Curtain time. The crowd presses expectantly into Manhattan's hallowed house of vaudeville, the Palace. One fan has come from as far away as Brazil. A woman from Long Island, in a $9.90 seat, has already followed the night's star through four cities and at least 20 performances. As the pit band strikes up the overture, the now capacity crowd begins to peer anxiously toward the orchestra-section entrance.
Will the star make it? Many rise in anticipation. Then, dramatically, the spotlight splashes against the lobby door.
She has made it. In a sequined paisley pants suit, a fragile and unforgettable figure jogs down the aisle, hugging admirers, shaking hands and just plain shaking. She is—who else?—Judy Garland, now 45, and making her third Palace "comeback" in 15 years.
"This is going to be an interesting performance," she begins hoarsely, "because I have absolutely no voice. But I'll fake it. Oh, well, maybe I'll hit the notes because you're so nice and because it's so good to be home." From the balcony a male voice calls: "I love you, Judy." "I love you too," she replies. And so opens an evening that is less a performance than a love-in. Fred Finklehoffe, who worked with her in Hollywood, says: "Judy doesn't give a concert—she conducts a seance."
Pity & Terror. Another Hollywood character, the late Spencer Tracy, once said that "Garland audiences don't just listen—they feel." They also fear—and in some cases hope—that they may be witnesses to a breakdown, which is one of the compelling attractions exerted by this durable but disaster-prone star. Her audiences arrive, it seems, achingly aware of Judy's tortured past: her teenage stardom and traumas, her voice crack-ups and innumerable busted contracts, her four broken marriages to increasingly younger men (she just broke off an engagement to a public relations man 16 years her junior), and her ailments and suicide attempts. As a result, she evokes a purgative pity and terror. Her concerts have the will-she-finish suspense of a marathon run, the will-she-crack-up tension of a road race. "Oh," said a woman from Ohio after one performance, "I'm just relieved she made it through the evening."
Moving lithely (her weight down to 96 Ibs.) to stage center, Judy opens with I Feel a Song Coming On. In the lower registers, at least, she still has the old belting power. "My, I'm a loud lady," she says, striking the well-known hands-on-hips pose. "No crooner, I." Next is Almost Like Being in Love. Then The Trolley Song, and by now the fans are clanging time with their feet. For Me and My Gal turns into a community sing. She wonders: "What should I do now?" Man in the mezzanine: "Just stand there." Judy: "I get too scared to just stand there—guess I'd better sing." On to more oldies like Swanee. A standing ovation for Old Man River. She sits down, her legs dangling over the edge of the stage for The Man That Got Away. "No more that oldtime thrill," she trills with her terrible intensity, "for I've been through the mill. . ." Many in the audience weep. Some grope down the center aisle to the stage. She leans over and kisses a proffered hand.