Rufus Does Judy

A couple of nights ago I went to see Rufus Wainwright perform Judy Garland’s 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall — at Carnegie Hall. For whatever reason I was kind of dreading going; I don’t know why, but my best guess is that the show just got too much hype beforehand. Betty opted out of going pretty early, so my very good friend and downstairs neighbor (who was a friend long before moving in downstairs) came with me. He’s both a Rufus and Judy fan. We were seated quite far away from Sarah Jessica Parker, but quite close to Justin Bond, which seemed quite a propos.

I may have been one of the only 100% Rufus fans there; I’d never heard the 1961 concert, which I suppose makes me a very bad faghag indeed. In the weeks leading up to it, I thought about listening, but decided not to. I would probably be one of the few who wouldn’t be comparing it to the original, and I kind of liked that.

Rufus has one hell of a singing voice. The songs where he could belt them out I love especially. In fact, I’ve been wanting him to do a recording of standards, because I love so many of those old songs and I love his voice. Finally, he’s taken my advice.

In a Time Out interview, he mentioned how singing “The Trolly Song” from Meet Me In St. Louis would probably be that gayest onstage moment of his life. Oh, and it was!

Clang, clang, clang went the trolley
Ding, ding, ding went the bell
Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings
– as we started for Huntington Dell.

I didn’t see it so much as a gay seance (as the TONY journalist put it) but almost like a finishing touch to an era of gay awareness, and hopefully the beginning of a new one. As my friend said, on our way home, “The next generation doesn’t need Judy the way we did,” and while I think he’s right, I also think it’s a shame. We wondered too if there were as many gay men there that night in ’61 as there were tonight, and then wondered if maybe the only difference might have been that more of them are known to be gay now.

I’m glad at least that Rufus will be around to introduce this new generation of gay men to these songs he grew up singing, because some of them are not only touching, but sexy, and triumphant – and just remarkably pretty melodies with perfect lyrics. From what I hear, the event was filmed, so I expect both a movie version of the concert (probably with footage from both performances) and a CD of the music. Hopefully, anyway.

Other reviews can be found in my Rufus Wainwright thread on the boards.

Helen Boyd

is the author of My Husband Betty and She's Not the Man I Married.


  1. “We wondered too if there were as many gay men there that night in ‘61 as there were tonight, ”

    Everything I’ve read about that concert suggests to me that the audience that night consisted overwhelmingly of gay men. In fact, some of the press reviews of the concert seem to have referred to that in coded terms.

    Here’s the New York Times review:

    Judy Garland in Concert
    Attracts Cheering Fans to Carnegie Hall
    By Lewis Funke, The New York Times

    The religious ritual of greeting, watching and listening to Judy Garland took place last night in Carnegie Hall. Indeed, what actually was to have been a concert – and was – also turned into something not too remote from a revival meeting.

    From the moment Miss Garland came on the stage, a stage, incidentally, on which have trod before her the immortals of music, the cultists were beside themselves What Billy Graham would have given for such a welcome from the faithful!

    They were on their feet even before the goddess grabbed the microphone, and by the time she had bestowed the first of those warm smiles, they were applauding and screaming “Bravo!” Miss Garland could have probably ended the concert, right there and they would still be cheering. The fact is that at least a half a dozen times more during the evening the standing ovation plus screaming took place.

    Whether or not this sort of unadulterated adulation was warranted is a matter a noncultist had better not discuss in public. And whether or not so professional a performer as Miss Garland requires the ritual to put on her mettle is questionable. But on her mettle she was last night as she went through a repertoire of favorites.

    Looking trimmer and a good deal more youthful than she has in years, Miss Garland was always in control of herself. She soothed the tender songs, and she projected the loud one with all the vigor at her command. With ‘Alone Together’ or ‘The Man That Got Away’ she wove enchantment. With ‘San Francisco,’ ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ or ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ she whipped the adherents into frenzies of exaltation.

    It was to be truthful, surprising that this audience was able to muster the pandemonium it let loose when Miss Garland wound up with ‘The Trolley Song,’ ‘Rock-a-Bye’ and included among her encores ‘Over the Rainbow’ and ‘Swanee.’

    Through it all she was the usual Judy; perspiring profusely (“sweat,” she said candidly and more earthily) taking the usual sip of water, standing frequently in front of the microphone letter her voice convey her emotions with a minimum of gesture or movement; other times she skipped a bit, sort of dancing lightly with the rhythm, always making her audience feel – as one listener remarked – “as if she’s singing just to you.”

    In any case, one thing is certain: old Carnegie Hall can take it and by this morning everything undoubtedly is serene again on West Fifty-seventh Street.


    And, from the New York Herald review, at the same site, a reference that may or not be coincidental:

    “It is a gay Miss Garland and a sure one — with plenty of reason for her new self-assurance.” (“gay” may not have been quite so common in the early ’60’s as it was by the late ’60’s, but I’ve seen books from the ’50’s that use the term in a way that suggests that its meaning would be understood by most “sophisticated” people).


  2. Oh, and according to a book called “The Gay Metropolis” by Charles Kaiser, the audience that night included Rock Hudson, Rex Reed, Leonard Bernstein, *and* Tony Perkins! Along with Carol Channing, Lauren Bacall, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Hedda Hopper, Richard Burton, Spencer Tracy, Myrna Loy, Mike Nichols, Eli Wallach, and Harold Arlen.

  3. According to the program, Donna, you’ll be interested to learn that two of the other audience members were Loudon and Martha Wainwright, Rufus’ paternal grandparents.

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