Backstage with Ron Onesti:
Somewhere over at The Arcada
Over my 30-plus years in the business of entertainment, I have had the privilege of working with the sons and daughters of some of the biggest names in showbiz history. I can even say I have become as close to some of them as any nonfamily member can get, to the point where we might be considered “unofficial siblings.”
By being this close to folks who were thrust into the limelight at birth, I have been able to see their personal sides, the side few people (fans) get to see. I have been witness to emotional moments, career struggles and heartwarming recollections. To be graced with this trust, which allows me “on the inside,” is something I have never taken for granted mainly because this connection has not only allowed me to get to know the famous son or daughter much better, but it has also given me great insight about what their legendary parents were like.
My showbiz family — those with whom I have worked, shared meals and spent quality time — includes Nancy (Frank) Sinatra, Frank Sinatra Jr., Christopher (Jack) Lemmon, Antonia (Tony) Bennett, Lena and Louis Jr. (Louis) Prima, Ariana (Telly) Savalas, Steve (Mel) Torme, Carlise (Buddy) Guy, Ted (Teddy) Randazzo and Deana (Dean) Martin.
My most recent example would be this past week at the Arcada Theatre when we hosted Joey Luft, the son of silver-screen legend Judy Garland. It was a “Mother’s Day Salute to Judy,” and a more emotional presentation could not be had.
After Judy and her second husband, director Vincente Minnelli, had their only daughter, Liza, they divorced. Then Judy and her third of five husbands, Sidney Luft, had Joey and Lorna. Judy’s three kids remained close through the years. Liza, of course, became a huge star in her own right, and Lorna took the world by storm with her incredible vocal range.
Joey, however, was a shy kid who ran from the world of show business. He preferred the quiet life of photography, audio and video. Even so, he has fond memories of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra at his house, having friendly conversations with Marilyn Monroe while his mother got ready to go out, and took phone calls from JFK.
Joey was 13 years old in 1969, the year his mother passed away from an unintentional overdose at the tragically young age of 47. He recalls watching “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time at the age of 7. Judy was out of the country filming at the time, and he was beside himself that “monkeys kidnapped” his mom. The baby sitter had to track her down by telephone to calm Joey down.
During our lunch together with the show’s producer and longtime Luft family friend, John Kimball, Joey said he really didn’t want to focus on the “bad” things. “My mom had a fabulous sense of humor, was truly a wonderful person and completely lived for her kids,” he said. “My dad (Sid Luft) was truly in love with my mom, even after they divorced. He resurrected her career in 1950 after MGM fired her, and remained her manager up until her death in 1969.”
After Sid Luft’s death, Joey and best friend Kimball started rummaging through boxes in storage. They found this tremendous transcript that wound up being Sid’s autobiography, including many accounts by Judy, told in her own voice. The book, entitled “Judy and I: My Life with Judy Garland” was released posthumously. Joey’s show was based on excerpts from the book, as well as his own accounts of being home and on the road with his iconic mother.
After speaking with both gentlemen on the phone, I suggested they add a live musical element to the presentation. I have a friend who is a professional actress, and she had recently played Judy Garland in several productions. Her resemblance, both physically and vocally, is uncanny, and they agreed to make her part of the show.
Her name is Angela Ingersoll, and she came out like a cannonball out of a cannon, completely taking over the stage, in that larger-than-life style that Judy truly had. Our huge video screen at The Arcada would play a vintage video clip of Judy at Carnegie Hall, and on her own variety show in the early Sixties. Then Angela would sing a classic Judy number with a live band. A gutsy move that could have gone the other way as unavoidable comparisons could have made or broke her performance.
Although we can all agree there will never be another Judy Garland, Ingersoll’s performance was nothing short of stellar, and her contribution to the show was the perfect complement to the rare video footage. The evening was magical.
But the biggest quandary of the night, at least as far as the actress was concerned, was whether to go with Judy’s video performance of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” or for her to sing it live. As far as Joey was concerned, there was nothing to discuss. “How could we not show my mom doing that song,” Joey said. Discussion was over.
The end of the show came and the video played with Garland, as she would regularly end her television show sitting cross-legged on a floor, broke out into her signature song. There was not a dry eye in the house, including Joey. And to be honest with you, after losing my mom just a couple weeks before the show, hearing the song mom would sing to us as kids turned me into a red-faced ball of tears myself.
As an encore, Joey, who was so enthralled with Angela’s live portion of the show, allowed her to fulfill the audience’s wish of her doing that famed song, which was named the No. 1 film song in history.
So she sat on the edge of the stage, the way Judy did, and broke out into what appeared to be the performance of her life. The audience once again erupted with a combination of cheers and tears, as did Angela herself, overtaken by emotion at the prized opportunity.
In the middle of the song, I pulled a bar stool next to Joey, who was on stage doing his commentary throughout the show. I put my arm around him as he was visibly emotional. I said to him, “Joey, you must have heard this song a million times.” He whispered back at me, “That was my mom, and that has always been my favorite song. Those two things will never change.”
Yes, not even a wizard can pull out of a bag another Judy Garland, or another song like that.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.