'Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe'
Joey Luft pays tribute to his mom Judy Garland at the Pasadena Playhouse
By Kevin Uhrich 07/10/2014
The brief trip from West LA to Pasadena had taken a bit of a toll on Joey Luft. The 59-year-old photographer and drummer had never before been to the Pasadena Playhouse, which this weekend will be hosting a tribute to Luft’s mother, the incomparable Judy Garland.
After navigating the busy midcity neighborhood’s congested one-way streets, finding a parking spot amid lunch-hour traffic and then walking a short distance in the sweltering late Thursday morning heat, Luft paused briefly to rest after climbing the stairs to the interview on the Playhouse’s second floor.
Dressed in a white T-shirt and white pants, Luft caught his breath and finally settled back into an overstuffed leather chair to talk about his famous mom and the indelible mark she has left on the world with her art. Joining the discussion was John Kimble, a childhood friend of Luft’s who helped handle the business affairs of his dad, Sid Luft, a Hollywood impresario credited with resurrecting Garland’s career during their sometimes tumultuous marriage, which lasted from 1952 to 1965, producing Joey in 1955 and singer Lorna Luft in 1952. Garland, who was married a total of five times before her death at age 47 from an accidental barbiturate overdose, brought to the relationship her teenage daughter, Liza Minnelli, whose father, director Vincente Minnelli, was married to Garland from 1945 to 1951.
By the early 1950s, the first stage of Garland’s already impressive film career was coming to a close, with the star being considered sometimes too temperamental to bank on. A new singing and acting career began opening up, first at the London Palladium, where she sang to sold-out audiences numerous times over the next several years. In 1954, Garland and Luft teamed up for the critically acclaimed remake of “A Star is Born,” which brought Garland an Academy Award nomination. However, she could not attend the Oscar ceremony because she had just given birth to Joey and was still in the hospital. Camera crews set up in her room to capture her reaction to winning Hollywood’s top prize, but the golden statue instead went to Grace Kelly for her performance in “The Country Girl.”
“Everybody thought she was going to win. Then they announced Grace Kelly and they literally pulled everything, wires and everything, and said, ‘That’s a wrap.’ And my mom is sitting there, stunned,” Joey said, memories of his mother’s stories of the experience recharging the energy lost in the trip to the Playhouse. In her lifetime, Garland earned a Juvenile Academy Award, a Golden Globe, a special Tony Award and Grammys, but never a competative Oscar.
“She always called me her Oscar. My nickname became her Oscar,” Joey recalled. “I kind of grew up with that.”
Sid Luft died in 2005 at the age of 89, leaving behind a treasure trove of memorabilia from his sometimes rocky union with a woman Fred Astaire described as “the greatest entertainer who ever lived” and who the American Film Institute ranked among the top 10 female actresses in American cinema. Garland is best known for the films “The Wizard of Oz” in 1939, “A Star is Born” in 1954 and “Judgment at Nuremberg” in 1961, as well as a slew of other great movies from the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s with stars like Astaire, Gene Kelly and Mickey Rooney. But she gave some of her greatest performances in concerts at venues like the London Palladium, Carnegie Hall and the Boston Common, and on television on “The Judy Garland Show,” which aired on CBS from September 1963 to 1964. The show earned four Emmy nominations before being canceled, unable to compete on Sunday night with primetime ratings juggernaut “Bonanza” on NBC. Joey, who often traveled with his mother, even performed with her on the show’s Christmas special.
The collection put together by Joey Luft and Kimble includes performances of some of Garland’s most requested hits — “Stormy Weather,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “After You’ve Gone” and “By Myself” among them. Those and other performances have been colorized and the sound digitally enhanced, enabling the showing of those TV programs on a big screen. During the presentation, “A Judy Garland Concert With Joey Luft,” Joey will share stories of his mother’s personal life and career along with Kimble, a friend of the family since the two met on a beach in Santa Monica in 1968 when they were 13. A Q&A session follows the show.
“It starts before I even come out onstage with around 120 pics and my mom singing in the background, ‘Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe,’ and it goes from the time I was a baby up until now,” Luft said of the show, which includes his own remembrances of his mother and her famous contemporaries. “Then I come out onstage, tell people who I am, that I’m my mom’s third child, and we just roll slowly through the years all the way up until she did her last concert in Boston. I was there too for that one” in August 1967, he said.
Pasadena Weekly: Your mom was a truly remarkable woman. What is the idea behind the show? What are you trying to accomplish?
Joey Luft: It’s kind of a bio of my life with my family and how it all connected when I was born and my history growing up.
As much as she was known for her many hits, I think of your mom’s many comebacks.
