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Through The Years - The Judy Garland Story

1935 was the first of several banner years for Judy Garland.  Because of the number of momentous highlights in just this one year, it gets a separate page in this series.

The year began with the last night of a very successful holiday engagement in San Francisco for Judy and her sisters, having recently changed their stage name from The Gumm Sisters to The Garland Sisters.  Things began to happen fairly rapidly as 1935 progressed.  In the span of those eventful twelve months Judy accomplished the following milestones among many successful and critically lauded stage appearances: 

  • The final name change from Frances Gumm to Judy Garland.
  • Her fifth and sixth “Variety” reviews.
  • Two movie studio contracts.
  • First studio recordings (five total).
  • First contract with Decca Records.
  • First time on film in Technicolor, which was technically her first time in an MGM film (produced by Lewis Lewyn and released by MGM).
  • First time on national radio.

On a personal level, in 1935 Judy experienced the death of her father, Frank Gumm, which was the most devastating event of her youth and impacted the rest of her life.  Frank and Judy were very close.  They were kindred spirits.  He was her biggest fan and most ardent supporter.  He passed just weeks after she singed her first contract with MGM and missed sharing the joy of her future successes.  The impact of his death on Judy’s life and career cannot be underestimated.  If he had lived, he most likely would have been able to shield her from some or all of the work-related abuse she endured in those early years at MGM.  At the least he would have been able to counsel her and give much needed emotional support, which is something she said she never got from her mother (both before and after she signed with MGM).  Some of her personal and professional life choices would have been different.  For example, she might not have been as quick to marry David Rose in 1941 to get out from under the oppression of her mother.  Although Frank’s death cast a long shadow, that doesn’t mean that Judy lived a “very tragic life” as so often portrayed.  She enjoyed astounding success and in spite of the legends to the contrary, much happiness. 

When listening to the surviving recordings of Judy from the these early years, it’s obvious that she got great joy out of experimenting with, and learning what, her voice could achieve.  There is a special energy to them.  In A Star Is Born (1954) when her character, Vicki Lester, exclaims, “I somehow feel most alive when singing” it’s Judy Garland speaking to her truth.  

As 1935 came to a close, 13-year-old Judy Garland was on her way to one of the most unique and dazzlingly legendary careers in show business history.

CLIPPING:  The newspaper clipping shown here was published on January 25, 1936, and features one of the photos from Judy’s first photo session at MGM (on November 6, 1935).  This is the first known printing of a Judy Garland MGM studio portrait.  It’s also notable for the fact that even this early, the story of Judy being signed to MGM without a screen test was being told to the public.  For details about the audition check out the Judy Garland News & Events “On This Day” entry for September 13.

Judy Garland signed autograph to Universal Studios

The Tahoe engagement resulted in Judy gaining a new agent, Al Rosen, who would arrange for her fateful audition with MGM in September.

Play Video
  • 1934 portrait that Judy singed to the Universal Inn during her brief time on the Universal Studios lot.
  • May 15, 1935:  The only known photo of Judy and her sisters on stage, taken during their second 1935 engagement at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles.  Their first engagement was on March 7 though 13.  Both engagements garnered rave reviews in “Variety” for Judy.
  • March 29, 1935:  The two surviving Decca test records along with the Decca Records test details sheet for “Bill.”
  • Notice and ad for the trio’s appearance at the Cal-Neva Lodge at Lake Tahoe in Nevada June 15 through July 26, 1935.
  • Photo and article about Judy’s appearance in the Los Angeles Superior Court for the courts approval of her contract with Al Rosen as her agent.  The court didn’t approve it because they didn’t have jurisdiction.
  • Video: The Garland Sisters in Technicolor in La Fiesta de Santa Barbara filmed on August 12, 1935.
  • August 15, 1935:  The “Los Angeles Times” notes the break up of The Garland Sisters with a photo and a short article.
  • September 27, 1935:  Photo taken of Judy at the Los Angeles Superior Court where her new MGM contract was approved.  Because she was a minor, Judy’s parents, rank and Ethel Gumm, had to sign for her.
  • Snapshot of Judy taken around October 1, 1935, which was her first day of work at MGM.
  • Photo from, and article about, Judy’s debut on national radio, the “Shell Chateau Hour.”
  • November 6, 1935.  Judy’s first photo session at MGM’s portrait studio.
  • November 10, 1935:  One of Judy’s earliest assignments under her new contract with MGM.  She appeared in Frank Fay’s show at the Cafe Trocadero.  The original caption for this photo reads: Appearing on one of Frank Fay’s undiscovered stars program which holds forth at the Cafe Trocadero in Hollywood every Sunday night, Judy Garland, juvenile torch singer was seen by Louis B. Mayer of M.G.M. studios and was signed for a long-term contract. This photo shows her being congratulated just after her appearance by (L-R): Una Merkel, Judy, Fred Keating, and Spencer Tracy.
  • December 1, 1935:  Judy with Joe E. Brown and with Edithe Fellowes, Mickey Rooney, May Robson, & Freddie Bartholomew at the Will Rogers Memorial Fund Benefit at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.  Nineteen years later the Shrine will feature prominently in Judy’s comeback film, A Star Is Born.
  • December 4, 1935:  “Variety” article noting Judy’s first contract with Decca Records.
Judy's first movie studio contract

