"The Judy Garland Christmas Show" isn't for everyone.
But if you love Garland, Liza Minnelli, the holidays, television or the delicious ironies often at the heart of popular culture, this is the gem of TV's holiday season.
It airs Sunday night at 9 on the Disney cable channel. Mark your calendar. Set your VCR. Put out milk and cookies, start a fire in the fireplace and savor this collector's item of superb music, genuine emotion, near-camp and exquisite show-biz tension as Judy Garland and her three children try to come off as a perfect, mainstream, suburban, television family, circa 1963. What we're talking about here is Judy Garland trying to be June Cleaver or at least Laura Petrie.
Disney's Garland show is one of those "lost" tapes from baby boomer shared-memory-land that have been popping up the last few years as instant holiday television traditions. The lost "I Love Lucy" and "Honeymooners" Christmas episodes are two more notable examples. Disney plans to air four more of the Garland specials next year.
"The Judy Garland Christmas Show" was taped in 1963 as part of Garland's regular series on CBS. Singer Mel Torme worked for Garland as a composer and music arranger on that show. In 1970, he wrote a book, "The Other Side of the Rainbow with Judy Garland on the Dawn Patrol." It is one of the great backstage books. It chronicles the emotional problems, the drug and alcohol abuse and the pitched battles between Garland and CBS executives as the network tried to make her into an assembly-line, middle-of-the-road performer. It also celebrates the greatness that
often snuck through and found its way onto the screen despite all the craziness.
All of that is relevant to understanding Sunday's show. It's great and it's crazy from beginning to end. It begins with Garland's opening the front door of the CBS sound stage, which was made to look like a suburban living room, and telling us her daughter, Liza, is out "ice skating with her beau," but will be back later. It ends with Garland's turning out the lights and singing a knockout "Over the Rainbow" to Joey and Lorna Luft.
Teen-age Liza does show up later. She and her "beau," Tracy Everitt, do a dance routine to "Steam Heat" that is hot enough to melt ice at the North Pole. The high-strung Liza and her super-high-strung mom exchange scripted television "family" banter, and there's an undercurrent of competition, love and nutsiness strong enough to launch a spacecraft.
Jack Jones "drops in" just as Judy and the kids are trimming the tree. Viewers will be reminded how great a singer he was then when he sings "Lollipops and Roses." And then, who should be leading the carolers outside Garland's front door, but Torme, the composer of "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . ."). Naturally, there's a sing-a-long in the living room.
Ultimately, though, this is Garland's show. Listen to her sing "Winter Wonderland." She finds a special melancholy in it the way Ray Charles finds the blues and gospel in "America, the Beautiful." Garland's "Over the Rainbow" is, well, Garland's "Over the Rainbow." Watch the big dance number, too. Garland can't cut it; at one point, it appears as if she might not be able to stay on her feet.
That's the drama and the glory of a Garland performance. Watching her and the kids trying to celebrate commercial TV's idea of Christmas will make everyone who has ever stumbled trying to connect with mainstream holiday rituals feel a little less left out and alone.