Tag Archives: Judy Garland

No Last Names needed: Sweet black & white glimpses of times spent with three glorious gals — and the guy who made sure I got to know them

Woke up today thinking about three glorious songbirds — Ella, Lena, Peggy.

Remarkable, I think, that you already know who I’m talking about. I don’t have to mention their last names. And Gino was devoted to all three of them.

LENA: MGM publicity shot circa 1948

Okay, his last name I will mention. Gino Empry was a great publicist in the true, old-fashioned sense of that job description. At one point he was King of the Hill in Toronto because he had three of the biggest clients in the country: Ed Mirvish’s lovingly-restored Royal Alexandra Theatre; the fabled Royal York   supper club, the Imperial Room; and the star-laden Grandstand shows at the CNE.

At one time or another Gino also represented Ella, Lena and Peggy. As a newspaper columnist I enjoyed the privilege of sometimes interviewing and sometimes just hanging out with all three powerhouse ladies. And I enjoyed that privilege immensely. But the reason I got to enjoy it in the first place was because all three of them knew I had earned Gino’s stamp of approval.

LENA & TONY: all sold out

I met Lena when she and Tony Bennett were sharing the stage of the 3,250-seat O’Keefe Centre, in a weeklong series of concerts that were completely sold out by opening night. I already knew Tony — by that time I think Gino was also his manager — but I was a great fan of Lena’s, and already owned at least a dozen of her albums — okay, maybe two dozen — so I was a bit shy about meeting her. But then I think most men were. Lena was a revelation. She was one of a rare breed, one of those breathtakingly beautiful women who have no idea how truly stunning they are.

GINO & LENA

Backstage in her dressing room she asked me where I’d heard one particular song I’d mentioned (I think the song was Polka Dots And Moonbeams.) “It’s on your Songs by Burke And Van Heusen album,” I said. Her eyes lit up and we were soon gossiping like old friends. We had lots of time, too, because she did the first act in a dazzling evening gown, then changed into a comfy bathrobe while Tony did the second act, and then changed into a second glamorous gown to join Tony onstage for their duet finale. (Is it any wonder the whole week was sold out?)

Lena had an amazing history. She had gone from The Cotton Club in Harlem to MGM, where she appeared in all-star musicals like Words And Music, giving show-stopping performances of such American pop classics as The Lady Is

LENA: no songs for the south

A Tramp and Where Or When, sharing the screen with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and  June Allyson some of the studio’s most celebrated players. Ironically she never got to perform with any of them. The studio shot her as a solo performer because her numbers were inevitably cut for audiences in the south. Her fans expected that MGM would cast her as Julie in the screen version of Show Boat; she’d already performed one of the songs in another all-star musical, Till The Clouds Roll By.  But it was only the ‘50s, and America was not nearly as enlightened as we like to think it was. Only a few years earlier, Judy and Mickey and Betty Grable and Dan Dailey had all donned blackface in some of their biggest production numbers. At MGM, after Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel were cast as Magnolia and Gaylord Ravenal, studio screen siren Ava Gardner said she thought her friend Lena Horne was perfect for the role of Julie. But the studio was afraid that casting Lena would kill box office receipts in the south, so it was Ava who ended up playing Julie.

LENNIE & LENA: MGM marriage

Although the Harold Arlen tune became her signature song, Lena’s private life had more than its share of storms. Her first marriage at 19 had left her with two children. When she married again she married a white man, in Paris, in secret – and not just any white man. MGM had several brilliant musical arrangers on staff, including André Previn, who was also a gifted young pianist, and Lennie Hayton, who was as comfortable conducting a symphony orchestra as he was a jazz quintet. It was Lennie who Lena married, and it was Lennie who came up with the innovative musical twists that would keep her at the top of her game. When Rosalind Russell opened on Broadway in Wonderful Town, a young soprano named Edith Adams (yes, the future Edie) got to sing Leonard Bernstein’s lilting ballad, It’s Love — but it was Lennie who slowed it down to a finger-snapping beat for Lena. When Can-Can opened on Broadway, Cole Porter unveiled not one but two strong ballads: I Love Paris and It’s All Right With Me. Lennie took the second ballad and electrified it for Lena. He created her classic Rodgers & Hammerstein rhythm medley, forever changing our concept of that surrey with the fringe on top. And when John Denver wrote his lyrical, folk-y monster hit Sunshine On My Shoulders, it was Lennie who translated it into a jazz waltz. Years after he died, Lena was still adamant about giving Lennie the credit he deserved.