After their success in San Francisco over the New Year, Judy and her sisters, The Garland Sisters, were successfully tested and signed to Universal Studios for the studio’s upcoming production of The Great Ziegfeld.  On January 18, 1934, the sisters performed at Universal Studios head Carl Laemmle’s 68th birthday party at the studio which is the only known work the sisters had under this brief association.

In the late spring of 1935 The Great Ziegfeld project was sold to MGM but the sisters’ contract was not, thus ending their association with Universal.  The final MGM film was released in 1936 and won three Academy Awards in 1937 including Best Picture.  By that point, Judy had already been under contract to MGM for a year and a half and her brief association with the film and Universal Studios was largely forgotten.  For more details check out The Judy Garland News & Events “On this Day” blog post.

Among their many appearances in early 1935, the sisters enjoyed a successful engagement at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles that yielded the only known photograph of the sisters performing on stage (photo in collage at left) and their fifth “Variety” review that raved about Judy: “Garland Sisters, three femmes, one of whom, Frances [Judy], is still a child and about 80% of the combination, are excellent harmonists, but it remained for the youngster to tie things up in a knot.  Girl looks like a bet for pictures and should make rapid headway … the kid is tops and deserved everything she drew today.”

Photo below.  The front of the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles.  This is the only known photo of the “Garland Sisters” on a theater marquee.

Frances becomes Judy

It was in 1935 that Judy renamed herself “Judy Garland” allegedly taken from the popular Hoagy Carmichael song “Judy” and because she said it sounded “peppy.” 

Frances (Judy) and her two sisters (as The Gumm Sisters) had taken the surname “Garland” that previous summer of 1934 while in Chicago.   George Jessel renamed them “Garland” apparently after getting chuckles from the audience with “Gumm” (which was sometimes misspelled in ads as “Glum”). 

The trio was subsequently billed as “Frances [sometimes spelled Francis] Garland and her sisters”; the “Frances Garland Trio” (a nod to who was the obvious star of the act), and “3 Garland Sisters.”  Judy tried out “Gracie Gumm” and even as late as April 1934, fell back on “Baby Gumm.”  Luckily “Judy” is the name that stuck. 

First studio recordings

On March 29, 1935, Judy and her sisters recorded three test records for the Decca Records label, with mom Ethel at the piano.  The trio recorded “Moonglow” and Judy soloed on a medley, “On the Good Ship Lollipop/The Object of My Affection/Dinah” and the torch song “Bill.”  These tests are the very first studio recordings ever made by Judy Garland.  Her previous film short performances were recorded live on-set.  The tests were rejected by Decca and were assumed lost for seventy years until the latter two were discovered in the mid-2000s.  Read about their discovery here.  “Moonglow” remains lost.

Note that the Decca test disc shown here lists her as 11 years old when in fact she was 12.  

Listen to “On the Good Ship Lollipop/The Object of My Affection/Dinah” here:

Listen to “Bill” here:

By the summer of 1935, things were about to change drastically for The Garland Sisters.  June 15 was the first of a nearly two-week engagement for the trio at the Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.  It’s been claimed that it was at this engagement that Judy first decided on the name “Judy” although that’s debatable.

Several different stories about this event have been told over the years, mostly about the family loading up the car and Judy running back to their room for a hatbox or costumes when she was pulled into the bar or lounge and asked to sing for some men, the result of which was her famous audition for MGM.  Whatever the exact sequence of events, it’s true that it was at this engagement that Hollywood agent Al Rosen heard Judy sing and arranged for her fateful audition at MGM.  

Not long after returning to Los Angeles from Tahoe, the sisters filmed their appearance in the Technicolor short La Fiesta de Santa Barbara, on location in Santa Barbara, California.  It was their first appearance on film since 1929 and their first in color.  It was also their last professional gig as an act.  IT was crystal clear to everyone that Judy was the real star. 

