  As noted, she was regularly stopping the show with her personality and her voice.  It was clear who the real star of the trio was, which from all accounts didn’t bother Judy’s two older sisters, Suzy and Jimmie.  

Due to the maturity of Judy’s voice (one reviewer had actually mistaken her for a “small woman” not believing a kid could sing like that), the highlight of their act was Judy sitting on the top of a piano a la Helen Morgan, with a tight pin spotlight on her face.  She would sing Morgan’s torch song “Bill” from the Kern/Hammerstein musical “Showboat.”  When the house lights came up at the end of the song, the applause usually turned to gasps from the audience who assumed they were watching a young woman, not a 12-year-old girl.

Listen to Judy’s version of “Bill” as she performed it in dozens of shows here:

This was Judy’s first studio recording, made on March 29, 1935, as a test for Decca Records, with mom Ethel at the piano.  More about that recording here.

In June 1934, Ethel and the girls left Los Angeles for Chicago and the World’s Fair.  They drove, stopping to play a few gigs in Colorado.  Their destination was the Old Mexico Cafe where they had a pre-booked engagement.  Toward the end of their three week engagement the club folded unexpectedly leaving Ethel and the girls stranded.

They were about to head home when a big break came their way: They were added as a last-minute fill-in at the Oriental Theater in downtown Chicago.  It was definitely the “big time.”  The headliner was George Jessel.  He was enthralled with the girls, especially Judy, but realized “Gumm” wasn’t a very good stage name.  For their second show he introduced them as “The Garland Sisters.”  The name stuck.  The girls were a hit and were signed by the local William Morris office, which booked the rest of their tour.

They left Chicago in mid-October headed back to Los Angeles.  Along the way they played in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Missouri. 

Photo below:  Judy poses with an unidentified family friend on Easter in Los Angeles, 1934.

The newly christened Garland Sisters finished out 1934 on a high note. Their week-long appearance at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood (November 1 through 7), generated their fourth review from “Variety” which read in part, “As a trio, it means nothing, but with the youngest, Frances, 13 (sic), featured, it ops into class entertainment; for if such a thing is possible, the girl is a combination of Helen Morgan and Fuzzy Knight … she handles ballads like a veteran, and gets every note and rod over with a personality that hits audiences.  For comedy, she effects a pan like Knight, and delivers her stuff in the same manner as the comic.  Nothing slow about her on hot stuff, and to top it off, she hoofs [dances].” 

Clearly Judy’s “triple threat” genius was already on very much on display.  Every reviewer who wrote about any engagement that she and/or her sisters were a part of heaped praise on Judy, always singling her out.  She was creating a name and reputation as a first class performer which was no small feat considering the large number of kid/teen stage performers at that time.  

On December 8, 1934, the Garland Sisters took part in in “Irving Strouse’s Sunday Nite Vaudeville Frolics” at the Wishire-Ebell Theater in Los Angeles, billed at the “Garland Trio.”  

The “Los Angeles Times” mentioned the sisters in their article about the show relocating up to San Francisco and the Curran Theater.  What’s notable is the fact that Judy had become well known enough for the paper to single her out and assume readers knew what Judy doing “several solos” meant:  “The three Garland sisters will sing new songs, and Francis [sic] Garland, the youngest, will again do several solos.”

The San Francisco engagement opened on Christmas Day.  Wood Soanes of the “Oakland Tribute” predicted big things for Frances Garland: 

“Of the group (‘January Frolics’) the Garlands have the best novelty.  They consist of three girls with mother at the piano and they sing.  But the virtue of their performance lies in the talent of the youngest, little Frances.”

“I loathe child actors, particularly in vaudeville, but this youngster sings a song called, I think, ‘Night and Day’ in a fashion that would do justice to a Helen Morgan.  Little Frances will undoubtedly go places – but not with mama and sisters Virginia and Mary Jane.”

Eighteen years later on May 25, 1952, Soanes reviewed Judy’s return to the Curran and was reminded of his 1934 prediction.  He sure called it!

CLICK HERE FOR THE NEXT PAGE IN THE SERIES WHICH IS FOCUSED ON 1935

1935 would prove to be a life changing year for the Garland Sisters.  Frances renamed herself “Judy” becoming “Judy Garland.”  The oldest sister, Mary Jane (Suzy) left in August 1935 to get married, effectively breaking up the act.  By that point the act was really all about Judy anyway.  It was obvious not just to the family but to anyone who saw her perform that she had a bright future ahead of her in the entertainment world.  All that was needed was another break.  Judy got that break when she auditioned for the MGM Studios on September 13, 1935. 

The rest is history, which will be covered in the future installments of “Through The Years – The Judy Garland Story.”

Judy Garland 1935
The Wizard of Oz green vinyl release for Record Store Day on April 19, 2014