Peggy, like Lena, was a true original, a musician’s musician with the face of an angel and a voice to match.  I loved my visits to her exquisite home in Bel Air. One night I noticed that the peach-coloured guest towels in her powder room were all meticulously rolled, one on top of another, into a perfect pyramid. When I commented on the presentation of her guest towels, she beamed, both pleased and impressed that I had noticed, and I wondered aloud where her housekeeper had learned such artistic dexterity.

PEGGY: towel-folding in Bel-Air

“Would you like her to show you?” she replied, her eyes twinkling mischievously.  She led me back to the powder room and demonstrated how Miss Lee, not Miss Lee’s housekeeper, had personally acquired the art of towel-rolling during her visits to Japan.

Peggy was about to do a Broadway show, Peg, a musical autobiography of her life. An accomplished composer, she was still writing the score for the show, and I think it was that same night she asked me if I would like to hear a few of the songs she had written so far.

“I’d love to!” I said. “I didn’t know you had already recorded them,” I added, secretly hoping she might give me a copy.

GINO & PEGGY

“Oh, I haven’t,” she said with a shrug. “Not yet.”

Blissfully oblivious to the puzzled look on my face, she turned on a nearby tape recorder. As the sweet sound of piano and strings filled the room, she picked up a portable microphone, and sang three or four songs she had written for the show to an enthralled audience of one:  Me. Lucky, lucky me.

Gino admired Lena, and he loved Peggy, but he adored Ella. And Ella loved the way Gino treated her, the way he consulted her, the way he looked out for her. To Ella, Gino was Toronto. She understood that he was hired by the Royal York to make sure her Imperial Room gigs were well documented in the media, but they became fast friends, and in time she came to regard him as both her personal publicist and, at times, her personal property.

ELLA: the one, the only

One of my favourite Gino Empry stories occurred long after he and Ella had become bosom buddies. Ella’s agent accepted a lucrative booking at a major Toronto concert hall, so Ella flew in from Beverly Hills, where she lived, and after arriving at Pearson she was greeted by the concert hall publicist, who presented her with a beautiful bouquet of roses.

“Thank you!” she said, accepting the flowers with a shy smile. She looked around. “Where’s Gino?”

The concert hall publicist explained that Gino Empry did not represent the concert hall, and thus was not involved in this particular engagement.

“I see,” said Ella, who had stopped smiling. She glanced at her dainty diamond wristwatch. “So when is he coming?”

Gino was in his office, meeting with a prospective client, when he got a call from the concert hall publicist. “I’m at the airport with Miss Fitzgerald,” he said, panic rising in his voice. “She refuses to budge until you get here.”

GINO & ELLA

Gino had a heavy foot on a gas pedal at the best of times, so it didn’t take him very long to get to the airport. He raced towards the Arrivals, turned a corner, and there sat Ella, impatiently tapping one foot.

“Gino, do you know how long I’ve been waiting here?” she said, fuming.

“I’m so sorry, Ella,” he began. “I just – “

“This is very unprofessional!” snapped Ella, interrupting him.

“It was my sister,” he lied. “I had to rush home, because of my sister.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“She fainted,” he said, further embellishing the lie. “But she’s all right now.”

GINO EMPRY: the one, the only

Ella slowly nodded her head. “Well, I’m glad she’s all right.” She adjusted her glasses. “You should have phoned, to say you were going to be late,” she added, scolding him gently.

“I’m so sorry, Ella,” said Gino sheepishly.

She patted him on the shoulder. “Never mind,” she said. “You’re a good brother.”

He stayed by her side the rest of the day and night, and waved her goodbye as she boarded her Air Canada flight back to Los Angeles. And then he went back to his office to work.