On August 15 both the “Los Angeles Times” (at left) and the “San Francisco Examiner” (below) noted the break up of the act due to big sister Suzy flying off to Reno, Nevada to marry musician Lee Kahn.  It’s a reflection of the current success of the trio that the event was noted in the papers with photos, meaning that they took the time to have staff photographers mark the event – no small feat in 1935.   

MGM Audition

September 13, 1935:  Judy’s famous audition for MGM. 

When the call from MGM came to the Gumm home, Judy’s mom Ethel was out so her father, Frank, rushed her to the studio without having her change out of her play clothes or put on any makeup.  Frank played the piano before Roger Edens stepped in at the urging of studio songwriter (soon to be a producer) Arthur Freed who allegedly said, “That guy is the worst piano player I ever heard … Roger, go over and do a song with the little girl.”   Judy sang “Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart.”  Eventually, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer was successfully coaxed into walking from his office over to the soundstage, supposedly on MGM’s Stage #1 which was, fittingly, the studio’s scoring stage.  Judy sang “Eili, Eili” for Mayer.  Edens later claimed that he knew Judy was one-in-a-million within the first few notes of her singing saying she had “unbelievable control, full power in the high register and shimmering warmth in the low.”

The complete details of this audition are unknown.  Over the years legends have grown about it, who was there, and what Judy sang.  The legend of Judy’s audition grew to the point that it seemed as though everyone who worked at the studio at that time claimed to have been there and witnessed it.

It’s also been reported that this was Judy’s third audition for MGM, including one with all three sisters around late spring 1935 and then a few months later it’s been said that Judy auditioned solo.  That scenario might be derived from confusion about Judy’s association with Universal (noted above) at that time, or from the decades-later recollections of director George Sidney (see blog post).  There are no known records of these alleged earlier auditions.

Whatever the case, this audition is the one that did the trick.  Judy was signed to a standard seven-year contract with MGM, forever changing her life and career.

The MGM Years Begin

Judy reported for her first day of work at MGM on October 1, 1935.  She spent the day with school at the studio’s famed schoolhouse, and rehearsals and vocal training with Roger Edens.  Edens became the biggest musical influence of her life.  He was also one of the few people who was a constant throughout the rest of her life.  His role in shaping her voice and style cannot be underestimated.

On September 27, 1935, Judy and her parents were in the Los Angeles Superior Court where Judy’s MGM contract was approved.  A studio photographer was on hand to mark the occasion.

For the first several weeks the studio had Judy sing unofficially at various studio functions such as parties  

Judy’s first official work for the studio was her national radio debut on October 26 on the “Shell Chateau Hour” broadcast by NBC Radio and hosted by MGM star Wallace Beery.  Judy chatted with Beery before singing a rousing version of “Broadway Rhythm.”  Lucky for us, this performance was recorded:

On November 6, 1935, Judy had her first session at MGM’s portrait studios.  This is where she would endure assaults to her self esteem and body image thinking she had to compete with the current glamour girls.

Judy’s “Shell Chateau Hour” was such a success that she returned to the show on November 16, 1935, singing her MGM audition song, “Zing! Went The Strings of My Heart.”  This show was also recorded.  Here is Judy’s thrilling performance:

Note that Beery states that Judy signed her contract with MGM as a result of her previous appearance on the show.  It’s untrue but makes for good press for this show.

This appearance was emotional for Judy because her father had been admitted to the hospital earlier that day and she knew he would be listening.  The next day he died from spinal meningitis.  His death devastated Judy and left a lasting mark on her psyche.  The two had a very close relationship.  He was the one person she knew would always be on her side.  She later said it was “the most terrible thing that ever happened to me in my life.”

More Decca Tests

On November 27, Judy had a second session at Decca Records during which she recorded “No Other One” and “All’s Well.”  These recordings remain lost.  The tests were rejected, but Judy still received a contract (the specifics are unknown) although it did not produce any new recordings.

In early December “Variety” noted that Decca president  Jack Kapp was in Los Angeles in late November signing new talent.  Judy was listed as one of the singers signed as “the 12-year-old Metro contractee-songstress.”  More details are at the “On This Day” blog post here.

Judy finished out 1935 appearing at a few various industry events sanctioned by MGM.  It was a relatively quiet time for Judy professionally.  MGM hadn’t yet begun grooming her for stardom.  For the time being, the majority of her time was spent at the MGM school house and rehearsing her vocals with Roger Edens.  These sessions became legendary at the studio.  Years later MGM star James Stewart reminisced about how he and many others would spend some of their spare time “listening to Judy Garland rehearse” from the sidewalk below the room where she had her daily rehearsals with Roger Edens.

Photo above:  The last known photo taken of Judy in 1935.  Judy, Mickey Rooney, and Jane Withers backstage at an unidentified event on December 30, 1935.

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