A mythical cement wild goose chase led me to the fortuitous moment of sipping champagne with a woman who had once stood beside Judy Garland, urging her onto the stage of The Talk Of The Town in 1969.
I had heard that during her infamous run at that hot London nightspot, Judy had put her hand and foot prints in cement and that said prints were possibly still somewhere in the building, which is now the Hippodrome Casino. Research even seemed to unearth photographic evidence of this occasion. There she is, late 60s Judy, hands covered in wet cement.
Armed with this information, determined to put my own pudgy paws where Judy made her indents, I walked into the Hippodrome Casino and asked to see them… But no one was aware of their alleged existence. Instead, I was shown a plaque on the wall commemorating Judy’s engagement (unveiled by Lorna Luft), alongside those for Sammy Davis Jnr, Houdini and, ehem, Bruce Forsyth.
I was eventually put in touch with a woman described as a ‘lovely lady’ who had worked at The Talk of The Town. The first thing she told me was a disappointment – there had never been any cement prints at The Talk Of The Town. The next thing she said made up for this goose chase a thousand fold: she’d love to meet with me and talk about Judy’s stint at The Talk Of The Town. ‘I know everything that went on’, she told me. ‘I stood beside Judy every night’. She suggested we meet at The Talk Of The Town itself and have a drink and a natter in the bar of The Hippodrome Casino.
Rosalyn Wilder worked as Production Assistant at The Talk Of The Town from 1959-1979. During her tenure she attended to the needs of the likes of Sophie Tucker, Ethel Merman, Eartha Kitt, Shirley Bassey, The Supremes and… yes… Miss Show Business herself, Judy Garland. Rosalyn was more than willing to talk but concerned whether there was enough interest in the story. Indeed there is, I assured her. With a steady stream of books and plays about The World’s Greatest Entertainer still being pumped out decades after her death, a mooted biopic with Anne Hathaway in the offing, the interest in Judy Garland is absolutely there. One of these plays Rosalyn mentioned: Peter Quilter’s End Of The Rainbow, set during Judy’s run at – guess where? – The Talk Of The Town. ‘It was completely wrong. I wrote him a letter saying it never happened like that. He didn’t reply’, smiled Rosalyn. I also mentioned that there is a plethora of forums, groups and pages on social media dedicated to Judy, and that the fans are passionate and somewhat precious about La Garland. This was what concerned Rosalyn because ‘it wasn’t a happy time. It wasn’t a happy experience. It was rather a disaster’. This, I assured her, had been well documented and it was such first-hand knowledge of what actually went down during the first 5 weeks of 1969 that was of importance and of most interest to me.
The Talk Of The Town was a rather wonderful dinner theatre – or Theatre Restaurant, as they described it themselves. There was a dance floor that became the stage for the shows, round dining tables and chairs for the audience, Ziegfeld Follies style dancing girls and the cabaret and pop stars of the day making their appearance around 11pm for an hour’s show.
After her dramatic firing from MGM in 1950, Judy Garland had transformed herself from movie star into the best stage performer ever. Selling out magical shows throughout the US, UK and Europe, she did what she did best: belting out countless tunes to her adoring, hysterical public. That was when she was on form. Because just as she was renowned for being an incredible live event, she also gained a reputation for being, on occasion, awful or – frequently – absent. It was this reputation that she brought with her to London in late December 1968 for her 5 week engagement at The Talk Of The Town. I asked Rosalyn Wilder if there had been a feeling of excitement or apprehension at the idea of Judy Garland being booked at the venue. ‘Not particularly, because there was a constant turnover. I know it sounds ridiculous but, there was a man called Billy Marsh who was the big booker for the place, and we were just here to service whatever went on. And if he rang up and said “we’ve got Judy Garland next week” we said, “ok, Judy Garland, blah blah blah”. We would cope. If it was Frankie Vaughan, we were “ok, it’s Frankie Vaughan. Again? Oh, ok”. And if it was somebody you didn’t like: “Oh no, not again”. I suppose one might possibly have gone, “Oh god, I hope that’s not going to be trouble”, but it wasn’t any more than that. In the end, we knew that whatever it was, we had to get it on. I mean, she wasn’t the only one who gave us grief. To a certain extent Judy was almost less trouble than some of them’.
So what kind of difficult was Judy? While some performers could be petulant divas and other’s downright ‘evil’, according to Rosalyn, ‘Judy wasn’t evil, Judy was sad.’
And Judy was ill and beaten down so considerably by this point of her life that she could hardly function. Gone were the gig runs where she started out strong and then slid into the bad behaviour. The Talk Of The Town was consistently bad. But – ‘you had to take it. I mean, yes it was exasperating and of course you wanted to take her and shake her! But she was not in command. That was the problem. It wasn’t for me, Rosalyn Wilder, who worked here to say, “Come on Judy, get your life together”. Other people should do that. But she was surrounded by the wrong people.’ And Judy couldn’t recognise who the right people were, I ventured. ‘It had gone too far’, Rosalyn agreed.
And who were these ‘wrong people’? No surprises, Rosalyn had nothing good to say about Mickey Deans, the ‘dreadful man who became her husband. He was appalling, I mean he really was appalling. There was no sort of good guy, bad guy: he was just a bad guy. I mean if she’d put an advert in a newspaper for the most unsuitable person to take care of her, she wouldn’t have had a better response. He was absolutely at the top of the list. Madness. I don’t know what possessed… well I know what possessed her because he gave in to her and he fed her all the things she wanted.’