Ella, Peggy, Lena. Sweet memories of another time, another place.

Thank you, Gino.

See? I haven’t forgotten.

*     *     *

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Tracie brings Judy back to Broadway, Kal takes a flyer on a pilot, and Mother D gets her nun on

CASTING ABOUT: Brit sensation Tracie Bennett brings her Olivier award-winning talents to Broadway on  March 19 when she opens at the Belasco with her controversial portrayal of Judy Garland in the  West End musical

BENNETT: as Garland

hit End Of The Rainbow … popular German TV presenter Barbara Schöneberger will host the Rose d’Or Awards Ceremony on May 10 in Lucerne … Kristin Kreuk has been set as the lead in the CW pilot Beauty and the Beast, a remake of the CBS series from the late ‘8Os … and Harold and Kumar star and House alumnus Kal Penn is set to star in the ABC comedy pilot Prairie Dogs.

MEANWHILE, BACK ON THE ATLANTIC OCEAN:  This year’s Floating Film Festival sailors started their day yesterday with a fluffy croissant of a movie — Darling Companion, from Big Chill filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan.  Ostensibly about a lost dog, it’s really a gentle look at the different stages of male-female relationships and the emotional baggage we carry with us from childhood. And what a cast — Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline –Rex Reed, who introduced the film, pointed out that this is Kevin Kline’s sixth outing with Kasdan — Dianne Weist and Richard Jenkins, Elizabeth Moss from Mad Men,  screen enigma Sam Shepard and more.

KEATON & FRIEND: going to the dogs

Thanks to Rex, our afternoon screening was a bit of a mind-bender.  Remember Dolores Hart, the actress who co-starred with Paula Prentiss, Yvette Mimieux and Connie Francis in Where The Boys Are? Some 47 years ago the fair Ms Hart left showbiz  to take holy orders. She’s now Mother Dolores at a cloistered convent in Bethlehem, Connecticut, and is the subject of the Oscar-nominated short God Is The Bigger Elvis. Knowing that Mother D’s chum Paula Prentiss would be on board with husband Richard Benjamin, Rex brought a copy of the film for all of us to see. Fascinating to hear Mother Dolores — now the Prioress of the Regina Laudus Abbey — reflect on her Hollywood screen life with Anthony Quinn, Montgomery Clift and, yes, Elvis himself. Even more fascinating was meeting the beau she left behind — Edith Head had already designed her wedding dress — and seeing his relationship with her today.

HARRELSON: all too convincing

The 26-minute short film was a stark contrast to the Woody Harrelson shocker Rampart, a somewhat relentless saga of a corrupt cop that proved to be a tough slog for many of us. Harrelson is all too convincing as the flawed protagonist, and he gets great back-up by a dazzling cast of supporting players, including Ned Beatty, Steve Buscemi, Ice Cube, Anne Heche, Audra Macdonald, Cynthia Nixon, Sigourney Weaver and Robin Wright, each of whom make the most of their material. Not exactly a good time at the movies, but undeniably strong filmiest fare.

ROSENTHAL: Raymomd by any other name

Rounding out our celluloid hat trick last night was a film about television by someone who definitely knows what he’s talking about. Exporting Raymond is a genuinely funny and unexpectedly revealing ‘In’-sight into the world of television.  The documentary follows Phil Rosenthal, creator of the hit TV series Everybody Loves Raymond, as he attempts to translate Raymond into a Russian sitcom. In a classic “fish out of water” scenario, show-runner Rosenthal travels to a distant land to help people who don’t want his help. What soon becomes amusingly apparent is that it is show creator Rosenthal, not Ray Romano, who is the real-life Raymond, with eccentric parents who are almost as camera-friendly as Doris Roberts and Peter Boyle. Watching him try to interact with understandably  suspicious Moscow TV types quickly becomes a guilty pleasure — which I suspect is exactly what Exporting Raymond star and producer Rosenthal had in mind. His sitcom was a monster hit and great fun, but his doc is not only entertaining, it’s also painlessly educational. Who’da thunkit?