On December 26, 1924, Judy Garland made her show business debut at two-and-a-half years old. Singing “Jingle Bells” at one of her vaudevillist parents’ Christmas shows, she soon began performing with her two older sisters as the Gumm Sisters. With her singing voice and acting talents, she grew up to star in many classic musical films like “The Wizard of Oz” and “A Star is Born.” However, like many child stars, she also lived a troubled life, once famously saying, “I’ve always taken ‘The Wizard of Oz’ very seriously, you know. I believe in the idea of the rainbow. And I’ve spent my entire life trying to get over it.”
Born Francis Ethel Gumm on June 10, 1922, in Grand Rapids, MN, she moved to California with her family in 1926. With their mother acting as manager and agent, she and her sisters studied acting and dancing, while playing various gigs as the Gumm Sisters. They changed their name to the Garland Sisters for their 1934 performance at the World’s Fair in Chicago.
At 13, Francis changed her name to Judy and signed a movie contract with MGM. Her first major films were “Pigskin Parade” (1936) and “Love Finds Andy Hardy” (1938) where she starred opposite Mickey Rooney. A year later, Garland catapulted to star status playing Dorothy Gale in “The Wizard of Oz,” in which she first sang the timeless classic, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” She received a special juvenile award at the Oscars that year for her performance. Her other signature films include “Meet Me In St. Louis” (1944), “Easter Parade” (1948) and “A Star is Born” (1954), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. She spent most of the 1960s singing, yet her 1961 performance in the decidedly non-musical film, “Judgment at Nuremberg,” earned her another Oscar nomination. She received two Grammy Awards during her decades-long career, both for her 1961 album, “Judy at Carnegie Hall.” She continued to garner more fans with her Emmy-nominated TV show, “The Judy Garland Show” (1963-1964).
Despite her success, Garland had her share of struggles. Like many child performers, Garland was plagued with many personal demons throughout her lifetime. Her father died from meningitis in 1935 and his death devastated her. Once calling her overbearing stage mother “the real Wicked Witch of the West,” the pressure to achieve fame, whatever the cost, took a toll on Garland’s emotional and physical health. When she signed with MGM, they put her on a steady diet of uppers to lose weight and downers so she could sleep at night. Additionally, despite her thousands of adoring fans, Garland was on a continuous quest in her lifetime to find true love. With a string of famous lovers and five failed marriages, she once asked, “If I am a legend, then why am I so lonely?” This feeling of emptiness fueled her addiction to alcohol and pills. In 1969, she died from an accidental overdose age 47.
Garland’s life was cut short, but her star still burns bright. Her talented daughters, Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft, carried on her legacy entertaining audiences. As a lifelong liberal Democrat, she provided financial support to the civil rights movement, as well as the campaigns of politicians, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy. She also emerged as a gay icon, and embraced the status, even performing in gay bars later in her life. Like many talented people, Garland struggled with fame and fortune. Yet, the timeless wish she expresses in her signature song is still an inspiration to this day: “Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”