Remembering Judy Garland’s dramatic 1964 Australia tour

Life can deliver serendipitous moments – and those moments can change lives in surprising ways.

My moment came on a bus somewhere between Amiens and Calais. It was a tour bus, carrying a brass band – of which my son is a member – performing an Anzac show through the Western Front for the centenary of the Armistice.

In the seat in front of me, the band’s conductor, and her partner, the principle cornet player, were discussing the fact that an opera-star-friend-of-theirs* had approached them to write a show for her.

Having sung in operatic roles as a dramatic contralto for more than 30 years, she felt it was time to break out. She wanted to sing the Judy Garland songbook.

Now – depending on your view of Garland – it’s here that the story gets either interesting, or tragic.

I have immersed myself in the life and career of Judy Garland for 47 years. (Forty-seven, sadly, is the number of years that Garland lived.)

I have immersed myself in the life and career of Judy Garland for 47 years. (Forty-seven, sadly, is the number of years that Garland lived.)

I first heard the historic Judy at Carnegie Hall album in 1972. I’ve been rusted on ever since. Her unmatched delivery of some of the great standards of 20th-century composers remains a milestone in recorded music.

So, back to the bus. I popped my head through the space between their seats and said: “I might be able to help you with that.”

An idea had instantly sprung to mind.

In 1964, Judy Garland signed a contract with a then young promoter, Harry M Miller. She would deliver two concerts in Sydney (at Sydney Stadium, an arena no longer with us) and one performance at Festival Hall in Melbourne.

News of the tour was greeted with excitement by the public (tickets quickly sold out) but a less enthusiastic reaction came from industry types, who’d heard too many stories of the ‘unreliable’ nature of the star. Would she really come all this way? Would she actually sing?

Well, she did both. Brilliantly. In Sydney.

Melbourne, however, was another matter. Garland hated flying, and if there was a way to avoid it, she would. She opted for the Southern Aurora, an overnight milk-run train ride between the capitals that resulted in a sleepless night for the star, who was by then, tired, overwrought, over-medicated and – reportedly – drinking heavily.

Cut to the night of the concert.

It’s 8.30pm, the time – according to the tickets – that An Evening with Judy Garland was due to begin.

The star was still in her suite at the Southern Cross Hotel – at the other end of town. Miller was frantic, her entourage was worried and Garland was drunk.

She only left her suite at 10 minutes past nine, arriving 70 minutes late. The audience was irate – almost inconsolable. She walked straight from her car to the stage . . . no costume change, no make-up check, and proceeded to give a performance that instantly made headlines around the country, and around the world.

Bilo2One drawing Bill Farr created from mostly unpublished photos of Garland’s Melbourne appearance

She could still sing, that seems certain. Media reports had it that the audience was prepared to love her when she sang. But she didn’t seem to want to. Too much fooling around, too much ugly banter with the audience and not enough singing.

The evening ended disastrously, with Garland walking off the stage early, to boos from some in the already depleted audience.

It was a story that would be repeated over the five years that Garland had left, but Melbourne was the first big indication that her career was headed for free-fall.

The evening ended disastrously, with Garland walking off the stage early, to boos from some in the already depleted audience.

My career has taken me – as a designer/art director – through the various print media, starting in book publishing, then magazines and ending up in newspapers (now there’s a trajectory of deadlines that might have been more comfortable in reverse!).

My years at The Age in Melbourne were the longest (1994-2013). About half-way through that tenure, it suddenly occurred to me – as a “Garland fan” – that there may be some unpublished photographs taken from that infamous night, and, most likely, many taken at her Sydney concerts. I ordered whatever was on file and, a few days later, there on my desk had landed a cache of negatives, mostly unseen, of one of the most dramatic entertainment events the country had witnessed. Riveting, historic black and white images telling the whole story, without words.

Long story short . . . in an attempt to ‘own’ something of these, I proceeded to spend the next four years producing photo-realistic drawings from 12 of them, the 12 images that best carried the narrative. There was an exhibition, some were sold (not enough of them, according to my wife), and there – or so I thought – the story ended.

Well, the drawings have been resurrected, and they appear in the program for the show I have written for the opera-star-friend-of-the-conductor-and-her-cornet-playing-partner.

As in a dream.

*Opera-Star-friend: Liane Keegan (playing Judy Garland)

Brass Band conductor and partner: Phillipa Edwards and Jamie Lawson, who, with Colin Harrison, make up the newest musical production company in town, Skunkworks Productions.

JUDY • AUSTRALIA • 1964 is on at The Athenaeum 2, July 4-6.

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