The hugest part of it was my dad too, because he directed her through everything. After she was fired from MGM, he said to my mom, “I can get you onstage anywhere in London, anywhere in Europe, and I know when you start performing people will go crazy.” And she would go, like, “I know that, but we’ve got to get there first.” And that was kind of crazy, but we got there and we lived for three years in London, right near Abbey Road.
She was up for an Academy Award in ’55 after just giving birth to you.
She had just given birth to me. I was put in the incubator for 24 hours so my mom tells my dad, “I know he’s going to be OK,” so they wait and they wait with the incubator pumping on one lung, then all of a sudden the doctor decides, “Well, we have to get this lung open or there could be brain damage,” or something like that could happen. So the doctor picks me up by my ankles and on the third swat my lung opened and they wrapped me up in blankets and put me back with my mom and my dad. I almost remember the whole thing happening. I’m going, “What? Why is this guy hitting me? I haven’t done anything.” I see my mom and I’m reaching for her and I am kind of imagining that scenario later on in life. …
You worked with Sid?
John Kimble: Sid has a fascinating story too. One of the reasons why we’re tying Joey’s dad into this as well as his mom is he became the rightful owner of all the television shows she did in the ’60s. So we started figuring out what we could do with them, and as time went by, like with home video and DVD and the likes of that, if you wanted to put them on the screen, since they were shot in the early ’60s, it was all distorted and it was recorded in single (sound) track and antiquated video, so people would ask him if they could do a show with her. But the technology wasn’t quite there yet. So as time went on and with advancements we started taking the things that were very special and that would move people emotionally. We would study all her performances on television. … Every performance is like a movie, she’s extremely dramatic. You become intrigued by her movements; everything she sings is a story. So (Sid) thought, “What if we just enhance those particular ones?” So he took about 15 performances and remastered everything, colorized it. It’s not like the colorization that Turner did back in the day. It’s brand new technology. It looks like it was shot yesterday. And then we restored all the audio. So when you see it on a screen and listen to it through the speakers, you actually think you’re watching her in a concert. Sid had that vision because he was so close to her and he resurrected her career after MGM. With the 75th anniversary of “The Wizard of Oz,” and things like that, it just made perfect sense for us to say, “Hey, let’s finally do something.” (Joey’s) sisters are incredibly talented. They have a great thing going on. They’ve supported what’s going on. It’s just kind of the time of (Joey’s) life to say, “Hey, I’m the only son of the world’s greatest entertainer and I have a story to tell.” That’s really what we’re trying to accomplish.
Everything was black and white, you know, so you know in “The Wizard of Oz” when it changes from black and white to color? That’s kind of what the show is. It shows you what technology looked like, and where it goes. It transitions into Joey’s life as a child growing up with his mother through this beautiful video montage and Judy sings a song called “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe” that plays as a track to the video.
Joey Luft: What’s amazing about the whole show is my dad colorized it and it took him years to do this work — this colorization. … Everyone is asking me, why now? And I tell them, it’s time. It’s been too long.
2014 is the 75th anniversary of “The Wizard of Oz,” and you and your sisters appeared on the Academy Awards ceremony. How did that make you feel?
It was amazing. We really didn’t know what Pink was going to do. They told us she was going to do a song; they just said it’s like a tribute and it’s kind of a surprise, so we were prepared, but we didn’t really know what to expect when it went off. So we’re in the audience, they introduce us, we all stand up, and they take a shot of us in the audience and then this thing starts on “The Wizard of Oz” and then it goes on to this montage of “This Isn’t Kansas” … and then Pink sang “Over the Rainbow” and I just lost it. It was the best thing I had ever seen. Of course (Judy) is one of the greatest entertainers of all time, but the way (Pink) did that, I was just crying like a baby.
I think (the Playhouse production) is going to really please people when they see it. It’s taken us so long to get it all together.
Are your sisters going to be involved in this at all?
No, they’re not. Lorna is working. She’s got her own concert. She’ll probably be in the audience one time. If Liza does come too, they are more than invited. They are on the list if they want to show up and we’ll go from there.
What do you hope the reaction will be to the show?
I think it will be very favorable because of the way it’s done. The kind of material we have is about to blow everybody’s mind. I was talking to a guy the other day and he didn’t really know who she was. He kind of knew about “The Wizard of Oz” and I kind of walked away. I didn’t say anything. Some people know and some people don’t. A whole generation has passed, so people either know or they don’t know. What I’m trying to do is re-teach people about her legacy, how she became the greatest entertainer on Earth — what she accomplished, how hard she worked and her legacy, basically. It’s really beautiful and I hope all the tickets sell. The good thing about this whole experience is it’s really bringing a lot of people together just to celebrate. n
“A Judy Garland Concert With Joey Luft,” with re-mastered film and video footage of some of Garland’s greatest performances, is at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $30 to $75. The Pasadena Playhouse is at 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Call (626) 356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org.
Intern Mariela Patron contributed to this report.