Just those simple words will get us singing that famous song from The Wizard of Oz. Judy Garland was just 16 when she was cast as Dorothy in the beloved movie. And to think the studio asked for Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin first!
In June of 1922, a third daughter (Frances Ethel) was born to Frank and Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, MN. Called “Baby” by her parents and two older sisters, it wasn’t until 1934 that she changed her name to Judy Garland. By then she’d been performing for years with sisters Mary Jane and Dorothy Virginia as The Gumm Sisters.
At just 2 1/2, Frances gave her first performance onstage at her father’s movie theater, singing a chorus of “Jingle Bells” with her sisters and accompanied by their mother on piano. The trio performed for several more years for audiences at the movie theater before going on to performances in actual movies themselves.
She signed her first contract with MGM in 1935 at the age of 13. That young age, however, proved to be a problem as she was too old to be billed as a child actor but too young (and at just under 5′ too small) to be a glamorous leading lady. Attending school at Metro with Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, and Lana Turner did nothing to boost her self-image, nor did comments from Louis B. Mayer, the studio chief, who was known to call her his little hunchback.
The studio created a successful duo when they teamed Judy with Mickey Rooney. Together, they starred in five movies including Babes in Arms and the Hardy Family movies. In 1940, she received an Academy Juvenile Award for her 1939 performances which included The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms.
Married for the first time at age 19, she had four more husbands over the years, and three children. She was best known for her musicals, but was also successful in serious roles. Throughout her life, singing was what would revive her occasionally languishing acting career. She performed before sell-out crowds until her overdose death in 1969 at just 47.
“Over the Rainbow” was this native Minnesotan’s signature song, and for 30 years she performed it exactly as she had in The Wizard of Oz, preferring to stay true to the character she’d played at age 16. The song was ranked as the number one movie song of all time in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Songs” list.
In her hometown of Grand Rapids, the Judy Garland Museum includes a 2,000 piece Wizard of Oz collection, her original movie test dress, and the carriage used in the movie. The museum is located right next to her childhood home which has been fully restored. And over the second weekend in June, the town celebrates the Wizard of Oz Festival which includes a character costume contest and scuba diving for the Ruby Slippers.
So somewhere, over the rainbow, you just might find a yellow brick road that leads to Grand Rapids, MN.
photo credits: Judy Garland Museum