"Close your eyes, and tap your heels together three times, and think to yourself there's no place like home." In real life, Judy Garland would have harnessed the magical powers of the ruby slippers to set the story of her life straight. I wish I had a pair as a kid. I would have used them to escape the bullies of the homophobic town I grew up in. I don't believe you can ever be too old to be bullied, and Judy had to deal with bullies throughout her life. Unfortunately more than 40 years after her death that bullying often continues with inaccurate portrayals of the World's Greatest Entertainer. For the past 10 years, the goal of my work as a full-time professional Judy Garland Tribute Artist has been to correct these inaccuracies and focus on the smart, beautiful, funny and talented woman who Judy Garland truly was.
Receiving the Golden Halo award from Margaret O'Brien and Mickey Rooney for my Judy Garland: Live In Concert act on December 16, 2012 is as surreal to me as Dorothy Gale opening her farmhouse door to the Land of Oz. Having spent the last 10 years polishing and perfecting my act Judy Garland: Live in Concert, trying to convey to new generations (and even those of Judy's own) who the real Judy Garland was. I have done hundreds of performances in that time, and many critics have said some wonderful things about the show. However, I never dreamed that people who worked with her, knew her and loved her would endorse my show, but there I was, standing nose-to-nose with Mickey Rooney, who viewed Garland as a sister and confidante. He told me, "This was beyond an imitation and I knew her and I loved her...You're phenomenal." Standing right behind Rooney, O' Brien offered her own praise for my work as Judy.
Transforming into Judy is one of the greatest pleasures for me as a tribute artist. "Being Judy Garland is a quite a chore," Garland herself once said, only half-jokingly. It's only a chore for me because I strive for accuracy; we pay a lot of attention to detail, trying to get it right. From Judy's dazzling Ray Aghayan gowns, to her classic bouffant hairdo, to her Star Is Born boy cut, the brilliant Nelson Riddle/Mort Lindsey orchestrations but most important of all, separating fact from fiction, and what the audience gets is a happy Judy Garland.
My tribute is an affectionate and loving one that focuses on the truth with the primary goal of discrediting "The Garland Myth." I look at my tribute as the first line of defense of Judy particularly with audience members who may have heard inaccurate information. It's not an easy task particularly, when we have commercial musicals like Peter Quilter's End of the Rainbow playing the boards. The truth of Judy's life is far more fascinating, exhilarating and yes, at times unfortunately horrifying. She had a mother who saw her as a meal ticket; a movie studio that started her on drugs at the age of 14, husbands and managers who robbed her blind.
Quilter has admitted that End of the Rainbow evolved from an original piece about a male washed-up cruise ship singer he encountered on a trip. Sounds impossible -- however, truth is indeed stranger than fiction. For example, he portrays Judy so desperate for pills that she steals canine medication and then acts as a rabid dog barking and begging for medication on her knees. He also canonizes her last husband, Mickey Deans.
Sadly, many who propel the dark-Garland myth are indeed female impersonators; many who perform as Garland take great pleasure in getting cheap laughs off the star's painful addiction to prescription drugs. Most people don't bother to point out that as late as 1968, Garland checked herself into a Boston hospital to try and kick her addiction. So for the impersonators who choose this road, it is more a commentary on their own unhappiness. I have found great joy in living through example and my mantra is imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery not battery.
Last year, I created Get Happy, a one-person musical play utilizing Garland's own words to tell the story of her life. This piece has seven wigs, 12 costume changes and over 20 unique Garland arrangements all performed in less than two hours! I consider it a great challenge, as it is my love letter to the woman who was unequivocally billed as "The Worlds' Greatest Entertainer." It is ironic that the show will be running during the same time that End of the Rainbow is running here in Los Angeles.
For me, personally, Judy Garland represents an indomitable spirit, a razor-sharp wit and an infectious joy, that make her weaknesses a small thread in a very large tapestry of an amazing life and career. The body of work that is left behind is so full of joy, emotion, and talent that any finality associated with this legend negates the countless fans who love her, and the potential in those who haven't found her yet. It is that Judy Garland that has instilled in me the firm belief that it is not now, nor will it ever be the end of the rainbow.