Flashback Friday: Judy Garland still remembered in Grand Rapids, 50 years after her death

June 21, 2019 11:25 AM

Judy Garland's life story was a turbulent one.

But the famous actress and singer, who died 50 years ago this week at the age of 47, always looked back at her early childhood in northern Minnesota as perhaps the happiest time she ever knew.


Garland, who would go on to find fame as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," and played the lead role in "A Star is Born" decades before Lady Gaga, was born Frances Ethel Gumm on June 10, 1922 in Grand Rapids.

Her parents Frank and Ethel Gumm were veterans of the vaudeville circuit who had settled in Grand Rapids where the family ran a movie theater.

That's where she made her on-stage debut, singing "Jingle Bells" along with her sisters at a Christmas show.

"I do remember it was terribly happy," she recalled in a 1960 interview meant for a possible biography. "And possibly the only kind of normal, carefree time in my life."

But Garland only lived in Grand Rapids a few years. By 1926, the family had relocated to California.

Yet she is still remembered in the community - largely thanks to the Judy Garland Museum, which opened in 1975. There, memorabilia from her career is displayed, and her childhood home - built in 1892 - has been restored to how it looked when she was a small child.

The city also holds an annual Judy Garland Festival each June. This year's event got underway Thursday and runs through Saturday.

It all attracts people from around the world.

John Kelsch, the museum's executive director, said the facility draws between 20,000 and 22,000 visitors a year.

"That's pretty good for a town of just over 10,000 people," he said. "There is still a lot of interest in her career."

Those visitors have included other famous faces who happened to grow up in that neck of the woods.

"Bob Dylan has visited our museum," Kelsch said. "It was way back in 1978. He signed the guest book and the clerk at the front desk recognized him. He went through a few things. I think he just wanted to see what we had.

"Which at that time wasn't very much."

The collection has grown, making Grand Rapids a hotspot for Garland fans.

"From a tourist standpoint, it's been very beneficial to the city to support and encourage the discussion of her life and career," said Grand Rapids Mayor Dale Adams, 69, a lifelong resident of the area who grew up on a farm less than a mile from the spot where the Gumm family first settled when they arrived in the region.

"It brings a lot of people up here to look at the memorabilia that's been collected.

"Certainly through her movies and the fame she went on to achieve, she brought Grand Rapids a lot of recognition around the world."

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These days, Adams said the museum is a local landmark.

"I think that's really how people around here know her, especially those that are a little younger," he said. "It's more through the museum and the festival every year. I think if that ever went away, the recognition might start to fade."

Garland's personal life had its bumpy patches. The mother of actress and singer Liza Minnelli, and performers Lorna and Joey Luft, was married and divorced several times. And she struggled with substance abuse.

Her death on June 22, 1969 in London was ruled to have been caused by an overdose of barbiturates.

"I've been working on this for 30 years, and I think even back as recently as the late-1980s, there was still some resistance up here to promoting her too hard because of maybe her lifestyle and how things ended," Kelsch said.

"But I think through the years, people have come to understand how big a deal it was that she was from here. And that, beyond that, we have a historic home here that is a wonder all on its own. So there are things to see whether you're into Judy Garland or not."

Garland did return to Grand Rapids to see her childhood home in 1938. And she was the featured performer at Minnesota's celebration of its State Centennial in 1958.

Otherwise, though, her career took her far away from the state.

Yet she never seemed to stop considering herself a Minnesotan.

"It's a swell state, Minnesota," she said in that 1960 interview. "I'm proud it's my home, and I know a few hundred thousand of us who feel the same way.

"We've got to pull together, we Minnesotans, for just one more duration, that's all. Here's love and good luck."

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Frank Rajkowski

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