It’s not every day you’re able to get one Hollywood icon to offer up an opinion on another — but that isn’t always the case, as revealed by author John Fricke, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on Judy Garland and all things Wizard of Oz. It was a day in 1977 in which circumstances resulted in him spending time with I Love Lucy star Lucille Ball, who offered up her feelings about his idol.
“Humor was Judy Garland’s natural bent,” offers John, whose books include Judy: A Legendary Film Career and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: An Illustrated History of the America Classic. “I had spent some time, on and off, as a theater publicist and was in the company of Lucille Ball back in 1977. At the time, she was coming to a theater in Milwaukee where Lucie Arnaz, her daughter, was starring in a production of Bye Bye Birdie.”
Part of his responsibilities as publicist — not that you’d hear him complaining about it — is that he had to head to the airport to pick Lucille up and drive her back to the theater. “Now, she didn’t know me or anything about me,” he reflects, “and it was just the two of us in the car, but at one point she was talking about how people always expected her to be funny. She said that her daughter, Lucie, was funny on stage and off, but Lucille Ball herself felt she was only funny because the writers gave her funny things to do.”
Let that one sink in for a minute: Lucy wasn’t naturally funny? Someone’s got some ‘splainin’ to do!
Laughs John, “I almost drove off the road when she told me, ‘You know who was really funny?’ I said, ‘No, who?’ and she said, ‘Judy Garland.’ I knew this, of course, but I responded, ‘Really?’ — while I desperately want to write whatever she was saying down on the steering wheel, but I controlled myself. Then she said, ‘Judy Garland was the most naturally funny woman in Hollywood. In fact, Judy Garland made me look like a mortician.’ And that’s from Lucille Ball.”
Elaborating on that thought is Geoffrey Mark, author of The Lucy Book: A Complete Guide to Her Five Decades on Television, who says, “There wasn’t an actor in Hollywood who wasn’t aware of the wit of Judy Garland. She had the ability to look at a situation, size it up and immediately find a bon mot or witticism. Miss Ball was a genius of acting, comedy or drama. It wasn’t that she had no sense of humor or didn’t know how to crack a joke, but she did not have the sharp personal wit that Judy possessed. And Miss Ball made no bones about it.”
Observes John, “What Lucille Ball said is a great quote, but at the same time you can see that it’s true. You can see it in Judy’s concerts, in her TV appearances and in her movies, too, there was just a wonderful way that she could read a line, whether it was dry or something broader. She worked a lot with Bing Crosby on radio and he said she was unquestionably the most talented person with whom he ever worked, and he loved her comedy since she could do anything: baggy pants, hillbilly dialects, sophisticated — she could do it all.”
During World War II, both Lucille Ball and Judy Garland were involved in war bond rallies and USO tours. Please scroll down for images from these events.
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