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01 April 1951: Garland debuts at Palladium

First Published 23 April 2008, Last Updated 23 April 2008

In 1951 the London Palladium was in its hey day, welcoming a raft of international stars to its stage. One of those stars was a woman who had achieved huge fame in her native US and in the UK, both on screen and on stage as a concert singer: Judy Garland. The actress and recording artist made her highly successful debut at the London Palladium on 1 April 1951.

It was under manager Val Parnell, who took control after World War Two, that the London Palladium saw a major influx of American stars on its stage. The Argyll Street theatre had been a champion of variety and revue since the 1920s, but it was in the 1940s that Parnell really capitalised on the appetite of audiences for big name stars from across the pond. Despite a disappointingly-received appearance of Mickey Rooney, Parnell forged ahead and scored a major hit with Danny Kaye, a rising Hollywood star. An immediate hit, Kaye’s run sold out and he made several return appearances in years to come.

Following Kaye, between 1948 and 1952 the London Palladium welcomed a host of American performers including Carmen Miranda, the Andrews sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Abbot and Costello, Nat King Cole and Frankie Laine. On the back of these all-star variety bills, the London Palladium built its reputation as a major entertainment venue.

In 1951, 29-year-old Garland was a film star in America. Signed to studio MGM since a child of 13, Garland had first appeared on screen opposite Rooney in films including Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry and Love Finds Andy Hardy. At just 16 she played the lead role of Dorothy in the film she would always be known for, 1939’s The Wizard Of Oz, singing the song that would define her career, Over The Rainbow. During the 1940s, now as one of MGM’s most bankable stars, she appeared on screen in films including For Me And My Gal, Meet Me In St Louis, The Harvey Girls and The Pirate.

On 1 April 1951, Garland followed in her old screen partner Rooney’s footsteps by making her debut at the London Palladium as part of a four-month tour of the UK organised by her then-manager and soon-to-be third husband Sid Luft. The four-week engagement at the Palladium was deemed a huge success and was the first of many return appearances, notably at the Royal Variety Show in 1957, in her solo show An Evening With Judy Garland in 1960, and as part of the famous series Sunday Night At The London Palladium in 1963. A year later, in 1964, she returned to the theatre with Liza Minnelli, her 18-year-old daughter with second husband Vincent Minnelli.

Garland’s final performance at the London Palladium was in January 1969. Having suffered a number of illnesses throughout her life, exacerbated by an addiction to barbiturates that had originated as a teenager at MGM, Garland was now in particularly bad health. Just five months later, on 22 June 1969, she was found dead in her rented London home after an accidental overdose. She was 47.

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