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Op-ed: On Becoming Judy Garland

Op-ed: On Becoming Judy Garland


How does a working class Italian boy from Long Island wind up impersonating the world's greatest entertainer, Judy Garland?

It is a question I am asked frequently. I mean, come on, I wasn't even an idea when Judy was in her heyday. My birth was nearly a decade after her death.

And it took a brush with my own mortality before I began to put the answer down on paper -- in the form of a one-man show called Judy and Me, which morphed into a one-act play. I wanted kids and families to hear a tale of intolerance, domestic abuse and how Judy Garland saved my life.

If all you know about Judy Garland are the pills, the tragedy, and the near suicide attempts, then you don't know anything about Judy Garland. What accounts for her lasting appeal in the gay community could only be an overwhelming and euphoric joy.

When I was 5, my parents moved us to Elmont (bumble fuck), Long Island. It may as well have been Dorothy Gale's Kansas prairie. No color, no charm. It was then that my Aunt Carol sat me down in front of the television and first showed me The Wizard of Oz. It was like a religious experience. I fell in love. And I can't tell you how many pairs of sneakers I've since ruined trying to cover them in red glitter and Elmer's glue.

During a family summer vacation at the age of 12, I discovered a cassette, Judy Garland Over The Rainbow. "Oh, sure," my mom explained. "She made a lot of movies and did television.... She even played Carnegie Hall and made records."

"Dorothy made records?" I howled. And I made my family listen to that cassette all the way to Lancaster, Pennsylvania and back to New York.

Things only got better when Aunt Carol began moonlighting at our local mall, with a Sam Goody records across the way. Every day I was calling and asking her to bring home more Judy, and she happily helped get my fix.

But remember that sign Dorothy and company saw as they approached the castle of the wicked witch? "I'd Turn Back If I Were You!" There should be one of those outside my old high school.

Famed for its football team, Sewanakah High School was not exactly the ideal spot for a budding homosexual. Actually, problems started when I was 9 after summer vacation when my best friend walked up to me and said "Faggot!" I didn't know what it meant (and I don't think he did either). What I did know was that it was "a bad thing to be."

I was different. I didn't like to play sports or with trucks and army men. (Ironic, because now I watch sports -- for all the wrong reasons -- and love to play with truckers and army men.) I liked to pretend, and I liked make-believe. At an early age I discovered a knack for voices and entertained my family with celebrity impressions. My other idol at 5 was Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie. So from the beginning I was a friend of a (slightly different) Dorothy.

After a day of having my glasses broken, a sewing needle jabbed numerous times into my shoulder in Home Economics and any wide variety of colorful gay slurs thrown at me, the high school's answer to my mother and me? Boys will be boys, kids will be kids.

At home, I could go down into my darkened basement and channel all of the day's crap into Judy's music. I reveled in an album called The Wit and Wonder of Judy Garland, in which Judy told some of her funniest stories on the Jack Parr show. She made me want to perform, and so I began singing. Life was better in my basement.

When I was 16, I was pursued home one snowy night by a jeep full of guys yelling, "Get the fucking faggot, kill the faggot, look at the faggot run." If I had lived any further away, if my mom hadn't been home to answer the door, the outcome could have been grimly different. It was traumatic enough that I withdrew completely. I signed myself out of school because I was too terrified to go back and ended up in home schooling. What else could I do? Click my heels three times? Lovely thought, huh? Just click your heels three times and all your problems go away. Unfortunately, unlike Dorothy I couldn't melt my enemies with a bucket of water, though to this day I would still like to drop a house on one or two of them.

Things weren't any better at home. My dad was a walking time bomb who could have studied temper management with John McEnroe. My brother and I watched my mom take countless beatings. I clung to Judy's MGM movie musicals and those bucolic and idyllic homes like the one found in Meet Me in St. Louis,and overseen by Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Esther Smith's biggest problem was when "the boy next door" left his tuxedo at the cleaners the night of the Christmas Ball. At my house, Christmas included my dad hurling the tree across the living room because Mom forgot to mail his brother a card. Ah, yes! Have yourself a dysfunctional little Christmas! Unlike Margaret O'Brien in the film, I couldn't run outside and beat the shit of the snow people.

Something struck a chord with me while researching Judy's life. Noted journalist Shana Alexander reported that "as Judy stood in the wings waiting to make her entrance she would say 'Fuck 'em, fuck 'em, fuck 'em.'" She knew the majority of the people out there were on her side, and that some weren't. Didn't matter, though. She planted her butt on the stage and tore it up for two hours or more. "Gay songs, sad songs, good songs and bad songs." Whatever it was, she could tap your emotions like a raw nerve. A friend of my grandparents was lucky enough to see her at Carnegie Hall. He told me even from the way back of the auditorium you got the impression she was singing directly to you.

It really bothered me -- pissed me off (to be more to the point), when I learned that the majority of Judy impersonators were doing so as a falling down drunk (with the exception of the amazing illusionist Jim Bailey). Judy's addiction to prescription meds is a small thread in a large tapestry of an amazing life and career. It's not her legacy. And it's another form of gay bullying, in my opinion, when some queen in a sequined jacket and bouffant wig launches into a tangent about pills. It propels a myth. So I can't find the humor in someone else's adversity. My portrayal of Judy is my way of saying thank you.

I wasn't lucky enough to be in her audience; one of those people shouting, "we love you!" or grabbing her hand from the orchestra. I strongly feel that, whether it's Judy or Elvis, imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery, not battery.

Audiences seem to respond to it. After one of my very first concerts, a middle-aged woman came over and said, "Thank you for respecting her."

It's different for all of us. Whether it's Cher, Liza, Barbra or even -- heaven help us -- Britney, everybody has "their diva.". Jamey Rodemeyer, the 14-year-old kid in Buffalo who hanged himself from a swing set after classmates bullied him mercilessly, looked to Lady Gaga for the inspiration he needed to get through the days -- until he was buried in a Born This Way T-Shirt.

I began to put my story down on paper while I was on tour, oddly enough, in The Diary of Anne Frank. (No, they wouldn't let me play Anne.) That's when I heard about the death of Matthew Shepard. My roommate and I couldn't stay away from the television. And I was numb with memories of that night at 16, when those guys in the jeep meant business. I realized that my story, and that of many others, is Judy's story.

For me, there is something about Judy that separates her from the rest -- a kind of star magic and indomitable spirit. It didn't just come from her heart, it came from her soul. No matter how many people bullied her, used her, called her names, Judy had the right idea: stand in the wings, listen to that big brassy overture, and step out on to your stage boys, saying: "Fuck 'em, fuck 'em, 'fuck em."

PETER MAC will perform all night long on Halloween in West Hollywood on the Cabaret De Carnaval stage, then will be hosting on the DJ/MC Morph Stage. He can be found regularly in his touring show, Judy & Company, and via his website.

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