In September 1955, Judy Garland made her U.S. television debut on the CBS program “Ford Star Jubilee.” The show was a ratings phenomenon, and the network quickly signed the star to a six-year contract. However, when it came time to do an encore, problems arose.
Initially, Garland wanted to do a television special featuring Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. This did not happen, though it is unclear whether Bernstein rejected the proposal or whether CBS felt the program would be too highbrow for prime time viewing. Instead, the network preferred Garland to stay closer to the electrifying stage show that she successfully offered on Broadway earlier in the decade.
CBS decided to present Garland’s second special for the network as part of its hit series “General Electric Theater.” In retrospect, it was a bizarre decision – “General Electric Theater” was a weekly anthology series that specialized in short dramatic productions. Even more curious was putting Garland in a tight 30-minute time slot (not counting commercial interruptions) rather than the standard 60-minute slot that was normally reserved for musical revues.
Nonetheless, Garland pushed ahead for a three-month rehearsal period – another unusual consideration, since TV productions of that era rarely enjoyed the liberty of so much advanced rehearsal. On April 8, 1956, TV audiences finally got a chance to see Judy Garland again.
The resulting production, however, was not a highlight of Garland’s career. She was in top shape – the vocal and weight problems that bedeviled her later years had yet to turn up. But the program’s strangely avant-garde approach – a barebones set, musical arrangements that veered closer to a jazzy beat – did not properly suit Garland’s distinctive personality. (Nelson Riddle was responsible for the orchestration of the show’s numbers.) Furthermore, Garland approached the program as a theatrical event rather than a television concert, which resulted in performances that were often too loud and too strong for the small screen.
The program begins in the manner that all “General Electric Theater” episodes opened: with the smiling, reassuring presence of Ronald Reagan welcoming the audience. By 1956, Reagan’s film career had run its course, but “General Electric Theater” kept him relevant. His introduction is quick and brief, and the episode – simply titled “Judy Garland” – begins.
The opening sequence is startling for a 1956 TV production: Garland is alone in a distant spotlight on what appears to be an empty stage. The camera slowly moves closer and closer to her while she belts out “I Feel a Song Coming On.” By the end of the song, she is in close-up – but there is no applause to greet her opening.
Abruptly, Reagan returns to talk about “Live Better Electrically,” the advertising theme from General Electric. Reagan isn’t entirely clear what living better electrically is all about, but his calm smile gives the impression that all will be well.
Then, the show comes back to Garland. She is in close-up, seeming a bit exhausted after her opening tune. She briefly mentions that “there’s much too much talk going on in the world, so you’ll get very little from me.” Then she adds her next song, “Maybe I’ll Come Back,” was performed by her parents when they were in vaudeville. She launches into the song, performing a dance that requires her to pull back her slit-skirt and reveal her legs. Her performance is on a dark, prop-free stage. After the song is done, there is a slight delay before a measured applause is heard – one could assume that there was no audience and that the applause track was added.
Garland’s guest star, jazz pianist Joe Bushkin, shows up. Considering that Garland was not a jazz performer, Bushkin’s presence as an accompanist could either be seen as a bold move or a bad gamble. It appears to be the latter – their collaboration on “Last Night When We Were Young” and “Life if Just a Bowl of Cherries” never quite clicks, despite Garland’s attempts to bond with Bushkin and clown about his piano.
Garland then walks to the other side of the stage, where a dressing room table and mirror are set up. A photograph of Joe Luft, her one-year-old son, is on the table. Garland’s actions here are badly directly – she sings part of the song looking at the photograph while her back is to the camera, then she turns to the camera for a maudlin monologue about her adorable child. The song she performs is “Dirty Hands! Dirty Face!” – and it is among the soapiest interpretations imaginable.
At this point, there is a commercial break. Someone named Bill Goodwin shows up to talk in depth about the “Live Better Electrically” theme that Reagan alluded to earlier. The thrust of the sales pitch is fairly clear: viewers are urged to buy General Electric appliances including dishwashers, refrigerators and washer-driers. The result of such purchases, according to Goodwin, is less drudgery in household chores and more leisure time. Goodwin also mentions that it is not difficult to afford such items thanks to installment payments.
The Garland show then returns, with dancer Peter Gennaro slides down a ladder without any introduction and starts performing a slinky/slithering number that echoes the style Bob Fosse would employ in his classic Broadway choreography. A jazz trio consisting of George 'Red' Callender, Dick Cathcart and Jack Costanzo join Bushkin while Garland rips into “Come Rain or Come Shine” and Gennaro writhes about. The result is a loud, raucous mess, with Gennaro upstaging Garland and the jazz performers playing at a tempo that was all wrong for Garland’s singing.
Following that, Garland ascends a white spiral staircase while looking at the camera and singing “April Showers.” This is followed by brief applause and the roll of the closing credits.
The final word, however, belongs to Reagan, who comes back to commend Garland, extol “Live Better Electrically” and inform viewers that the regular “General Electric Theater” format will resume next week with a new drama starring Ray Milland.
Garland’s special was not well received by the critics. Even worse, audiences stayed away. Nonetheless, CBS was eager to keep the Garland specials coming. Unfortunately, the network and the star plus her then-husband Sid Luft were not able to agree on the right format for future programs. An announced 1957 special was cancelled in pre-production.
Outside of CBS’ annual telecast of “The Wizard of Oz,” which also began in 1956, Garland was absent from TV screens until 1962, when an agreement with CBS was finally reached and Garland returned in a television special co-starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
As for the “General Electric Theater” production, it only saw a single broadcast. In the 1980s, a few video labels specializing in public domain titles made a kinescope of the program available on VHS. But this was clearly not authorized and, to date, there has been no commercial DVD release. However, the full program can be found on YouTube in a four-part posting.
For Garland fans, the “General Electric Theater” show is a big disappointment. Nonetheless, it provides a glimpse of the vibrant star while she was still enjoying a vocal and physical peak. Despite a wobbly production, one can easily watch the show today and marvel over her once-in-a-lifetime talent.