Deans wasn’t the only one enabling Judy: ‘she also had the services of a man called Glynn Jones’. Employed by The Talk Of The Town, Jones was there to handle the artists by bowing to their every whim. ‘He was able to morph into whatever anybody wanted of him’, said Rosalyn. ‘He was sent to look after Judy. But he was also slightly easily led to some extent. And when Mickey Deans said, “ah come on give her another drink”, Glynn was inclined to go, “ok”. So instead of standing in The Ritz Hotel and saying, “come on Judy, you don’t need another drink, we’ll go in the taxi and we’ll go to the Talk Of The Town”, he would be there feeding her more drinks. So by the time she got here, she wasn’t in the best condition. And you know the thing was,’ explained Rosalyn, ‘it wasn’t the drink that did it for her. It was the pills that did it for her’.
No news there. Being drunk has its own complications for the performing artist; the pills were something else. Judy’s reliance on them and the huge amounts she took were alarming for all who came in contact with her. As was her erratic behaviour that followed. But while most eventually caved in to Judy’s demands for more medication, Rosalyn decided to take a different tack in handling the artist she had to try and get on the stage each night.
‘She came in one evening and I was standing back stage and, I mean, she was terribly small and quite vulnerable, and she stood next to me and she was shaking and I said, “you’ll be alright”. And she said, “I can’t go on” and I said, “of course you can”. I said, “look, I’m here and if you get nervous just walk off and I’m here”. And she said, “could you go and get me some water?” And she had this bottle of pills. And I said, “you can certainly have some water.” She said, “I need the pills”. I said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll do a deal with you. I’ll hold the pills, you go on the stage. If you feel nervous and you feel you can’t go on then just come off because, Bert” – that’s Bert Rhodes, who was the musical director – “he’ll understand, I’ll discuss it with him and he’ll just do something with the orchestra. Just walk off, I’ll give you a couple of the pills and you can go back on again.” She didn’t think she could do that so I said, “well, just let’s wait here a couple of minutes because if you think about it, I think you probably can do it.”
‘Judy said, “ooh you’re always trying to make me do things I don’t want to do”. I told her, “I’m not trying to make you do things you don’t want to, I’m trying to make you do things that will make you feel good. I want you to know, you’ve got a lot of support waiting for you.” And she thought about it for a little while and she said, “just one pill”. And I said, “No. I’ll hold the pills. I’m not going to take them away. You go on and if you need them you can take them.”
Judy walked on stage and ‘mostly she did not use the pills when she faced up to it and just went on’. Rosalyn surmised, ‘I think it was the thought of going on that fazed her. Once she made that leap, she was ok. But that was what she needed. She didn’t need people goading her. She didn’t need people being unkind to her. And being unkind to her was just feeding her drink and pills indiscriminately.’
But when Judy did go on…
There is an often told tale of one particular night at The Talk Of The Town when the crowd grew ugly, with one guy jumping on stage and grabbing the mic – the incident even made an appearance the other side of the world in local newspaper, The Milwaukee Journal.
I asked Rosalyn if she recalled this night when a rowdy bunch of idiots were cat-calling and throwing things onto the stage. But she told me, ‘a lot of people threw things most nights. She was late and erratic’. Lonnie Donegan (who was next on the bill after Judy’s five weeks were up) went on when Judy couldn’t and I wondered how an audience who had come to see a Hollywood legend like Judy reacted to the skiffle king being substituted for a movie star. ‘They were quite good about it really’, said Rosalyn. ‘Once we realised that we were on fairly rocky ground, we knew that we had to do something about it. And if she didn’t attend then you had to have someone on standby and say, “you’ll have to go on”. I think the thing was that The Talk Of The Town was a kind of unique venue in that the people who came there came for what was advertised, which was a complete evening’s entertainment. Yes, they might have come to see Judy Garland, but they were pretty much aware that there was a bit of a problem with her. And if you dealt with it in a professional way then they were going to accept it. No, Judy Garland hadn’t appeared, but they kind of took it on the chin because they knew you were doing your best.’
Took it on the chin and accepted it… by booing, chanting and throwing things. Rosalyn admitted, ‘It’s tiring, it’s wearing, it grates at the top of your nervous system – are you going to have a show tonight or not? It does matter. It’s all very well saying “we’ve got this one or that one on standby”. But it’s not the same. They had come to see Judy Garland’.
I asked if there were any ‘good’ nights during the run. ‘She did sometimes come in a little bit late and do a reasonably good show, and that was fine. But there were too many nights when she just didn’t come in at all. Or she came in terribly late, by which time the good will of the audience had largely disappeared. And one had to take an educated decision as to whether you were going to allow her to go on or not. You know. “She’s on her way.” “We’re just getting into the car now”. “How long are you going to be?” “Oh, ten minutes”. Half an hour later: “well, you know, she fell over in the foyer”. Or, “we’ve got to the Talk Of The Town and she doesn’t want to get out of the car”. It wasn’t just a question of saying, “we’re leaving the Ritz now”. It wasn’t that simple. You had seven hundred and fifty people sitting going “Why-are-we-waiting?”
And then, by June, she was dead. I wondered how they reacted at The Talk Of The Town to the news. ‘We’d sat and looked at her taking all these pills and turning up late and somebody said four months later, “she’s dead” and we went, “yeah, well, and?” You knew damn well that she wasn’t going to live another twenty years. There’s an inevitability about self-destruction, isn’t there?’ A fascinating, yet sad and familiar tale, of Judy Garland.
Rosalyn gave me a tour of the Hippodrome, describing how it had looked and functioned when it had been the uber glamorous The Talk Of The Town. As I snapped a picture of Rosalyn Wilder standing where she had stood next to Judy night after night (well, the nights Judy turned up), I forgot all about the very existence of alleged cement hand and foot prints. You don’t need a marker: that place is full of Garland legend. You can feel it. The memories are enough.
By Corinna Tomrley